School of Computer Science

Carol Frieze, Ph.D.

Office: Gates 4115
Phone: 412-268-9071

email: cfrieze @

CRA-W The Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of
Women in Computing Research
CREU: Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates in Computer Science and Engineering

Cultural Attitudes Towards Computer Science: How do they Affect Women’s Representation in the Field?


Cultural Attitudes Towards Computer Science: How do they Affect Women’s Representation in the Field?

Elizabeth Kemp (Junior CSD), Anthony Velazquez (Senior CSD)

Advisors: Dr. Carol Frieze and Dr. Jeria Quesenberry, Carnegie Mellon University

Project Goals:
This study is based on the premise that gender differences do not provide a satisfactory explanation for the low participation of women in computer science (CS) and that we need to look at the role of cultural factors. To understand this further we investigated student attitudes and perceptions towards computer science at both the local level and the global level. The local level investigation focused on continuing a longitudinal study of CS undergraduate attitudes at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to see if the culture and environment still worked well for both men and women. The global work focused on researching international data on women in computing and on focus groups with international students from CMU’s School of Computer Science. The aim was to get a snapshot of international attitudes and experiences in CS to compare them to what we have learned about women in computing in the USA.

Students kept a blog (see through fall semester and most of spring semester and read widely, including the primary texts dealing with the issue of participation in CS.

Local Culture: The Research Process. We developed a two page survey to assess attitudes and perceptions towards CS among the CS undergraduates (men and women) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). This 2010 research builds on previous research which examined the attitudes and perceptions of undergraduate students at CMU (including a previous CREU research study). Post 1999 studies (2002, 2004 and 2005) revealed that CMU had developed a culture and environment in which women felt they fit and could contribute to the CS culture alongside their male peers. The survey covered several major categories including the student’s background, high school experience, perception of computer science, their experience so far at Carnegie Mellon, and whether or not they felt they fit in academically and socially. Additionally, since some questions assumed predicated experience at Carnegie Mellon (e.g. “Name one thing that you know about CS that you didn’t know when you entered as a freshman?”) a separate survey with similar design was created for freshman. To issue the survey, core classes in the CS curriculum were targeted. Only undergraduate students with CS listed as their primary major were allowed to take the survey and students were told to only take the survey once. The survey was given to 110 out of 131 total CS freshman and 148 out of 456 total CS upperclassmen.

We also interviewed several female students who had switched out of CS to another major at CMU to get an understanding of what made them switch.  The interviews lasted approximately one hour and were tape recorded and transcribed.  We were particularly interested to see if prior background in computer science or culture/environmental factors influenced their degree change.

Global Cultures: The Research Process. CMU has a sizable number of students and faculty from other countries and cultures. We carried out focus groups with both international graduate women and graduate women from the USA in the School of Computer Science (SCS is made up of 7 departments one of which is the computer science department) at CMU to get a snapshot of how their attitudes towards CS were similar or different. The focus group discussions lasted around one hour to one and were tape recorded and transcribed. Questions to stimulate discussion focused on the public perception of computer science in their home country, their first impressions about computer science in the USA, and who encouraged their participation in computer science. We were particularly interested in the perceptions of those students from countries where women were well represented in computing to see how computer science is taught and perceived differently and/or similarly. We did not get time to carry out focus groups with faculty.

Local Culture:
We collected and analyzed a huge amount of data from the undergraduate surveys. We were delighted to find  that most men and most women are still feeling like they are comfortable, and can be successful, in the CS environment at CMU and that they fit in socially and academically. Figures 1 and 2 below provide examples of the many charts we produced to illustrate our major findings. In brief, we did not see a gender divide in student attitudes although we did see that teachers figured largely as possibly role models and/or mentors in the background of our female students.

Figure 1.  

Figure 2.

Global Culture: The literature searches uncovered new and insightful papers that we had not encountered before. At the same time we continued to see a paucity of literature from the global perspective, especially that relating to data and statistics of women in computing fields. With this in mind we developed an online application to display data relating to women in computing around the world. The application was also designed to collect further data and make it easily accessible. Users can compare individual countries to each other by how green they appear on the map. We encourage you to check out our new site although it is still being developed:

We carried out six focus groups with 18 graduate students from the Romania, Ghana, India, Venezuela, China, Bulgaria, Iran, Canada and United States. Several common themes were identified in their perceptions and their interests in computer science. One common theme for many international students was the overwhelming presence of software companies who owned numerous buildings near their hometowns. The visual presence of the industry was a large contributor to the idea that CS was the path to good job prospects. Some participants noted that computer scientists had the same high level of prestige associated with doctors.

