The Anatomy of Interest:
Women in Undergraduate Computer Science
Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller
School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University
5000 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213
Lily was a first-year undergraduate computer science major who entered one of the top computer science departments in the country with a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject. Her interest was first sparked in high school, when she took an advanced placement computer science course at the suggestion of her guidance counselor. "As soon as I started taking that course in programming, I realized I loved it...I absolutely loved it," she tells us in her first interview. Her enjoyment of a summer programming job solidified her decision to major in CS. She enjoyed "the challenges the programmer faces," and found the problem-solving to be fun.
Yet by the end of her second semester, she has decided to transfer to the English department. Her enthusiasm for computer science is extinguished. She says, "In high school, when Iíd go home from class, I would be like ĎOh, letís program a little.í But, now I am just like, ĎLetís not bother.í" Struggling with the course work, perceiving her peers (mostly male) as doing much better with much less effort, feeling a misfit between herself and a cultural norm that associates success with an all-consuming love of computing, she questions whether she belongs in the department. Several semesters after leaving computer science, Lily describes her disappointment in having transferred out. It is not that she is unhappy in English. She loves the humanities. But she remembers how much she loved programming, had wanted to major in computer science, and feels dismayed with how her interest has been extinguished.
Lilyís experience is not unique. Her story highlights a key struggle experienced by many women studying computer science at the college level. Once enthusiastic about the field, their interest dissipates. Departments have witnessed many of these students leave computer science, often around their Sophomore year-- the time when many students, male and female, regardless of major do their "switching." It is then too convenient for all concerned to conclude that Lily, and others like her--those "appropriate switchers"1 -- have found their intellectual interest and passion elsewhere. The professors may even be thankful that these students made this self-discovery now rather than later. In computer science, a higher proportion of students who transfer to other majors are women.2
In this paper we focus on the process by which women students who enter with high enthusiasm and interest in computing quickly lose faith in their ability and their interest in the subject. We believe it is critically important to gather carefully rendered accounts of how these women students lose interest in computer science, particularly in light of the commonly-held belief that girls and women are not as "intrinsically interested" as males in technology. We look at the ways that interest in a subject area is influenced by factors beyond an individualís intellectual preference for an abstract body of knowledge. We have found womenís departing statements that they are "just not interested" to be a misleading endpoint to a complex process weíve seen over time, involving the interplay of gender-biased norms of interest and eroded confidence. We look at the mechanisms that promote a male focus of interest as the standard for success, while casting doubt upon womenís interest and ability in computing.
At stake in the experience of women as undergraduates is the makeup of the technology-creating population. While girls and women may be using the Internet for communication and the web for information retrieval, it is predominantly men (the majority in the U.S. being white and Asian-American) who are programming the computers, designing and fixing the systems, and inventing the technology that will affect all aspects of our lives (National Science Board 1998). Only 15-20% of undergraduate computer science majors at leading U.S. departments and only 17% of the high school computer science Advanced Placement test takers are female (College Board 1998; Kozen & Zweben 1998). The under-representation of women and minorities among the creators of information technology has serious consequences, not only for those individuals whose potential goes unrealized, but also for a society increasingly shaped by that technology.
An Interdisciplinary Collaboration
For the last four years at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top computer science departments in the country, we have been interviewing female and male computer science students about their experiences and decisions about studying computer science. The department ranks in the top three in the country, and admission to the program is a source of pride for many students here. Prospective students apply for admission to the computer science program itself. In 1995 only 8% of the first-year class were women; today the 1999 first-year class has 37% women.
Our research team is unique in that it is interdisciplinary, made up of researchers from computer science and education/womenís studies. The heart of our research is interviews with computer science students themselves. Students are initially interviewed about their prior experience with computing at home and at school; then, once per semester, they are interviewed about experiences in the program, feelings and attitudes about studying computer science. Additional data is gathered through surveys, classroom observations, interviews with faculty, a small journal writing project, and monitoring of electronic communication and forums. Our sample consists of the majority of female computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon, and a comparable sample of male majors. We have interviewed 51 female and 46 male computer science majors, most multiple times, for a total of 210 interviews with 97 computer science majors. The majority of the students are European-Americans and Asian.3 At the conclusion of this year we will have followed samples from three incoming classes through four to two years of study.
Gender and the Initial Interest in Computers
The women who are admitted to the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science enter with high enthusiasm and interest. Weíve interviewed a student who was the president of her schoolís computer club, another who took great pride in being the "computer genius" in her family. Almost every woman in our sample came to computer science because of an interest and strength in math and science; they also enjoy problem-solving, puzzles and logical thinking tasks. They take pleasure in programming. As one student tells us: "I have always been a problem-solving person and it just really gives me a rush when you are working and working on a problem and finally it just works!" A number of the women express delight in the sense of mastery of figuring out the program. Women talk about the pleasure in "systematic thinking," as well as the creative aspects of programming.
