Building an Effective Computer Science*
The Carnegie Mellon Women@SCS
Carol Frieze * and Lenore
(Inroads SIGCSE Bulletin Women in Computing; vol.34.no.2, 2002,
June, p. 74-78)
This paper aims to provide a practical
guide for building a student organization and designing activities
and events that can encourage and support a community of
women in computer science. This guide is based on our experience
in building Women@SCS, a community of women in the School of Computer
Science (SCS) (1) at
Carnegie Mellon University. Rather than provide an abstract "to-do"
or "must-do" list, we present a sampling of concrete activities
and events in the hope that these might suggest possibilities
for a likeminded student organization. However, since we have
found it essential to have a core group of activist students at
the helm, we provide a "to-do" list of features that we feel are
essential for forming, supporting and sustaining creative and
effective student leadership.
1: Brief Background
In 1999, the number of undergraduate women students entering Carnegie
Mellon's Computer Science Department reached 38% (50 out of 130)
--up from 7% (7 out of 96) in 1995. The factors that contributed
to this dramatic increase have been well documented by Fisher
and Margolis (2)
and Blum (3) .
Briefly, in 1995 Allan Fisher and Jane Margolis embarked on a
longitudinal study (funded by the Sloan Foundation) of the gender
gap in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. A number of key actions then came into play:
- Summer workshops for high school teachers of Advanced Placement
Computer Science were held on campus (run by Fisher and Margolis
and funded by the National Science Foundation). In addition
to technical information needed to address changes in the
AP CS exams, these teachers were provided information and
advice on recruiting and retaining women in computer science.
- Allan Fisher, (then) Associate Dean for Undergraduate Computer
Science Education, advised the Carnegie Mellon Admissions
Office that prior programming experience was not a pre-requisite
for success in the computer science major.
- Raj Reddy, (then) Dean of Computer Science, requested that
the Admissions Office develop criteria that could help select
future visionaries and leaders in computer science.
- The Admissions Office started placing high value on activities
that demonstrated commitment to "giving back to the community."
Thus, a new vision for the SCS undergraduate
student body was formed that would influence changes in the recruitment
of computer science majors ---changes that would lead to the increased
enrollment of women and indeed to a significant transformation
of the culture of computing at Carnegie Mellon (4).
Importantly, these and subsequent developments have been undertaken
with essential support from top administrators,
including the President of the University (5)
The new admissions criteria have not affected our students' ability
to succeed in the computer science major. Indeed, other than creating
various entry points into the freshman programming courses, no
major changes have been made in the undergraduate curriculum.
We attribute this positive outcome in large measure to the student
organization Women@SCS, and in particular, to its Advisory
2: Student Leadership: The Women@SCS Advisory Council
With the dramatic increase in the number of
women entering our computer science program in the Fall 1999,
we were faced with a great opportunity ---and a great challenge.
It seemed clear we would be in danger of quickly losing many of
our new recruits if we were to conduct business as usual within
the atmosphere of a traditional computer science department (6)
it seemed critical to work closely with students who might guide
us to appropriate action. Fortunately, the seeds for such a core
of advisors were already in place. A very small group of women
graduate students, who wanted to meet other women in the various
SCS departments, had started to organize socials and dinners.
They had also developed a rudimentary web site with links to relevant
online resources. Several active undergraduate women were eager
to see changes and quickly joined ranks. And so, the Women@SCS
(known here simply as 'the Council') was
By the Fall 2000, the Council had a total of 23 students and had
separated into a graduate sub-Council of 12 students and an undergraduate
sub-Council of 11 students. The separation came about because
of divergent interests between the younger students (who preferred
a combination of social and mentoring activities) and the more
professional/research oriented graduate students (who preferred
focused discussions and professional networking activities). Connections
between the sub-Councils continued to be maintained by holding
regular joint meetings.
By October 2001, the Council had doubled to a total of 46 students
(22 undergraduates and 24 graduates). All four years of the undergraduate
level are now represented, and most of the graduate departments.
