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."

Computing for a Purpose:

Gender and Attachment to Computer Science

Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller


This working paper, one of a series based on a study of undergraduate computer science students, focuses on the dissimilarities between female and male students' initial attraction, engagement and experience with computers. For males, the attraction to computers comes early in life and appears to be magnetic. Males are more likely to be fascinated with the computer itself, find satisfaction in controlling and mastering a machine, and enjoy hacking for hacking's sake. Females' interest in computing is more likely to be one interest among several others. They are more likely to place a high value on the context of computing, the links between computers and other fields, and the contribution to society that computers can make. We refer to this orientation as "computing for a purpose." In this paper, we examine the nature of these two different attachments and discuss the implications for computer science education (curriculum, pedagogy, and culture) if greater numbers of potentially interested women are to be attracted to and engaged with the field.

Men: The Early Magnetic Attraction to Computers

For most of the male students 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. Males describe falling in love with the computer, having epiphany moments, knowing that computing is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. One male answered our first interview question, "Can you tell me the story of you and computers?:"

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.

Male students report being consumed with computing, sometimes from the first moment their fingers touch a keyboard and the screen responds. The computer for them is the ultimate toy and they get "hooked." They become "intensely fascinated." "Play" and "fun" are the words that they use when they describe their first experiences with computers. Their view is often proprietary: the fun of the computer is not only in using it, but in knowing it.

OK, I guess I first got into it in the fifth grade when I got my first computer. And ever since the start I was just kind of interested in knowing how it worked, like on the inside...what all the parts did, and how you got from the stream of 1's and 0's to Space Plus 3 or whatever video game you play, and I just wanted to know all the details about what was going on inside the computer... I just wanted to know how they wrote programs, how they put the whole thing together... and I spent a lot of time figuring that out.

Drawn into the Computer: Figuring Out How It Works

I like just what a computer can do. I don't know why it interests me so much...They say kids like to take things apart and see what makes them go and I do that a lot...

Male students' accounts of their earliest computer memories are filled with wanting to know how the computer works, tinkering, and self-initiated exploration. They describe being drawn into the computer. Games certainly are a magnet, and many describe wanting to figure out how to make the games better, and go faster. Fourteen of the 23 male students we have interviewed reported that games led them to further computer exploration. As one of the male students 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?' When we asked a male student to describe how games were a key source of motivation to learn programming, he told us:

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 you 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 almost non-existent 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 driver's seat, leaping from the outside to the inside. Females, however, describe an "outsider" position to the machine.

Exploring Alone or Together? The Father's Influence

Despite the stereotype image of the lone isolated hacker, computing and programming emerge as much more of a social activity in the men's interviews than in the women's. Male students frequently mention their father as the person who introduced them to computing, as well as being a source of support and encouragement as they went forward with their interest. Forty-five percent (13/29) speak of being introduced to programming by their dads, with this interaction leading to working on their own:

In sixth grade my dad bought me a TRS80, and the book came with to to write all these programs... and my Dad and I worked through it... most of the way through it. At one point about halfway through he left me on my own and I continued the rest of the book. Ever since then I've been programming and I've been interested in programming itself...

I: So what did your dad teach you when you were growing up?

S: Well he...worked a lot with like Quick BASIC, so basically the way it would work is he might show me one or two things, and then I would try to do something, and then it wouldn't work or I couldn't accomplish something, and I'd go ask him what to do, and he would help me then. And then I'd keep on going on my own until I got stuck again.

While fathers play an introductory role, many of the male students have pride and self-identity wrapped up in being a self-learner:

I: And where do you think the motivation comes from for you to learn on your own?

S: Well, I guess that's sort of the way I've always done it. If I hadn't done that just in general for the last ten years then I wouldn't be anywhere at all. I mean, not one thing in C I don't think anybody ever taught me. Like my dad never learned C. But by just picking up books I've managed to become...know as much about it as anybody else in many of the classes here.

From these accounts of early introduction to computing, it is notable that mothers are not involved. They frequently are described as computer-phobic or incompetent; they "can't even find the on-off switch." These interviews reflect a commonly held stereotype, with men perceived as being the computer "experts" in the household, with both men and women believing that women are not as good at computing [Clarke, 1992].

Pleasures of Programming: Controlling the Machine

Male fascination with the computer extends to an early interest in programming.

