This is a working paper of the Carnegie Mellon Project on Gender and Computer Science (

Women in Computer Sciences:
Closing the Gender Gap in Higher Education

Please cite only as "work in progress."

Failure Is Not an Option:
International Women in Computer Science

Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller

Interviewer: So how did you end up getting a scholarship to study computer science with no computer background?

Female Thai Student: I just want to study abroad, so anything is fine with me.


This working paper, one of a series based on a study of undergraduate computer science students, focuses on the distinguishing features of female students of international origin. As we interviewed computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon about their decisions to major in computer science, their experiences at college, and their hopes for the future, we quickly became aware that the international women had a different story to tell. It is a story that calls into question common assumptions about who is best suited for computer science, and that suggests important sources of persistence.

The international women enter the program with the least computer experience of any population in the program, and in some cases, no experience at all. Most surprisingly, some even enter the computer science program with little or no specific interest in computers or computer science. Once here, many go through a very difficult period of adjustment, facing tremendous self-doubt and feelings of isolation and inadequacy; yet most succeed in the program, often going on to employment in the computing field or to graduate school in computer science. Furthermore, their persistence often leads to an intellectual pleasure in computer science that they often did not have when they began. In a field dominated by images of obsessive hackers, their successes challenge the U.S. male norm of who can do computer science. In this article, based on interviews with seventeen female international computer science majors attending Carnegie Mellon, we discuss how a set of motivations, and beliefs that link success to effort, rather than ability, are critically important for these students' persistence.

The Least Experienced in Computing

Compared to the majority of U.S. male students, and many of the U.S. female students, few of the international women can be classified as "hackers," or even as experienced with computers; some worked at a computer for the first time in high school. Lila, a student educated in India, came to Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science without ever having seen a computer mouse. For many this inexperience is the result of a lack of access to computer resources in their home countries. Their exposure is less both at home and school and also occurs much later than U.S. students'--many had not worked with computers at all until coming to the U.S. for high school, a year or two prior to Carnegie Mellon. A number of students had come because their scholarships from their home countries required them to study computer science in the United States.

Little Intrinsic Interest

In their extensive study of student persistence in math and engineering across seven U.S. educational institutions, researchers Seymour and Hewitt conclude that "the best foundation for survival and success is to have chosen one's major because of an intrinsic interest in the discipline and/or in the career fields to which it is leading." (Seymour & Hewitt, p.66). While this makes both intuitive and empirical sense for U.S. students, our interviews with international women introduce a contrasting perspective. A Taiwanese student, successful in the program, says that she does not even like computers:

Basically I don't even like computers...I don't like the computer itself. I just like the logic and problem solving, that kind of thing. So like in math if you know the solution you just write it out then it's pretty straightforward. But like in computer science, even if you know the solution and you know what you want to do, you still have to like to struggle with the language part. And like sometimes you just have to spend hours to find a bug...Well even though I enjoy math better I just feel it's hard to get a job. That's why I still major in computer science.

A Russian student, whose real passion is piano, never really considered doing computer science, or anything connected to math and science, until she came to the U.S. two years earlier:

[The piano] was something very special to me and I really wanted to be a pianist. And I was doing very well in school and math was one of the subjects I was really good at. But I never considered that I would do anything connected with math or science until I came to America. And in America it was not practical to major in music...So I was trying to find a major that would give me some economic stability and something that I would be good at...So like then I was doing very well in math in school and I thought, well, I have to do something connected with math. But I was not interested in, like, theoretical math, like being a mathematician. So computer science is like a great application of mathematics. So this is how I ended up into computer science.