We have found that a core group of Council members are extremely
active and participate on a regular basis while other members
attend meetings and help out with events whenever they can. This
situation has proved to work well. Council members are under no
pressure to do Council work but will happily help out when called
upon. At the same time, the more regularly active members can
hold leadership positions within the Council, direct meetings,
instigate discussions, and plan events.
The Council has turned out to be the driving force behind our pro-active efforts to
improve the academic and social climate for all women in SCS.
As the Council has grown and thrived, so have the numbers of women
students who attend the Council's programs of events and activities.
As the Council has become a respected part of the SCS 'institution,'
the atmosphere for all students in SCS has greatly improved. Thus
we strongly believe, building an energetic,
action-oriented Advisory Council is key to building a successful
community of women in the computer sciences.
Some Essentials for building an effective Council:
3: Building a Community of Women in Computer Science:
Events and Activities organized by the Women@SCS Advisory Council:
- Faculty and Institutional Support: The
Council needs a dedicated Faculty Advisor who is willing to
spend time and energy listening, advising, and promoting the
interests of the group throughout the department, school and
the university. Our Faculty Advisor has formed strong
ties and support networks on behalf of women students. At the
same time she has formed a close and mutually respectful relationship
with Council members. This gives them a strong sense of self
worth. The Faculty Advisor readily acts as a bridge to other
faculty and administrators. Initially, Council members give
input into curriculum and climate through the Faculty Advisor,
and in this way contribute to real change.
- Program Coordinator:
Hire a Program Coordinator to help with the day-to-day organization
of activities, events, and meetings and work closely with the
Faculty Advisor and the Council. Members of the
Council are keen to invest their time, energy, and ideas for
the good of the community. In turn, they benefit academically,
socially, and professionally from this involvement. However,
it is vital that the Council has organizational support so that
its members maintain good academic standing and do not "burn
out." Our Program Coordinator has become a sounding board for
the ideas and questions of Council members. She also oversees
the Women@SCS web site (see below) and networks throughout the
University with staff, faculty, and administrators in arranging
the Council's events and activities.
- Meetings: Arrange regular Council meetings with an agenda and a set
time. Our Council holds weekly (one hour) meetings
for undergraduate members, twice monthly for graduate members,
and joint meetings once a month. At the Council meetings, members
organize future events, review past activities, comment on classes
and curriculum issues, brainstorm and share ideas, and review
the web site. Meetings also provide a safe, non-judgmental environment
where members can ask for help, and give it in return. We hold
recruiting sessions once a semester to show all women in SCS
what being on the Council is all about. We always try to make
the atmosphere casual and enjoyable at all meetings-we have
found that this adds to the energy level, creativity and productivity.
Occasionally a guest, usually faculty or administrator or campus
visitor, is invited along. This allows Council members to meet
faculty and administrators on an entirely new level for an exchange
of ideas and information. Articles by Cuny and Asprey (7),
and Fox (8), point
out how this kind of personal involvement with faculty and administration
has been found to be particularly important to women students.
- Council Leaders: Elect Council leaders. We have found that Council
members are happy to have leadership from the "senior" members,
and that it works best to have two leaders (within each sub-Council)
who will be responsible for collecting meeting agendas, leading
the meetings, acting as general spokeswomen and coordinating
with the Faculty Advisor and Program Coordinator.
- Web site: Set
up a student-run web site to represent your organization and
increase its visibility. The Women@SCS web site,
with a link from the SCS home page, has become a focal point
for announcing activities, for highlighting and celebrating
the many special accomplishments of women throughout SCS, and
for providing resource information to women students and beyond.
We are extremely proud of our web site and have an excellent
team (9) of
Council members who handle content and coding. The web site
is reviewed at Council meetings and all members are encouraged
to submit event announcements and items of interest.
- Rooms: Make
sure you are given a "real" meeting room and not a classroom.
We have found that the venue has helped to affirm the worth
of the Council and its decision-making.
- Distribution lists: Set up distribution lists of all women in the department
or school (faculty, staff, graduates, undergraduates).