Many more 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). They talk about the challenge of "controlling the machine," and the fascination in "making it do what you want it to do:"

Well, they [computers] are kind of frustrating to work with, so it's sort of like a challenge to try to make them do what you want them to do...sort of beat some sense into them (laughs). I always enjoyed that. And then learning about the problem-solving aspect: What's the best way of doing this? That sort of thing.

Another male student describes how he loved it when he can "tell it to do this and it does:"

I can't explain why I love programming. It's just everything which I can program I do, from calculators to computer system to...just anything which I can customize and make these cool things that automatically run. And it's just so fascinating that I tell it to do this and it does (laughs). It's just...I love that.

Another student describes the fun of having "power over the machine":

What I like about programming is that you actually have control over this machine...If I can actually understand the syntax, and if I can use functions to actually do what I want to do, then I feel like I have power over the machine, which just is a lot of fun...that's all...if it finally works.

Sherry Turkle, in her book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit [1984], studies the psychological-social world of computer science students and the almost all-male world of hackers. She examines the intense relationship hackers have with technical objects, observing that "mastery is one of the essences of hacker culture." "Most hackers are young men for whom at a very early age mastery became highly charged, emotional, colored by a particular desire for perfection, and focused on triumph over things. Their pleasure is in manipulating and mastering their chosen object, in proving themselves with it" (p. 201). These appetites contrast with women students' pleasure in programming as problem-solving (see below).

Women and Computers: "An aid, not the main source"

The stories we hear from the female computer science students are quite different from the men's. While there is a continuum of female experience and interest, with a small number of women expressing the same amount of unqualified enthusiasm for computing as do the males (25% women, compared to 73% males), taken in the aggregate there is a dissimilarity between the males' and females' early involvement in programming and other computing activities. Among the women, there is definitely less tinkering, less unguided exploration, less obsession with computing, and a less proprietary stance towards the computer. Even the woman who was president of her high school computer club says, in comparing herself to the male peers that she knows:

I never really got totally into it...I always saw a computer as like an application. I still kind of see it like that. I always thought of it as an aid, rather than the main source...

Many of the female students--even those who spend quite a bit of time at the computer--describe the male members of their families as the ones who are "really into computers." Female students frequently report watching while a male family member (father or brother) does the playful and interesting things on the computer. As one female student told us: "We got a computer when I was...I don't remember how old I was, but my brother would just, he just totally took to it and that's when I wondered, `What is the thing?'"

A number of female students note they do not tinker with computers the way their male peers do. One student told us she was "never the kind of person to sit at the computer and fiddle with things" and therefore knows less than other students in the program:

Yeah, yeah, ever since I was little we had a computer, but I never really used it that much. I mean, I'm kind of...I find myself odd in that sense that I don't really know much about how to work a computer. Like I don't know the operating systems and programs and all this stuff that most people here seem to know, because I just was never the kind of person to sit at the computer and, like, fiddle with things. Some people sit there and change their background and change this and change that, and that just never really appealed to me. My computer at my house was basically for writing papers. We weren't hooked up to the Internet or anything.

Even though her interest was piqued, she still stayed in a more distanced relationship to the machine, as have many of the other women. She watched her brother play games, tinker, take the computer apart; and while she attributes her interest in computer science to watching her brother, she makes no subsequent references to her own self-exploration. Her narrative is not filled with long and detailed accounts of all the different activities she did at the computer, or different types of machines she worked on. Another student, in describing her computer experience, also draws a clear contrast between herself and her brother. He was the one who always pulled apart the computer, while she never did:

My basic exposure was learning to type in middle school. I didn't really -- like, 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, um, said, `Oh, I wonder what this does.' For whatever reason, I never did. He ALWAYS did. So, I think my initial big exposure was typing. And then, from there, it was my teachers saying, `No, I want you to do more than that.'

