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Computer science's gender gap

UCLA scholar Jane Margolis has spent four years tracking male and female computer science students. She says the gender gap has not gone away--but she has ideas for closing it.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
7 min read
You don't need to visit too many high-tech cube farms and computer programming confabs before you notice that women in computer science are few and far between.

In a new book entitled "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing," social scientist and scholar Jane Margolis and computer scientist and educator Allan Fisher explore why only a small fraction of high school and university computer science students are female, even though women make up a growing portion of computer and Internet users.

As part of their research for the book, Margolis and Fisher followed more than 100 computer science students, both male and female, at Carnegie Mellon University for four years beginning in 1995. The book details the unique experiences and challenges women confront in the field of computing and how it contributes to the thinning ranks of women in such programs.

Margolis, who has spent years studying gender and education, talked to CNET News.com from her office at the University of California at Los Angeles about the findings of her research and her observations on the computer science gender gap.

Q: What did you discover in your research at Carnegie Mellon University?
A: One of the major findings was that women come to the field of computing at a different pacing and with different forms of attachment. Unfortunately, the field--the expectations in the field, the culture of the field, the curriculum in the field--is very much oriented toward the appetites and the learning styles of a narrow slice of males.

Unfortunately, the field--the expectations in the field, the culture of the field, the curriculum in the field--is very much oriented toward the appetites and the learning styles of a narrow slice of males. When we asked students to tell us why they decided to major in computer science, women would say, "I want to be in computing to work in environmental pollution. I want to be in computing to explore space. I want to be in computing for biogenetics."

Why do you think that's so?
They attach their interest in computing to other arenas, to a social context that's more people-oriented. We refer to this as computing with a purpose as opposed to programming for programming's sake or a totally technology-centric focus. But the curriculum and culture does not acknowledge this interdisciplinary, contextual orientation toward computer science.

We also found because of early socialization in schools and at home, and a sort of early claiming of the computer as a boy's toy, that girls who wanted to major in computer science and got into one of the top computer science departments in the country actually came in with less hands-on experience. Although there was absolutely no difference in ability, there was a difference in experience, which then led to a difference in confidence during the program.

Though women are also a minority in other math and science fields, your research indicates women are actually losing ground in the field of computer science. Are the numbers actually shrinking?
Currently, it is a major that has a very low percentage of women. At top research universities, about 15 to 20 percent of majors are female, and in advanced-placement computer science exams at the high school level, it's only 15 percent women. That's been dropping over the last couple years. And computer science is one of the AP exams with the lowest number of female participation. So the numbers do not seem to be increasing in any way comparable to other fields, such as law or medicine.

Many people report that in the early '70s, prior to there being a computer science major available in universities, women were being recruited as programmers. IBM would have a programming aptitude exam they'd give to math majors and other college majors, and a lot of women were programming at that point. It seems like through the '80s and certainly the '90s, women's participation in technology invention is very low.

Your research has had an impact on the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon, raising women's enrollment in the program from 7 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2000. How? What can be done to get more women involved in the field?
If women come to computing with a different motivation--which is they're very interested in linking computing to other arenas and social contexts--then that has implications for how programming is taught and the type of examples used. The whole way programming is taught could be in an interdisciplinary fashion with teams of people from other departments that would reflect what happens in the real world.

What happened at Carnegie Mellon is that there was an accounting for this different motivation. There's been an attempt to teach computing in a more interdisciplinary way. Also, the university accounted for the different levels of experience--one of our findings being that women came in with different levels of experience, but there was no difference in ability.

A new set of courses was introduced in the first year, allowing everyone to self-select where they wanted to be according to their experience, and then everyone would be at a similar level by the second year. That means you wouldn't have students with little experience sitting next to someone that's been hacking their whole life and then get really discouraged.

Are other universities considering adopting or at least looking at this approach?
The expectations and norms are a form of prejudice. There has been a tremendous amount of interest. There's concern in all computer science departments about the low number of women and low number of African-American and Latino students. It's easy for colleges and higher ed to say, "Well, it's really an inherited problem. The reason why women are not at the college level is because of what happened in high school and middle school, and therefore that's where the intervention has to be done." What we found is that intervention has to be done at every stage of the education pipeline, and it's not too late at the stage of higher education.

The unique thing about the research we did was that the women that were there were the women who had broken through the firewall of general socialization at the high school level. We were interviewing women who were very, very interested in being computer scientists, so it was very important for us to follow their prospects and their discouragement. Too many of them had their interest extinguished as they went through the program.

Is there any evidence of a bias against women computer programmers?
Well, I think that the expectations from parents, teachers and students themselves is that a computer scientist looks a certain way. When we ask students, "Can you describe your fellow students to us?" they say computer students all work at the computer 24/7. They live and breathe it. They only emerge with a monitor tan. They just love it in their bones, and they want to do nothing else.

That image is the expectation of what you need to be like to be a computer scientist. More men than we expected said, "That's not me," but did not feel as distressed about that expectation as women. They still thought they could fit, and that they could pass, whereas women felt very much outside that image and felt more distressed about it because they were more resistant to living their life like that.

The expectations and norms are a form of prejudice. Parents will always be looking for a certain type of interest, which is based on a male type of attachment to the computer. And teachers in K through12 will be looking for that and could overlook a girl who could be very interested and very talented but doesn't have that persona.

Why is this issue important? Why is it important for women to be involved in computer science?
In terms of design teams and designing products, there's evidence from other industries that if you have just a male team, you could have a flawed product. Let's look at air bags, for example. Only 8 percent of mechanical engineers are female, and most of the teams working on air bags were predominantly male. When air bags were invented based on the male body as the norm, they ended up being potentially deadly to women and children. That's also happened with heart valves and voice-recognition systems; they were geared toward the male.

And your suggestion would be?
Add more design experts of different viewpoints, different genders and different races, and you're going to get products that are much better in terms of meeting the needs of a broader number of people.

The other thing is, it's almost a question of democracy and equity. If technology jobs can really lead to economic opportunities and educational opportunities, they shouldn't just fall into the laps of a very narrow band of males.

What is your next project? What issues remain unexplored about gender and race in the field of computer science?
I'm now looking at the issue of race and gender, and at the computer science pipeline at the high school level. So we are focusing on why so few African-American and Latinos, male and female students, are studying computer science in high school. We're looking at that in three public high schools in Los Angeles. We're basing research on interviews with students and with teachers and looking at the whole structure of the schools. Are computers available? Is programming offered? How do students think about computer science and their relationship to it? This research has just begun, and we're funded by the National Science Foundation for the next three years.