The D-lists are an essential tool for email communication-and
we have found that the Council logs a voluminous amount!! D-lists
not only provide an efficient tool for disseminating ideas,
getting feedback, announcing meetings and events, but also for
tracking the numbers of women throughout the department/s.
- Funding: Funding from the department, school, and especially from
the highest levels within the university, is essential for the
Council to put its plans into action. Funding at this level
also gives value and credibility to the goals of the Council,
credibility to women's issues and the need to improve the quality
of life for women in computer science. This will
prove to be a very positive investment for the department and
the university as a whole. We have been fortunate in having
administrative support. Our University, via the President, has
provided most of the funding for the Council's events and activities.
Another excellent source of funding is the institution's Alumni/External
Relations Office. After all, women graduates tend to become
the best alumnae in terms of contributions to the university.
Other sources of funding are the many computing-related companies
who are keen to recruit on campus and are often very aware of
the need for more women in the field. The Council can connect
with campus representatives and see if they are willing to sponsor
a dinner/event. In this way, the Council can plan a community-building
event that also works to show the students that they are in
demand as computer scientists.
- Giving back: Your Council can become an asset to the department, school
and the university as a whole. Carnegie Mellon's Computer
Science Department has called upon the Women@SCS undergraduate
sub-Council to provide direct input on issues such as the curriculum,
advising, and climate. Recently, members of the Council were
invited by the SCS External Relations Office to participate
on a panel discussion, held in San Francisco, to examine future
practices for Alumni development. This year, the Women@SCS Council
was featured on public television (10) and
in local newspapers (11).
Following the tragedy of September 11, one of our graduate Council
members instigated an open-to-all meeting to discuss "Computing
Post-WTC". Her initiative met with tremendous response from
students and faculty and has since led to the resurrection of
the Pittsburgh branch of "Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility."
It is clear that our Council, and by extension the community
of women in the School of Computer Science, have now become
a very articulate and visible asset.
An important but nevertheless little acknowledged component of professional
training, and success, consists of the professional interactions
that take place in social settings. These are often taken for granted.
But particularly in the scientific and technical arena, they happen
much more naturally in the ordinary course of events for men than
for women (12).
Thus, the events designed by the Women@SCS Advisory Council
generally combine professional and social activities that help foster
community, confidence and growth (13).
There is no dearth of ideas generated by the Council and, indeed,
the level of energy expended is extraordinary. This is mitigated
in part by the fact that a fresh crop of students joins forces
each year. But even more, we have observed the paradoxical, and
yet clichéd, outcome: namely that 'energy produces energy' and
that 'to give is to receive.' Indeed, Council members are the
greatest beneficiaries of their involvement in running the show,
for example, in terms of their increased professional experiences,
contacts and growth, their self-esteem, and their academic and
leadership successes and awards.
The following events and activities provide opportunities for
a combination of professional and social activities among the
community of women in SCS. Some events, as indicated, are for
Council members only, some for undergraduates, some for graduates,
some include women faculty, some are open to both men and women
Events and Activities (Key)
Professional and/or Mentoring Events and Activities:
Conferences and Outreach:
- Freshmen Orientation Session (U):
In a social gathering, Council members talk to freshmen women
about their work and life in the Computer Science Department.
- Big Sisters/Little Sisters (U, G): This
program pairs a more "senior" Big Sister with a Little Sister
and provides an informal, but organized, set-up for support,
mentoring, and friendship. Women@SCS provides guidance for effective
mentoring (see http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~women/resources/mentoring.shtml).
Social events include dinners, movie and popcorn evenings, ice-skating,
holiday parties, and shopping trips. Sisters are encouraged
to email and meet outside of the organized activities. Usually
the pairings works well, occasionally they don't. We have found
that some students prefer this one-on-one set up while others
prefer group-mentoring activities -we feel both formats are
important. (A sample of our initial Sisters' letter/questionnaire
can be found on our mentoring web page.) [f]
- Pre-registration Event and Passing the
Torch (U): The first event, for both women and men undergraduates,
serves as a mid-year opportunity for providing general advice
on the class registration process. The second event is held
at the end of the academic year as senior women prepare to graduate
and others prepare to advance their year. Words of wisdom given
at these events include tips on succeeding, on what works, what
doesn't, and recommendations on classes and professors. We have
found that women's confidence is often lowest during the first
two years. These events serve to remind students that others
have been through similar experiences, have survived/thrived,
and are now positioned to embark on exciting and rewarding endeavors.