These interviews reveal experience and interest levels of international women students that contrast with most of the U.S. students in our study, especially the men. From our interviews with male computer science majors, one gets the impression that the average male computer science student is someone who gravitated toward computers at a young age, whose passion for them was evident from the start, and who learned all he could through self-guided computer exploration. (See Early Attachment working paper). Our interviews with male students are filled with descriptions of early intense fascination with computers, an ongoing interest that makes the decision to major in computer science fairly straightforward--interest in computers and computing is the main reason most of them have chosen to major in computer science. U.S. women have a more complex array of reasons for choosing computer science, and a less consuming fascination for computing, but the majority of them also have a fair level of exposure to computers, and an interest in computing drives their choice of major. Despite many variations among the population, the male trajectory into computer science tends to set the norm of a successful computer science major (see Geek Mythology working paper). As we have seen, the international women, in contrast, frequently have neither experience nor passion on which they base their decision to major in computer science. What they do have is a set of compelling motivations and belief systems that prove to be effective in the face of academic and psychological obstacles.

Motivations: Economic and Pragmatic Realities

The first few semesters of the computer science program are often very difficult for students with relatively little prior computing experience. Many U.S. women describe feelings of intimidation and self-doubt in the face of peers who appear to know far more than they. (See Confidence and Interest working paper.) They describe themselves as being scared or "in shock" in class, where they feel they are expected to know more than they do. This is intensified for international students. A Turkish student told us about her first year here:

It was a really, really hard year for me, as you can imagine. I had no programming background essentially and when I got into the Introduction to Programming course with another thirty other students I was very, I had very low self-confidence. Because I see all these other students just grasping the concept in less time than I could. And at that time I remember the first class I was in, the program didn't work for me because the connection was down like all night, just my terminal. And I didn't know what the problem was. And I kept putting up my hand but things started to, you know, to just go along. And she [the instructor] just didn't want to waste time on just fixing my things and she said you know, just wait after class and I will tell you what's going on. And everybody would do all these things and she will have the display on the screen and I was still in shock then also. Like this made my...I couldn't do this and I thought it was all my fault. Something I did was wrong. And I was just totally, I was scared at the time.

Despite these difficulties, most of these women do persist and do well in the program. With so little computing history, and in some cases even lacking a minimal level of interest, to what do we attribute to these students' persistence and success? A critical factor is their motivation. For many of these students, their families are depending on them for economic survival. For these women, there is little or no option for failure. Several have chosen computer science because good scholarships are available for students willing to study computer science. Having done well in math and/or science in their home countries, computer science is regarded as a natural link and a good ticket for economic opportunity. Larissa, the student from Russia who is interested in the piano, emigrated to the U.S. with her family four years ago. She spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S. Her father had been a research scientist in Russia and is now a manager of a restaurant. She went to a U.S. high school for two years before attending Carnegie Mellon. Larissa's family is depending on her to finance her younger brother's education. She feels she cannot make a living in music here in the U.S., but because she was strong in math and science, she decided to major in computer science.

Kanitha is a junior from Thailand. As one of ten children, her parents could not afford for her to study in Thailand. In answer to our question, "Tell me the story of you and computers," she tells us about having no choice about her major:

Actually I came from Thailand and basically I hadn't dealt with any computer at all before I came. And after that I got a scholarship to study computer science, but I didn't know anything about computer science. And then I went to high school here and then I started taking a course about computer programming and it was kind of interesting. But then I mean, I have no choice, so that is why I am doing computer science.

Kanitha came to Carnegie Mellon on a corporate scholarship, which requires her to return to Thailand after graduation and work for her scholarship sponsor. She is very clear that the chance to study abroad is most important to her; what she studies is secondary. She eventually decided to choose computer science as a major over electrical engineering because the best scholarship offered was from the Bank of Thailand, which wanted computer science majors. When asked by the interviewer why she picked computer science over electrical engineering, she answered:

Why? I don't know...Actually, like the scholarship itself, you know, for this different scholarship I have a different sponsor for it so after I graduate I have to work for a different person. So now I am thinking about which one I want to work for. And then I finally ended up, "OK, I think I want to work for this sponsor." So that is why I picked computer science. It's not because of the difference between those two. I don't even know what the difference is. Because I have to go back and work so I just like consider the workplace and like the sponsor.

When the interviewer asks, "How did you end up getting a scholarship to study computer science with no computer background?" she answered: "I just want to study abroad so anything is fine with me."