While the women students enjoy the "rush in having my program run," the context and connections of computing to other arenas often makes the study of computer science meaningful. Forty-four percent of the women students in our study (as compared to 9% of the men students) contextualize their interest in computers in other arenas such as medicine, space, or the arts. These women emphasize the importance of integrating computing with people and other arenas. As one student tells us:
I think with all this newest technology there is so much we can do with it to connect it with the science field, and thatís kind of what I want to do [study diseases]. Like use all this technology and use it to solve the problems of science, the mysteries.
A first-year student told us how much she enjoyed science fiction when she was young. She remembered reading about a robot that was "more like a tool; it wasnít something that would take over a place, but it was a machine that would help out." She wants to design this type of intelligent machine. Inspired by a lecture about a robot car (in which the lecturer explained the utility of the car by describing the number of accidents and deaths caused by human error), she explained how this people-oriented purpose for computers is what resonated with her desire to connect computer science to real world problems:
The idea is that you can save lives, and thatís not detaching yourself from society. Thatís actually being a part of it. Thatís actually helping. Because I have this thing in me that wants to help. I felt the only problem I had in computer science was that I would be detaching myself from society a lot, that I wouldnít be helping; that there would be people in third world countries that I couldnít do anything about...I would like to find a way that I could help--thatís where I would like to go with computer science.
Our finding that women are concerned with the usefulness of computers is concordant with other research from the field (Honey 1994; Martin 1992; Schofield 1995). While womenís interest and enjoyment of computing itself is often a primary reason for majoring in computer science, most also tend to have a multitude of practical and related reasons for choosing their major, such as the desire for secure employment, the versatility of computer science, encouragement from others, and the exciting, changing field.
Despite the fact that most of the women students educated in the U.S. had computers in their homes growing up and enjoyed using them, their interest in computing was usually one among several and developed more gradually than it does for the male students. As the women describe their enjoyment of programming, most compare themselves to a male member of their family, and note that he was the one who was "really into computers." More female students in our sample report watching while a male family member (father or brother) played games, tinkered, or took the computer apart. As one female student tells us: "We got a computer when I was...I donít remember how old I was, but my brother just totally took to it and thatís when I wondered, ĎWhat is this thing?í" There are no subsequent references to her own self-exploration. Another student, in describing her computer experience, also draws a clear contrast between herself and her brother:
My basic exposure was learning to type in middle school. My brother, even just a couple of years ago, he started kind of playing on them, pulling them apart; I never did that. I never pulled them apart and said, ĎOh, I wonder what this does.í For whatever reason, I never did. He always did.
Male Attachment to Computing
In response to our opening interview question, "Can you tell me the story of you and computers?" male students describe falling in love with the computer the minute they put their fingers on the keyboard--often at a very early age--and the screen responds. For most of them in our study, love of computing comes early, and becomes part of their identity and the stories they tell about themselves. They describe a magnetic attraction between themselves and the computer, with the computer becoming an object of fascination and allure. From then on their activities, conversations, waking hours center around the computer. The computer is the ultimate toy. "Intensely fascinated," "play" and "fun" are words they use when they describe their first experiences with computers. One of the male students we talked to said, "My mother bought me a computer back in Alabama when I was four years old and I guess ever since it has been me playing video games, thinking "WOW, how did they do that?" Another student tells us:
Well, I think it was sometime in middle school, sixth grade, about then, my dad borrowed a computer from a friend, it was an old black and white Macintosh, just totally self contained one unit thing, and I remember just playing with that all the time and trying to figure stuff on it. And that got me really hooked...I was really getting into figuring things out on computers and I just knew that that was going to be something for me.
This fascination with the computer often leads to self-initiated exploration and learning about various aspects of computing, including programming. Computer games are predominately designed with boysí interests in mind, and have much to do with this (Cassell & Jenkins 1998). One student told us how games were a key source of his motivation to learn programming:
I would see stuff, because I played video games all the time and I really liked the graphics and everything. And I was interested in learning how to do that. So to learn how to do that youíve got to go get the books and to understand how to do graphics you have to understand how to do the basics so you have to learn the basics. And then just like a general progression, if you are interested in something and you want to learn how to do it, you have to get from point A to point B and along the way you pick up a lot of stuff that you need and will help you out with some of the other classes.