Another insight came from Eastern European students who noted that computer science classes were in high demand and had better ratios of women to men than their American counterparts. Smart students wanted to go to smart high schools and smart high schools offered computer science. Additionally, students explained that while they worked occasionally on computers for the class, many problem sets did not involve computers.

Some students discussed how their home countries had established programs to encourage more women to participate in computer science. One student, educated in China explained how professors from the university encouraged strong female math students to study computer science. In contrast, a couple of students from countries with more balanced participation found it strange that you would need programs to encourage more women in the field.

Conclusions: In many ways we accomplished much more than anticipated. For example, we had not anticipated building a new web site with a new application. We were delighted when a second faculty member joined our team and co-advised. We met weekly and had lots of interesting updates to share as the research progressed.
We found strong support for our hypothesis that gender differences do not provide a satisfactory explanation for the low participation of women in computer science (CS). Indeed we found many gender similarities among our undergraduate survey participants and evidence that both men and women in CS at CMU are doing well in the environment. Our snapshot of international student attitudes revealed some interesting insights. In particular we found the image of CS in their home countries to be quite different to the dominant image in the USA, for example: more positive, not stereotypical geeky, and not considered a “male” field.
We did not get time to explore the “Math/CS” factor as much as we would have liked but it seems well worth further investigation. Weak math background (rather than weak CS background or culture/environmental factors) was noted as a reason to switch from the CS major at CMU. Math also figured largely in the positive, international image of CS.

Anthony and Elizabeth present at Carnegie Mellon's "Meeting of the Minds", Undergraduate Research Event, May 2010

Readings and References
* Adams, J. C., Vimala Bauer and Shakuntala Baichoo. An expanding pipeline: Gender in Mauritius, SIGCSE 2003, pp. 59-63. (2003)
* Almstrum, V. What Is the Attraction to Computing? Communications of the ACM, Sept. 2003/vol. 46. No. 9 pp. 51-55
* Barnett, R. and Caryl Rivers. Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, Basic Books, 2004
* Blum, L. Transforming the Culture of Computing at Carnegie Mellon, Computing ResearchNews, vol. 13, No.5, November 2001. p.2.
* Blum, L. Women in Computer Science:The Carnegie Mellon Experience. In Resnick D.P.and Scott , D., eds., The University of the Future: The Future of the University. 2001.
* Blum, L. and Frieze, C. As the Culture of Computing Evolves, Similarity can be the Difference, Frontiers, 26:1 2005
* Borg, Anita. What draws Women to and Keeps Women in Computing at Institute for Women and Technology, May 1999, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol 869.
* Burger, Carol J., Elizabeth G. Creamer, and Peggy S. Meszaros, eds. Reconfiguring the Firewall: Recruiting Women to Information Technology across Cultures and Continents, AK Peters, Ltd., 2007
* Camp, T. The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline. Communications of the ACM, 40 (10): 103-110, 1997.
* Camp, T. The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline Unlikely to Reverse, ACM-W, January, 2000.
* Camp, T. Women in Computer Science: Reversing the Trend CRA-W August, 2001
* Eidelman, Larisa and Orit Hazzan, “Factors influencing the Shrinking Pipeline in high schools: A sector-based analysis of the Israeli high school System”, Proceedings of SIGCSE 2005 - The 36th Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, pp. 406-410. 2005
* Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order, Russell Sage Foundation, Yale University Press, 1988
* Frieze, Carol, and Blum, Lenore. Building an Effective Computer Science Student Organization: The Carnegie Mellon Women@SCS Action Plan, Inroads SIGCSE Bulletin Women in Computing;, 2002, June, p. 74-78
* Gharibyan, Hasmik and Stephan Gunsaulus "Gender Gap in Computer Science Does Not Exist in One Former Soviet Republic: Results of a Study", ITiCSE'06, ACM June 26–28, 2006
* Margolis, J. and Fisher, Allan. 2002 Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press).
* Pal, Joyojeet. “Of mouse and men: Computers and geeks as cinematic icons in the age of ICTD” iConference 2010
* Paloheimo, A. and Stenman, J. "Gender, Communication and Comfort Level in Higher Level Computer Science Education –– Case Study", 36th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, 2006
* Schofield, Janet Ward. 1995. Computers and Classroom Culture New York: Cambridge University Press.
* Seymour E. and Hewitt N. Talking about Leaving: Why undergraduates leave the Sciences, Boulder:Westview Press, 1997
* Spertus, Ellen. 1991. Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?
* Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age Tech-Savvy is the culmination of two years of work by the AAUW Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education.
* Zhang, Ming and Virginia M. Lo “Undergraduate Computer Science Education in China”, SIGCSE 2010


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