Li is a student from China. While she was one of the top students during the first year, she left the program in her second year. Her motivation to major and stay as long as she did was based on concern for her family. Her mother had been an Arabic translator in China, but worked in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., and was in bad health. Li's reason to study computer science was connected to her desire and intention to support her mother. She told us:

Part of the reason I want to study in computer science is because...I can get a good job and so she doesn't have work so hard anymore...And she'll go back to China and then she doesn't have to worry about money or anything else and she doesn't have to worry about me, because I want to learn how to take care of myself.

She continues to describe how helping her family is of prime importance, even though friends advise her to do something she wants to do, and that it's "wrong that you do everything because of your parents and stuff." But, she feels that "if I help my parents, I'll be very happy also, and so that's what I want to do."

Several of the international female students want to help people in their home countries as well. An Indian student wants to return to India "to do something worthwhile there." A student from Thailand is thinking about teaching computer science back in Thailand, "because I learned a lot of things and I should give it to some other students because they don't have as good a chance as I do."

Researchers Seymour and Hewitt note that "gender differences in perceived degrees of freedom to choose and to change direction" was especially noticeable on campuses with higher concentrations of women from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds. They speculate that women from these backgrounds are still choosing disciplines "largely by the degree of personal satisfaction they offer," and "pay less regard to their economic viability." The result is that when the math-science road gets culturally or academically uncomfortable, they depart. "Reports of relatively easy release from initial commitment to a science, math, or engineering major were most common among women from economically-advantaged families. They were uncommon among black women, older returning women, women from working class families, and women who described their families as having equally high levels of expectations of daughters and sons." (p. 278) From our interviews we hear that more international women than U.S. women do not feel themselves at liberty to change majors. The pressing need of these international students to become breadwinners for their families leads them to seek economic opportunities over personal interest, and motivates them to stick it out and work hard despite doubt and lack of confidence.

Effort, Ability and Gender

Research on learning motivation (Dweck, 1986) examines how psychological factors other than ability determine whether students persist or withdraw in the face of difficulty. Dweck concludes that a focus on ability, rather than effort, "can result in a tendency to avoid and withdraw from challenge, whereas a focus on progress through effort creates a tendency to seek and be energized by challenge."

Whether students attribute their success to effort or ability is revealed to be an important factor in all students' persistence. For most of the international women, believing in the link between effort and hard work and success, rather than ability, works as a mantra. Their interviews capture how they frame their experience of knowing less than other students: by working hard they will catch up and succeed. When we asked a student from Russia what she felt were the factors that most contributed to any success that she's had here, she told us:

Hard work. I think it's like you sort of have this abyss and you have this bridge you have to walk over and you just don't look down. There were cases when I started looking down and it was really scary, I'd think, `WHY am I putting myself through this?'... But I have to do this, anyway, because I have to. You cannot have everyone doing what they want to do. If someone was doing what they want to do, I mean there's supply and demand with jobs and market and what needs to be done, so there's something that needs to be done...Basically, we have to do good to stay here. And here, like so I can get the most out of it, you have to get the job. You have to get the education to get the job. It's just a matter that if I'm doing something I have to be good at it, {laughs} just work hard.

A woman from Thailand recalls her first year:

I know, it's hard, it's really hard, because I remember my freshman year. I just, I want to give it up because it's hard. But then I thought that's a loser's talk. So then, I should try it and work hard, I think I can do it.

An Indian student connects her cultural and educational training to her persistence. She attributed her belief to "lagan," a Hindi expression for "stick-to-it-ive-ness." Using an example from Indian math education and its routine disciplined drills, she connects her cultural and educational training to her success here in computer science:

But that routineness, I think, is something that isn't taught enough here...And so people here have, from my experience with my classmates, I see they have a lot of insight, a lot of know, they [snaps finger] pick things up as quickly, but they don't have the grit to sit down with something for, say, six hours and say, "All right, I'm going to get this done no matter what."

Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, in their book The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education (1992), suggest that effort models for mastery and learning, which are more common in Asian countries, "offer a more hopeful alternative by providing a simple but constructive formula for ensuring gradual change and improvement: work hard and persist." (p. 106) Ability models, more common in the U.S., are discouraging and lead to psychological defeatism.