This description of the pull to "figure out how it works" is something prevalent in the male interviews and very rare in the female interviews. It positions the male students in a very active relationship to the machine. As young boys, males step right into the driverís seat, leaping from the outside to the inside. Many male students report programming to be a source of extracurricular pleasure, having done it since they were young (38% of the males, compared to 10% of the females in our sample). Computing emerges as an integral part of their lives.
The College Experience: Living Among the "Programming Gods"
The Norm of Knowledge: "Everyone Seems to Know So Much More Than I Do"
While almost every women at CMU enters the program enthusiastic about being a computer science major, their confidence and interest too frequently erode shortly after they arrive. A women student who described a computer graphics lecture as "the most exciting lecture I have ever attended" went on to describe how discouraged she had become:
Iím actually kind of discouraged now. Like I said before, thereís so many other people who know so much more than me, and theyíre not even in computer science. I was talking to this one kid, and...oh my God! He knew more than I do. It was so...humiliating kind of, you know? So I get discouraged by things like that--I donít know what I think I need to know. And that inhibits my willingness to continue...if you can understand that. It shouldnít. It should like make me want to learn even more. But I feel like Iíll always be behind, and itís discouraging.
Many women do enter undergraduate computer science with less computing experience than their male peers (Klawe and Leveson 1995; Teague and Clarke 1996). To assess gender differences in prior programming experience of our 1995 interviewees, we conducted a survey of incoming students, and found that 40% of males respondents from the Carnegie Mellon first-year class passed the advanced placement computer science exam, thereby placing out of the Carnegie Mellon introductory level programming class, while none of the first-year women placed out. Men were also familiar with more programming languages than females, and were much more likely than women to report having an "expert" level of knowledge of a programming language prior to Carnegie Mellon. Despite this gender-computing experience gap, it is important to note that we have found no correlation between prior experience and success; some of the most successful students have entered the program with very little computing experience. Yet when women students encounter difficulty with course work, these comparisons between their experience and that of their mostly male peers can become the kiss of death. As one woman said:
If anything, itís very intimidating because I often think Iím in the lower half of the class, working hard but below many people who still donít have to work at all, and itís frustrating. Iím intelligent, I learn things solidly, and I very much enjoy coding and the computer science stuff in general...but I think I pick up ideas slower than other people, and I get mad at myself.
Clearly, a wide range of psychological, socialization, and pedagogical factors contribute to women perceiving themselves as "picking up ideas slower" and their male students as "so good without even trying." For instance, while males often have more experience, there is also the likelihood that male students are inflating how much they know, or are overly confident, while women have been shown to underestimate their abilities (Sax 1995; Lundeberg, Fox & Puncochar 1994). Much other research and our own observations point both to the fact that men tend to exaggerate their achievements more than women, and that men are more likely to attribute their successes and failures in a self-affirming way than are women (Eccles 1992; Dweck 1986; Licht and Shapiro 1982). Strenta found that "even with the same grades in science and other courses, women in science were less confident of their abilities and more depressed about their academic performance than men" (Strenta et al. 1994, 543). We see both of these effects clearly in our interviews, and we suspect that a greater knowledge of the prevalence of these trends would help students to insulate themselves. And although prior computing experience is not a criterion for admission to the program, many students find that introductory courses do assume a certain amount of technical familiarity that many novices do not have, and seem to assume a background that is far more typical for men than women in the program. To create gender equity at the undergraduate level, computer science programs must address the question of the unlevel playing field in terms of prior experience. Other research studies of women in the sciences and engineering (Brainard and Carlin 1997; Seymour and Hewitt 1997), have found a similar pattern of the unraveling of undergraduate womenís confidence during their first year.
The Norm of Interest: "I donít dream in code like they do."
In their article "Encountering an Alien Culture," author Sproull describes the college computing culture as an "adolescent one" in which:
there is competition to write the best, fastest and biggest program...the status hierarchy is revealed through assigning people to such categories as wizards, wheels, hackers, users, and losers. True members of the culture can be found at the terminal room or computer center at all hours of the night. (Sproull et al. 1987, 175).
An intense focus and love of the computer is part of being "in synch" with the culture (Kidder 1981; Hafner & Lyon 1996; Levy 1984).
