Anonymity: A Double-Edged Sword for Gender Equity in a CS1 Forum?

Concurrent Session 1
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

In this session, we briefly present and then lead a discovery discussion of the complex relationship between gender equity and anonymity in course forums in online classes. Our research suggests that patterns in anonymous posting may actually reinforce the same negative perceptions that give rise to it in the first place.


David Joyner is the Associate Director for Student Experience in Georgia Tech's College of Computing, overseeing the administration of the college's online Master of Science in Computer Science program as well as its new online undergraduate offerings. He has developed and teaches CS6460: Educational Technology, CS6750: Human-Computer Interaction, and CS1301: Introduction to Computing, all online.

Extended Abstract

In this session based on the paper "Anonymity: A Double-Edged Sword for Gender Equity in a CS1 Forum?" presented at SIGCSE 2021, we explore the idea that anonymous posting in forums in a computer science class may actually reinforce the same negative perceptions that encourage anonymous posting in the first place.

The term “double-edged sword” refers to something that may have both favorable and unfavorable consequences. We posit that allowing students to post anonymously in a CS course forum may fit this metaphor with regard to gender and belongingness. In this work, we test a theory that patterns of anonymous posting in a course forum for a CS1 class may reinforce gender stereotypes even as the underlying patterns of interaction debunk those stereotypes.

It has been previously observed that when anonymity is supported in an online course forum, women are more likely to elect to contribute anonymously than men. This reflects one of the purposes of allowing anonymous contributions: to make people more comfortable contributing who might otherwise be reluctant to do so due to a lack of confidence or perceived belongingness. However, one of the effective ways to address a lack of perceived belongingness is to better surface an individual’s similarity to many of their peers; visible representation can help combat these negative stereotypes. If anonymity is used disproportionately by those who do not feel like they belong, then it risks perpetuating those negative stereotypes.

In this work, we explored whether that may be occurring in a CS1 course forum over six semesters. We have found, in line with prior literature, that women choose to remain anonymous more frequently across all contribution types. As a result, the perceived gender distribution based only on identified contributions skews more male than the actual underlying distribution; this, we hypothesize, may perpetuate the stereotype of computer science as male-dominated even while the actual distribution rebuts that stereotype. We further find that this trend is distributed across students as a whole rather than arising from a small number of contributors acting at the extremes, and that as a result, there already exist numerous interactions that, if persisted without anonymity, may help counter those negative stereotypes.

After briefly presenting these findings, we then transition into a discussion of other universities' and instructors' experience with anonymous posting in course forums. We seek to develop a conversation wherein we may explore whether these phenomena are unique to comptuer science or more general across other domains. We also seek to explore whether similar phenomena may impact other demographic groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities. We conclude by brainstorming alternate approaches to providing the same comfort allowed by anonymous posting while rebutting these stereotypes when the hidden data rebukes them.