What accounts for this lack of exploration of the machine? Interest and engagement is certainly shaped by games that have been designed to meet boys' desires and pleasures. The history of the field, with very few women actors, certainly hangs over the entire discipline [Levy, 1994]. Psychological issues of gender and risk taking [Turkle, 1988], confidence and interest [Seymour & Hewitt, 1997], relational psychology [Miller, 1986; Gilligan, 1982], autonomous learning behavior [Fennema, 1985], and stereotype vulnerability [Steele, 1997] all play a role. Sherry Turkle, in her article "Computational Reticence" [1988], addresses how computing culture promotes male fascination and women's more watchful and distanced relationship to computing. Girls and women witness male intense fascination with computers; they see males fall in love, seduced by the formal microworlds where machines, which are more easily controlled than the world of people and relationships, are the focus. Turkle believes that girls want to stay away from the computer because it has become a personal and cultural symbol of what women are not. Women do not want an intimate relationship with a machine. This more distanced and qualified stance towards computers obviously poses a problem for women in computer science, where the stereotype of success is someone who is sitting at his computer 24 hours a day, who seems to knows everything there is to know about computers, and who loves nothing better than a new computer game.

What Attracts the Women?

What does attract women students to computer science? Almost every woman in our sample came to computer science because of her interest in math and science. She is confident of her math abilities, and enjoys activities associated with math skills such as solving puzzles, problem-solving, and logical thinking skills. She enjoys programming, while she may not do it in her spare time as do some of the males. In answer to our question "I like programming because…," one student answered: "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!" Another approaches a programming assignment as her "mission" to solve it and says, "when you do it and it works, it is the most amazing feeling in the world." She goes on to express the satisfaction in solving the problem when she says: "It's kind of frustrating when you realize that your program hasn't been working for days because of a semicolon, but then at the same time it's really cool that you figured it out." A number of the women express delight in the sense of mastery of figuring out the program by themselves. Women talk about the pleasure in "systematic thinking," as well as the creative aspects of programming, having a program express a person's individuality.

Computing with a Purpose

What appears to be very important for women studying computer science is the integration of people and ties between computing, people, and other arenas. Forty-four percent of the women students (as compared to 9% of the male students) explain their interest in computer science in the context of other arenas:

What I would really like to do is teach...would like to minor in education and how computers affect education and what is the most efficient way to use them in education.

I really wanted to get people can this change the world as we see it today. You can get people together. You can provide information.

I think with all this newest technology there is so much we can do with it to connect it with the science field, and that's kind of what I want to do (study diseases). Like use all this technology and use it to solve the problems of science we have, the mysteries.

Answering the interview question, "What interests you the most about computer science?," a female student told us she wanted: be able to write a program that would actually help; not programming for the sake of programming, which is what I am doing right now. But programming for the sake of solving a specific problem, or for the sake of developing a program that would solve something very specific.

This student went on to describe an epiphany moment when she understood the potential connection between computer science and genetics--a field she had been interested in since she was very young. She sees how useful computers are for genetic sequencing and other complex processes. Describing what interests her least about computer science, she says:

People writing a new programming language. What would be the point of writing a new programming language...I would like to take what we've got and go with it. Instead of always sitting back and refining the process of programming, I would like to take it and use it for something.

A number of female students specifically address wanting to make a contribution through computer science. One described a difference between herself and most of the male students. She says they want to focus on "building bigger and bigger computers." "That's fine," she says, "and I `d like to be involved with that, too, but in the long run I want to use computers for what they are now, and just use them to help people."

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 wasn't something that would take over a place, but it was a machine that would help out." She said she wants to help design this type of intelligent machine. She was inspired by a recent CMU 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. This use of computers resonated with this student's desire to connect computer science to real world problems:

The idea is that you can save lives, and that's not detaching yourself from society. That's actually being a part of it. That's actually helping. Because I have this thing in me that want 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 wouldn't be helping; that there would be people in third world countries that I couldn't do anything about...I would like to find a way that I could help. That's where I would like to go with computer science.

Another woman student who has always done well in math and science, who finds these subjects to be fun, relates her interest in computer science to her concern for her grandmother's medical condition:

I don't think science--just for making video games--is worth the energy and talent that it takes, but I think it's important if it makes a contribution, so...Um, part of that would be a contribution in medicine, like, my Grandma had a pacemaker, a renal dialysis machine, it's like...I've seen the contribution in my family in my life, so that's something. Medicine has always fascinated me, so I just always wanted to apply my sciences there. And I see the opportunities now, with the computer technology to apply there and that's what I want to do.

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). Studying how males and females design technological innovation, researchers Honey et al. conclude:

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.