A female junior student who was very involved in the Internet before coming to Carnegie Mellon and who has always regarded herself as a math-science person, after several semesters doesnít think that computer science is for her because, "Itís not my passion like everyone else. Theyíre all, like, really into it." In her particular case her boyfriend is "really into robotics," planning on going to graduate school and becoming a professor, but she sees herself as different. When the interviewer asks her to "talk to me a little more about the reasons you are thinking that computer science isnít for you," she says:
When I have free time I donít spend it reading machine learning books or robotics books like these other guys here. Itís like, ĎOh my gosh, this isnít for me.í Itís like their hobby. They all start reading machine learning books or Robotics books or build a little robot or something and Iím must not like that at all. In my free time I prefer to read a good fiction book or learn how to do photography or something different, whereas thatís their hobby, itís their work, itís their one goal. Iím just not like that at all; I donít dream in code like they do.
Comparing herself to peers who "dream in code," she feels she is not meant to be in computer science. Another woman feels that her male peers "have a motivation thatís deeper than I do" and "if they love programming that much" she wonders if she should be in the major. She continues:
I have friends who will be like, "Well, I am going to teach myself a new language" and theyíll go pull an all-nighter. I donít have that motivation, so, "Am I in the right department? Am I in the right thing?"
A woman student who ended up transferring out of Computer Science to Information
Systems describes how she was not interested when her classmates would talk about the "latest machinery on the market or how much RAM space a computer has and how they have to upgrade it and what new software they want (blah, blah, blah)." She concluded:
I just didnít feel I was like them or that I could work like them or have an interest in the things they did. Every one of my friends had interest in at least something and whatever they had interest in they were like solely devoted to that thing and I didnít have that kind of devotion.
Twenty percent of the female computer science majors we interviewed have questioned if they belong in computer science because they feel they do not share the same intensity of focus and interest they see in their male peers. Women describe wanting to talk about other things besides computers, feeling estranged from those who are myopically focused on a machine.
The Boy Wonder Icon
Sheila Tobias, in her study of women in science, argues that the "boy wonder icon," the association of male traits with success in science, is central to the broad assumptions of who does (and who does not) become a scientist:
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 donít ask for a chemistry set and master it by the time you are five, you wonít 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 1993, 411).
The computing culture, in particular, reflects the history and legacy of actual "boy wonders." The widely-held expectation that there is one way (the male way) to come to science shapes the expectations and assumptions of parents, teachers, and students themselves. As women begin their undergraduate computer science education, and perceive that men go through the program with more experience, less effort and more interest, too many women conclude they do have to look "like him" in order to succeed. Women begin to question their ability and their interest -- whether it is "enough."
These male-biased expectations of who will succeed affect teachers as well. A particularly clear illustration of this is captured in an e-mail exchange between two high school computer science teachers who had participated in a Carnegie Mellon summer program for advanced placement computer science teachers [http://www.cs.cmu.edu/6apt]. A male teacher began the discussion about the low numbers of female students in his computer science classes:
I have any number of boys who really really love computers. Several parents have told me their sons would be on the computer programming all night if they could. I have yet to run into a girl like that. A couple are Internet nuts but thatís social, not programming. Where are the girls that love to program? My girls sit up and take notice when I talk about programming as a good way to make a living, but look at me funny when I talk about it as fun. The boys think money is nice but fun is where itís at. Why is this?
A female teacher responded that many of her students make the same observation as above, having the idea that "staying up all night programming is a sign of love for computer science, and not doing so is a sign that one doesnít love it." But she disagrees. She talks about taking her first programming course in college and how she "fell in love with it." She said it was "organized, logical and yes, fun." However, she did not stay up all night doing it. She says she "did not even spend a majority of my time programming" and did not program on her own, coming up with games, entertainment, etc. She said she enjoyed the programming assignments "immensely," enjoyed the challenge and especially enjoyed the "practical problems." But then she adds:
My point is that staying up all night doing something is a sign of single-mindedness and possibly immaturity as well as love for the subject. The girls may show their love for computers and computer science very differently. If you are looking for this type of obsessive behavior, then you are looking for a typically young, male behavior. While some girls will exhibit it, most wonít. But it doesnít mean that they donít love computer science!
We concur that there are multiple ways of being interested in a subject, and that valuable contributions to the field come from people with different sets of attachment to computers. Students can love computer science without being "like him."
The Non-Hacker Male
It is important to note that we have also interviewed a significant number of male students who describe themselves as different from the hacker stereotype. One male student said:
I am interested in doing computer science but I donít think itís the be-all and end-all of human existence. I think thatís a mentality that some of these people have -- itís a hacker mentality that I donít really identify with.
Yet despite these feelings of difference, we find that male students report less distress, are less affected by the perceived difference between themselves and their peers, and leave the major in smaller proportion; and despite resistance to total absorption in computing, they do not question their ability to become computer scientists if they choose to do so, and they seldom feel the need to conform or change to match this norm. They do not speak of being discouraged by others who are passionately involved with computers and thereby know more. And from the men with less experience, we do not hear anguish over whether they "have what it takes." They describe how they perceive themselves as different from the dominant image, but this does not excessively discourage them or immobilize them with self-doubt.