There are the students who attribute their success to hard work and effort, but this can also lead to low expectations for future success. When they consider how hard they have been working now, then project into the future of harder courses and more challenging material, they get discouraged because they feel it is only their effort that brings them success, which must be proof that they lack innate talent and ability. While we have found this pattern to be more common with U.S. female students than the international students, one the top female students in the department, a Chinese student mentioned earlier, reasoned this way: her A's were only the result of hard work, not ability; others got A's without working so hard. Despite her 4.0 average, she ended up leaving the major, convinced that she was ill-suited for the field.

The "Computer Gene"

We have been disturbed by how American women, when faced with difficult course work and peers whom they perceive know more, conclude that they should not be computer science majors. We have witnessed how quickly they experience themselves as lacking the "natural and innate talent" with which the males seem to be born. We call this the "computer gene" theory. Their ultimate despair is when they conclude that no amount of practice, or time spent on a task, could improve their mastery of the material. As one U.S. female student puts it:

There are people who are born to do this and I am not one of them. And it's definitely not one of those things, that, like, "Oh, with practice, you will become one who is born to do it...I think a lot of people are just born with it. You just gotta be like,`Computers! Yeah! they are awesome!! They are my life!' You know, a lot of computer scientists, that's all they do.

Our interviews indicate that the ideal of the "boy wonder" is alive and well among U.S. women. Sheila Tobias, in her study of why there are so few women in math and science, analyzes the ideology of science as a major factor in discouraging women's participation:

One of the characteristics of the ideology of science is that science is a calling, something that a scientist wants to do, needs to do above all else and at all costs...Another is that both scientific talent and interest come early in life--the boy wonder syndrome. If you don't ask for a chemistry set and master it by the time you are five, you won't be a good scientist. Since far fewer girls and women display these traits than boys and men, you end up with a culture that discriminates by gender." (Alper, p.411).

This belief in early experience and innate talent is compounded by what researchers have identified as a fixed notion of intelligence (Dweck, 1984). Research on learning motivation has found that students who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait tend to focus on performance (e.g. grades, external approval), while students who believe that intelligence is a malleable quality tend to orient toward learning goals (e.g. improvement, developing mastery).

This perspective is very relevant for the study of women and computer science. If female students experience males, and not females, as "born with it," this fixed notion of intelligence is discouraging for them. Leggett's (1985) study of bright junior high school students reveal a greater tendency for girls than boys to subscribe to an "entity" view of intelligence--seeing smartness as a fixed, static trait--and that those who did so avoided challenge. Licht and Dweck (1984) and Licht et al. (1984) showed how bright high school girls experienced the most debilitation and bright boys the most facilitation when confusion was experienced at the beginning of an academic math unit. This research is provocative for thinking about how quickly a number of the U.S. female computer science majors we interviewed lose confidence and interest in computer science. Our observation and inquiry into these psychological processes does not place blame on or burden the individual student to change. We believe that the educational institution must re-vision its curriculum, pedagogy and culture for gender equity to occur. Yet, these psychological processes are important to understand if we are to devise effective interventions and institutional transformation.

Acquired Taste

While the international female students enter with the least experience and least intrinsic interest, as their hard work takes effect the mystery of computer science begins to metamorphose into mastery. They then begin to find intellectual pleasure in the field. A Malaysian student told us of her eventual satisfaction she got from sticking it out:

It's like an acquired taste for me...At first it was very hard...After a couple of years, I realized it's kind of late to back out. I sort of went through with it, and along the process I'm beginning to think I like it more and more. So, at the end I just went a long with it, and it's pretty exciting, now that I learn more about it .

A second-semester student from China speaks of how her attitude toward being in computer science has changed:

I don't think my plans changed, I think it's just my attitude that changed...I mean I decided to major in Computer Science because it was practical for me and for other reasons, but it wasn't because I was especially interested in the subject. But this semester it's like for the first time I really want to do this. I just really want to do this because I like it.