A meta-analysis of research on gender and science concluded that a "major sex difference in interests in math and science is its perceived usefulness" (Linn and Hyde, 1989). Schofield's ethnographic study of the introduction of computers into a high school found this difference among the male and female teachers, as well:

A number of male teachers also reported doing things such as building computers for fun or deciding to teach computer science out of a deep-enough fascination with the subject to lead them to switch fields, although it required a major investment of time and effort. Not a single female teacher we interviewed spoke of the kind of fascination with the computer that a number of their male peers evidenced. Rather, those who responded positively to them tended to speak about their actual or potential usefulness. (Computers and Classroom Culture, p.161)

Seymour and Hewitt (p. 237) also observe that societal considerations can drive career choices:

Women were also more often altruistic than men in their career goals and were more likely than men to switch in order to pursue careers which offered a greater prospect of more humanitarian or more personally satisfying work.

Computers are the Future

While love of computing is the overwhelming reason why most of the males in our study major in computer science, women cite a more varied array of reasons for their decision to major. As Table 1 indicates, enjoyment of computing was the most frequently mentioned reason for majoring in CS by males and females. While this is the predominant reason for the males, females frequently cite additional motivators. Many of the female students talk about computers as "the future," that they find working around the new technology to be exciting, and that they want to be a part of these developments. One student answered a question about her motivation to learn computer science this way: " I just have a love for it...I guess because I want to be a part of this technology phase...because its going into the future and I want my future to be really big." Another said about computer technology: "'s going to be the basic fundamental for everything in the future...and I thought, `I want to be a part of it.'" They cite the breadth of the field ("computers are used everywhere"), job security, and an interest in combining computers with another area of interest. As one student, who described herself as having little computing experience before coming to Carnegie Mellon, told us: "I also was thinking of the future and what I wanted to do, and it seems that computers are like of the most influential pieces of technology in our world at this time, and I thought that if I get into computers then I'll definitely get a job."

Reasons Cited in Decision to Major


Women (n=32)


Men (n=27)

enjoyment of computing



safe and secure employment



encouraged by others



can take in many directions



exciting, changing field



combine with other interests



Table 1: Factors Cited in Decision to Major in CS

Reforming Institutions for Greater Participation

By and large, the existing culture and institutions of computer science serve the typical male model of the field better than others. The aggregate differences in motivations and history between men and women studying computer science point to a number of ways in which the field and its institutions need to change in order to increase the participation of women. All of them promise to increase interest and involvement not only among women, but also among minorities and, indeed, among the overwhelming majority of the majority male population who currently choose not to be involved.

Levels of experience

While large numbers of high school graduates have substantial programming experience, the opportunities for students to pursue such experience varies greatly by school district and by socioeconomic status. As we have noted, a large division also exists between the experiences of male and female graduates. For all these reasons, it makes sense for higher education to ensure a smooth path for students with all levels of experience to enter computer science curricula. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, we have developed three different introductory sequences, all of which lead students to the same point in the curriculum through different amounts of instruction. We also provide the means for students who have taken "non-major" programming courses to migrate into the major.


Like many engineering and science curricula, many computer science curricula focus on the more technical aspects of the field in their early years, with applications and multidisciplinary projects deferred to the very end, if they are present at all. While this approach matches the preferences and motivational patterns of many (mostly male) students, much research indicates that a more contextual approach will increase the involvement and persistence of other students.

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" (p.72.) Indeed, our research shows that many women who decide against studying computer science, either before or after starting, do so after concluding that their interests in application, helping people, and being a "people person" do not have a place in computer science.

Some of the elements of a more contextual approach include early experiences that situate the technology in realistic settings; curricula that exploit 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. More remains to be done, especially in terms of early experience with integrated problems.

Expectations and aspirations

Another way in which computer science tends to be unnecessarily narrowly defined concerns work styles and career directions. As our working paper on "Geek Mythology" discusses, many students and faculty picture computer science students as narrowly focused, intense hackers. For the students for whom this is not an appealing work style, and whose career aspirations extend beyond narrowly technical work, this image can be repellent or discouraging. One of the aims of higher education must be to provide students with a broader picture of the possibilities, and to create an environment where alternate models are valued and respected. One approach we have taken is the institution of an "immigration course," in which first-year students are presented with an overview of both the technical areas and many key applications of computer science, along with discussions of the many different career directions open to them. We also need to establish, especially among the student peer group, the sense that there are multiple valid ways to "be in" computer science.


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