We believe the reason why female students feel more distress over this difference from the stereotype than non-hacker males, is that the computer science culture assumes that men will succeed. Success is linked to a stereotype based on a common male pattern of desires, interests, and attachments to computing. Hence it bolsters menís confidence and sense of belonging. This same culture does not assume (often accurately) that women conform; hence they enjoy no default expectation of success, and their interests and attachments to computing may be regarded as deviant from the norm, and less serious than those of the male students. This, combined with a vast array of gender socialization factors, chips away at womenís sense of confidence and belonging in the field. Men who face difficulties with coursework do not struggle under the additional burden of the presumption that they are somehow inferior by virtue of their gender; nor do they have the pressure of feeling they are representative of their gender. One woman student hit the nail on the head:
They [male students] have the pressure to do well, but they don't have excess pressure from us saying, ĎYou know, you're pathetic, you just got in because you're a guy,í or something. We don't give them that...their confidence hasn't hit rock bottom because of that. They tell us all the time and it isn't something we like to deal with. We shouldn't have to deal with it.
Nexus of Confidence and Interest
Seymour and Hewitt (1997), in their multi-university study of students leaving math and science majors, concluded that "intrinsic interest" in the subject was the number one factor in helping students persist in the face of various obstacles, including poor teaching, lack of support, and a chilly climate. The importance of "intrinsic interest" makes intuitive sense. Yet our research identifies a "chicken and egg" problem that affects a female student as she thinks about her interest in computer science: is difficulty with course work due to lack of experience? or is lack of experience due to lack of interest? or is lack of interest due to lack of confidence? or is lack of confidence due to lack of interest? It is hard to disentangle one influence from the other, to know how they interact. Womenís interest (or lack of interest) may not be as "intrinsic" as it feels, for interest is continuously encouraged or extinguished, and defined, by cultural norms, external factors and internal responses. Far from being a static, immutable given, a combination of gender socialization, cultural artifacts of the field (a male-dominated history, culture, educational practices, peer interactions), and individual psychology all construct and/or undermine many women studentsí sense of their own "intrinsic interest."
The words of one of the women we interviewed, a junior at the time, capture well what we have identified as a nexus of confidence and interest that entangles many of the women computer science undergraduates:
I enjoy computer science, but itís not my life. Especially not like some other people who can sit and just play with their computers a lot. I donít own a computer, I donít play with my computer. There are other things Iíd rather be doing. Part of it is a confidence thing. Which may even stem from that...because I sometimes feel like Iím not nearly as good as some many other people. Iím not a whiz. It just feels like everyone around me does. So when you feel like you are not as good at things, you lose a little bit of interest.
A woman student who has been playing with computers since she was four, coding since she was five or six, was on the high school programming team, won prizes etc. tells us how comments from male peers shook her confidence, which then diminished her interest in programming:
I began to lose interest in coding because really, whenever I sat down to program there would to tons of people around going ĎMy God, this is so easy, why have you been working on it for two days, when I finished it in five hoursí and ĎGeez, youíre such a terrible hacker, you must have only gotten into SCS because youíre a girl,í and so on.
Biased Social Environment: "You are only here because you are a woman."
Research shows that both males and females believe that males are better than females at computing (Clarke 1992; Spertus 1991). These low expectations for female students becomes part of a biased social environment, often manifested in the form of peer-to-peer interactions. The following post by a male student on a Carnegie Mellon computer science undergraduate electronic bulletin board on why there are so few women in the department:
In fact, I havenít seen that many girls really interested in computer science. The girls in computer science right now (that I know of at least) just seem to be perfunctorily going through the major. How many girls actually ENJOY programming? Do it for fun? Iíd be very surprised if we even found one (but I am sure there are one or two around).
Comments from male peers, which may appear incidental or random, accumulate to make women feel undervalued, and unwelcome (Valian 1998; Spertus 1991). Women report being faced with comments like "You are a computer science major and you donít knowthat?" if they donít know a technical detail or ask a question. The most damaging comment, and perhaps the most telling, is one that one quarter of the women we have interviewed mention having heard: that they "got in" to the computer science department only because of their gender:
When I was a freshman, someone made a comment to me like "Oh, you only got into computer science because you are a girl," and Iím like, "I donít think so!" You know, Iím like, "I had higher SATs than you. Shut up!" or just something like that. But...I mean I am not the only one who got that. One of my friends came crying to me when she was a freshman. She said, "Some guy just told me that I only got into computer science because I was a girl!" and I was like, "Itís not true. Just say, ĎMy SATs were better than yoursí, and theyíll shut up, even if thatís not true." I mean, thatís one thing you get a lot of.