Rather than epiphany moments of falling in love with computing the minute they touch the keyboard and the computer responds, as described by male students, the stories from international women seem to reflect a process over time, in which their interest in computers evolves. Their stories highlight the eventual satisfaction from computing that can come if students manage to persist despite self-doubt.

Education Abroad: The Math Advantage

Research based on interviews with international women engineering students found that most came from families where education is valued, and where traditional gender expectations for sons and daughters are not adhered to. Most of the women had been on the math-science track in high school, did not feel pressured by peers to depart from this track, and had a high sense of self-efficacy related to mathematics and science study (de Verthelyi, 1997). These findings concur with our own.

While most of the international women students come to Carnegie Mellon without an extensive knowledge of computers, they all have a high sense of self-efficacy in math. Several students told us that not until coming to the U.S. did they encounter the attitude that women are not suited for math and science. They told us that girls (if they were lucky enough to go to high school in the first place) pursue math and science at the same rate and with the same expectations as boys, at least through the high school level. A student from China described her educational upbringing:

I didn't feel anything [about being a girl in math/science] because girls and boys are both taking like the same classes, math and science. When I came into America it suddenly became an issue. It was like I never thought about it like women being in science. You know, it's like because in China I think it's pretty equal like, yeah, both girls and boys did math and science.

A special issue of Science (Vol. 263, March 1994) compared the situation of women in math and science across several countries. Italy's record in awarding a large number of advanced science degrees to women is partly attributed to Italy's educational policy of mandatory math and science classes for all students. An Italian scientist noted the difference with the U.S. where the feeling is either you have talent in math and science or you do not. In Italy, in contrast, where the philosophy is that anyone can learn, women do better. A similar policy is found in Turkey, where the same level of math and science are taught to both girls and boys at the pre-college level. These courses are then a critical part of the competition for the few places in the university, so all students are required to take them. Turkey is another country with a relatively high number of women scientists. It is interesting to note that in many countries in both the developed and underdeveloped world, the proportion of women in math and sciences is notably higher than here in the U.S. Researchers speculate that the needs of underdeveloped countries, where science has not been linked to industry and does not have the prestige as it does in the developed Western world, dictates a policy of tapping into the talents of women.

As we have reported elsewhere, all of the female (international and U.S.) students we have interviewed in computer science (N=46) have considered math to be one of their strong subjects. Even for a student who said "I don't even like computers," it is her training and confidence in math that has given her the necessary platform to jump into computer science. And although we are aware of an ongoing debate on the correlation between previous math experience and grades in computer science (Kramer and Lehman 1990; Clarke 1992), our research provides more evidence that math is an important "gatekeeper" for scientific and technological job opportunities (Tobias 1993; Baker and Jones 1993).

While the math gender gap appears to be closing at the high school level, researchers Astin and Sax of UCLA have found that, because of their lack of confidence, female students begin to take fewer courses, a trend that accelerates as they move to the more advanced levels. Their study of seventh-graders found that male and female students performed comparably in math and science courses, but the females consistently underestimated their abilities. The math gender divide is not one of ability, but of confidence. In a study of 15,050 college students, Astin and Sax found that "the effects of taking or not taking math and science in high school reverberate through a person's career" (Alper, p. 410). Among the biggest factors that helped women stay in science and engineering were the numbers of physical science courses taken in high school and higher confidence in mathematical skills. As the research on gender and math has found psychological factors such as confidence and attribution to impact women's persistence, so, too, have we found this to be the case in computer science.

Educational Transformation

The experiences of female international computer science students contrast with the portrait of a male computer science major as the standard-bearer. Their stories are compelling evidence that the male model is only one path to success. These interviews reveal a very important experience for both student and faculty to be aware of: motivations for being in computer science can shift over time, from pragmatism to intellectual pleasure. The international women are not so different from the U.S. women in many ways--both experience a rocky road full of self-doubt. But we see in many international women motivations, cultural expectations, and belief systems that, emphasizing effort and hard work over innate ability, strengthen their ability to persist in the face of obstacles. From these women's stories we have much to learn about cultural artifacts and barriers that deliver a false message about who can do computer science.


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