While most of the women say that the majority of their male peers are nice and helpful (their perception is that just a few are "bad eggs"), it is clear that a biased belief system affects peer interaction. Research from other universities shows a similar pattern. The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory report "Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?" concludes that comments and behaviors such as those cited above are "the symptom of a more fundamental problem: lower expectations for females" (Spertus 1991, 14). While there is no way for us to know how much effect this biased social environment has on individual women, research across fields, studying what matters in college for students, concludes that "the students peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years" (Astin 1993).
Psychologist Claude Steeleís examination of the experiences of African Americans in higher education and women in traditionally male fields suggests that when one is in a situation in which a negative stereotype about oneís group applies, one is fearful of confirming the stereotype. This can lead to poorer performance (as in test scores and work performance); in turn, this turns into disidentification with the field. Disidentification with a field offers "the retreat of not caring about the domain in relation to the self. But, as it protects in this way, it can undermine sustained motivation in the domain" (Steele 1997, 614). This is one way of understanding studentsí statements that "computer science just doesnít interest me," as an endpoint of experiencing difficulty with course work and a drop of confidence. Steele believes that "one must perceive good prospects in the domain, that is that one has the interests, skills, resources, and opportunities to prosper there, as well as that one belongs there, in the sense of being accepted and valued in the domain" (Steele 1997, 613) in order to persist, and maintain oneís interest and engagement.
We believe that this social environment, and the biased assumption that females are not likely as males to be capable computer scientists, is made ever more potent by the following characteristic of the field: the range of student knowledge and skills appears to have no upper limit. Because of adolescent male interest (and energy) which often is directed into investigating of everything about computers, and the availability of vast informal learning opportunities, many undergraduate students (mostly male) enter the program with what seems like a limitless amount of knowledge. In some cases, the "whizzes" and "experts" are the students, as well as the faculty.
Counterpoint: International Women and Other Persisters
A fascinating counterpoint to the stories above is the stories of the international women, many of whom enter the undergraduate major with the least experience and "intrinsic interest" in computer science, yet persist and succeed in the program.4 Kanitha, from Thailand, told us:
Actually I came from Thailand and basically I hadnít dealt with any computer at all before I came. And after that I got a scholarship to study computer science, but I didnít 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.
These students often go 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. A second-semester student from China speaks of how her attitude toward being in computer science has changed:
I donít think my plans changed, I think itís 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 wasnít because I was especially interested in the subject. But this semester itís like for the first time I really want to do this. I just really want to do this because I like it.
With so little computing history, and in some cases even lacking a minimal level of interest, to what do we attribute to these studentsí persistence and success? A critical factor is their sense of self-efficacy around math (de Verthelyi 1997) and a different motivation. Having done well in math and/or science in their home countries, computer science is regarded as a ticket to economic opportunity. 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. The chance to study abroad is important for these students, and the subject of their major is of less importance. Therefore, when an interviewer asked Kanitha,"So how did you end up getting a scholarship to study computer science?" she answered, "I just want to study abroad, so anything is fine with me." Our data also suggests that these international students have alternative success norms and social bonds that protect them. We speculate that the international women do not use the boundless hacker as their reference group. Other priorities are dominant, and with these come other scales for self-evaluation.
The stories of these women who enter with little intrinsic interest and experience in computers challenge the stereotype of who can do computer science. While the international female students enter with the least computing experience and least intrinsic interest, as their hard work takes effect, the mystery of computer science begins to metamorphose into mastery. They then often begin to find intellectual pleasure in the field. It becomes an "acquired taste." A Malaysian student told us of the eventual satisfaction she got from sticking it out:
Itís like an acquired taste for me...At first it was very hard...After a couple of years, I realized itís kind of late to back out. I sort of went through with it, and along the process Iím beginning to think I like it more and more. So, at the end I just went along with it, and itís pretty exciting, now that I learn more about 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 present a different trajectory to becoming a computer scientist, in which their interest in computers evolves over a longer time. But it takes a completely different cultural orientation, and different set of motivations, to overcome the biases in the program that they also face.
Our data suggests that many of U.S. women who persist are ones who have found a way to get the grades they are satisfied with, are able to reconcile a different relationship to computing, and maintain confidence in the face of more experienced peers. They also conclude that they donít have to measure themselves against the male norm of interest. For instance, a female student who plans on using computing to improve tutoring programs for children, described how she has refused to conform to the image of the myopically focused "computer geek" who "hacks for hackingís sake." And since she is "getting really good grades without changing myself" she is ever more confident that she can remain in the major and be herself. When the interviewer asks her if she feels a need to conform to the stereotype, she answers "I refuse to." Then she adds:
I was worriedÖwill I need to conform to that? Will I need to read books on computers all of my free time or something to survive here? And I feel like so far I havenít. Iím getting really good grades without thatÖwithout changing myself. So I feel much more confident now that I donít have to. Itís kind of nice, I can prove them wrong or something.
Engaging and Respecting the Interests of Women Computer Science Students
While there is a large inherited component to the gender gap in higher education computer science, we believe that there is much that higher education can do to protect and engage the interest of women students in computing. Our understanding of the problem, some initial intervention experiences and other research suggest key areas for intervention: culture, curriculum, and confidence. An important theme throughout each one of these is that women must not be expected to model themselves after the stereotypical male computer science student.
Broadening the Culture and Curriculum: Multiple Ways to Be a Computer Scientist
Computer science departments need to establish the sense that there are multiple valid ways to "be in" and be interested in computer science. This can take the form of faculty initiating discussions of the computer science stereotype, stressing to entering students that achievement in computer science is more multi-dimensional than the standard "boy hacker" icon, and that prior experience is not a critical issue. One can be concerned about people, family, literature, and a good nightís sleep and still be successful in computer science. Curriculum must also incorporate this understanding.
Computing in a Social Context
Studying how males and females design technological innovation, researcher Brunner (1997) concludes:
The feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself. As a result, when technology is introduced as an end in itself, as in a programming class, for instance, young women are less likely to be interested than young men.
Some of the elements of a more contextual approach include early experiences that situate the technology in realistic settings; curricula that build upon the connections between computer science and other disciplines; and diverse problems and teaching methods that appeal to a broad variety of preferences and styles. At Carnegie Mellon, some of the approaches that we have adopted include:
All of these efforts provide additional paths for students to pursue in addition to the traditional, technically focused path, and more remains to be done. Sue Rosser, in her book Female Friendly Science, argues that "insuring science and technology are considered in their social context may be the most important change that can be made in science teaching for all people, both male and female" (Rosser 1990, 72).
Addressing the Initial Experience Gap
Our findings regarding the disparity between the average levels of computing experience of men and women, and its effect on their confidence, echo observations by Schofield, who concludes in her ethnographic study of computer usage in a midwestern high school that course offerings "must effectively compensate for the likely initial disparity in prior experience between male and female students...that tend to reinforce pre-existing differences in interest and expertise by discouraging many girls from seeking out opportunities to use computers" (Schofield 1995, 163). Accordingly, at Carnegie Mellon we have designed multiple points of entry into the computer science curriculum that allow students with widely varying levels of experience to enter courses with appropriate prerequisites, and to end up "in the same place" with only small variations in schedule, and ample time to complete graduation requirements. These changes have increased levels of satisfaction among both more and less experienced students of both genders, and indeed seem to result in the smooth integration of the less experienced into the remainder of the curriculum.
While issues of womenís confidence have been shown to have a significant impact on womenís interest in majoring in computer science, these issues are often regarded as beyond the purview of faculty, who are focused on curriculum and research. Seymour and Hewitt have found that the relationship between teachers and students is particularly significant for female students. They observe that "more women than men arrived in college with the expectation of establishing a personal relationship with faculty" (Seymour and Hewitt 1997, 267). In their multi-institutional study of students who leave math and science, they found that male and female students had different objections to large classes: men objected because they have "negative effect on grades," encourage more competition for grades, are usually taught by less qualified faculty. Women objected because "you donít get to know the professor," faculty are "too impersonal," and "the professor doesnít care about you." They believe that "failure to establish a personal relationship with faculty represents a major loss to women, and indeed, to all student whose high school teachers gave them considerable personal attention and who fostered their potential" (Seymour and Hewitt 1997, 267). They conclude that the lack of faculty relationships and mentoring relationships is one of the most common causes of womenís drop in confidence:
To be faced with the prospect of four years of isolation and male hostility on the one hand, and the abrupt withdrawal of familiar sources of praise, encouragement, and reassurance by faculty on the other is, in our view, the most common reason for the loss of self-confidence that makes women particularly vulnerable to switching (Seymour and Hewitt 1997, 271).
Claude Steele also emphasizes the importance of positive student/faculty relationships. Steele reasons that the student "must feel valued by the teacher for his or her potential and as a person. Among the more fortunate in society, this relationship is often taken for granted." Building this relationship of respect between teacher and student is "the first order of business--at all levels of school. No tactic of instruction, no matter how ingenious, can succeed without it" (Steele 1992, 77).
From our interviews with female undergraduate computer science students, we concur with the importance of faculty relationships and support for women students. Women students describe how they got turned on to computer science and began to consider a major in it because of a high school programming class they enjoyed and were good at, and a teacher who worked with them and encouraged them. They also talk about the importance of the support, advice, and guidance they get from the faculty members at Carnegie Mellon who teach and advise first-year students.
We have found that many women students are unaware that other students are struggling, thus permitting an interpretation that their difficulties are due to individual "misfit," rather than a larger, more institutionally-based problem. We need to promote social bonds that protect women from, in Elaine Seymourís words, "self-immolation by invidious comparison with the hackers" (personal communication). This can involve bonds between women and between women and supportive male peers.
A more difficult feature of the confidence problem is the role played by studentsí self-evaluations. A partly intellectual, partly cultural, agenda that we have considered pursuing is to raise awareness of the issues that affect women studentsí self-assessment and confidence. One approach would be to provide students with some information on cognitive psychology, hoping this will help dispel some of the myths about effortless learning and innate ability that seem to have a corrosive effect on self-confidence (Dweck 1986). Departments also need to find ways to reduce the occurrences of comments such as, "You are only here because you are a girl." Students must be educated about admissions policies that show that this is not so, and also understand that the institution considers taunting such as this to be unfriendly and hostile to studentsí learning environments.
In this paper we show that behind the commonplace observation that "women are not interested in computer science" lies a complex of influences. While some people believe that it is the inherent nature of computing itself that turns women away, we have documented social and cultural expectations within the field that discourage girls and women. Our close-up look at the experiences of women in undergraduate computer science, who were once very enthusiastic, reveals some of the pernicious ways in which male behavior and interest become the standards for "the right fit" and success. Fast-forwarding the tape from their initial interview where students are excited about learning computer science to the following two to three interviews, we hear too many women students feel like they are "drowning," believing they lack the interest to keep afloat. Trying to find their place in a culture that challenges whether they are "really into it" and a curriculum that assumes their learning will occur in the same sequence and timing as their male peers, too many women conclude that they "just arenít interested." Interest is a precious thing to have. We believe its loss is unnecessary and unjust.
1This is a phrase coined by Seymour and Hewitt in their study of studentsí decisions to leave science majors, to show how reasons for studentsí decisions to leave math and science get obscured.
2Since we began the study, women in the computer science program have transferred to other majors or left CMU at more than twice the rate of male students. In the classes of 1999 and 2000, 30% of women have transferred out or left the program vs. 12% of men. This gender difference in retention rates is found in other sciences, as well (Seymour & Hewitt 1997; Strenta 1994).
3Among the 51 computer science women in our sample are 24 European Americans, 16 international students, 8 Asian Americans and 3 African Americans. Among the 46 men are 28 European Americans, 7 international students, 6 African Americans and 5 Hispanics. We are concerned with the low representation of underrepresented minority groups in the program, which generally tracks the university average of 7-8%. African-American and Hispanic students together make up less than 7% of advanced placement computer science test-takers nationwide. On average, only about half of our African American and Hispanic students persist through graduation.
4Approximately 30% of the undergraduate female computer science majors at CMU during the course of our study have been international women -- students raised and educated in countries other than the US. The majority are from Asia and Eastern Europe.
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Research Educationist, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences
Visiting Research Scientist, Carnegie Mellon University
Chief Executive Officer
Carnegie Technology Education
Carnegie Mellon University
Jane Margolis is a social scientist and an expert in gender issues in education. She is currently a Research Educationist at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, where she is coordinating a study of the race and gender gap in computer science at the high school level. For the past four years, she has been Visiting Research Scientist at Carnegie Mellon School (CMU) of Computer Science, investigating the experiences of women in computer science at the university level.
Allan Fisher is Chief Executive Officer of Carnegie Technology Education, a subsidiary of Carnegie Mellon University whose purpose is to develop and deliver curriculum to prepare a broad spectrum of individuals for careers in software development. Previously, Dr. Fisher was Associate Dean of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science, founding and
overseeing its undergraduate education program. During his tenure, the proportion of women among students entering the program rose from 8% to 37%. Dr. Fisher holds a Ph.D.in
Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University, and an A.B. in chemistry from Princeton University. He is also a researcher in the area of high performance computers and networks.
Faye Miller is a qualitative researcher specializing in gender issues in education. For the past four years she has been working on the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science Gender Equity Project.