- SURG--Small Undergraduate Research Initiative
Information and Social (U) This event provides an opportunity
for students to learn about the rewards of an undergraduate
research experience. The Undergraduate Research Director explains
the application process. Students who have been involved in
research projects share their experiences. Fall SURG 2001 was
sponsored by IBM and included two IBM researchers who were also
Carnegie Mellon alumnae. [s]
- (Dessert) Study Breaks (U): Study
breaks, open to women and men, are held during exam time and
allow students a chance to share test anxieties and give reassurance.
- Invited Speaker Series (G): Speakers
from academia, business, and industry are selected and invited
by graduate sub-Council members to present technical talks,
share their stories and experiences, offer professional advice,
promote their workplaces, offer mentoring opportunities, and
discuss gender and work issues. The Council has favored two
formats: single speaker events and industry panels (of 5-7 women).
Dinner and social time are included. [f]
- Advice on Graduate School and Reading
Graduate School Applications (U, G): In the first event,
graduate students talk candidly to undergraduates about their
decisions to go to graduate school, the application process,
and their future plans. In the second, graduate sub-Council
members read and give feedback to undergraduates, both women
and men, who would like help with their applications to graduate
- Grant Proposals (G): Our graduate
Council members have contributed ideas and feedback for several
grant proposals for women in IT related projects. [y]
- Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in
Computing 2000, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (U, G): Women
@SCS Council members, along with SCS faculty and researchers,
presented a panel discussion on the Carnegie Mellon experience
in increasing the participation of women in computer science.
We hope to present another panel at Grace Hopper 2002 (see upcoming
- Expanding Your Horizons (U, G):
For the past two years, a team of SCS students, led by women
in the Robotics Institute, have run workshops entitled "Is There
A Robot In Your Future?" for middle school girls at the local
Expanding Your Horizons conference. EYH is a nationally held
one-day event aimed at increasing young women's interest in
science and mathematics. [y]
- Girls, Technology, and Education Forum
(U, G): During the Spring 2001, the Women@SCS Advisory
Council presented an afternoon forum focusing on girls and technology
in education and entertainment. The event successfully brought
together more than 160 teachers, academics, students, and members
of the business community for a full afternoon of talks and
brainstorming. Together, the group discussed topics ranging
from girl-friendly classroom strategies, to software game development
and beyond. This was funded, and jointly arranged, by the SCS
External Relations Office. This event proved to be quite a feat
but very worthwhile. We were particularly proud of the contributions
from our Council members. It gave them an opportunity to practice
their public presentation skills, their teamwork, their organizing
abilities, and most importantly, to share their expertise and
- The Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity
in Computing, Houston, Texas (U): A group of five
undergraduate Council members attended the first in a series
of events designed to celebrate the technical contributions
and career interests of diverse people in computing fields.
Members returned newly inspired and with ideas for future activities.
- PBS filming of Women@SCS (U, G):
Bonnie Erbe, producer of "To The Contrary," a PBS news program
on women's issues, came to campus with her crew to film and
interview SCS faculty and Women@SCS Advisory Council members.
Excerpts of the program can be viewed on our web site. The show
provoked a lively debate among our Council members and faculty,
demonstrating that while we may share many common goals, we
also hold a wide range of perspectives on gender/computing issues.
- Graduate/Undergraduate Socials (U, G):
Here graduate and undergraduate students meet informally over
dinner. We have found that many more undergraduates than graduates
tend to participate, but the events are generally well attended-over
70 at the last social. [s]
- Faculty/Student Dinners (U, G): These
dinners provide a chance for students to meet women faculty
in a relaxed, non-judgmental atmosphere, and to increase the
visibility of successful women computer scientists. We have
found that a core group of faculty show up regularly and are
very supportive. [s]
- Graduate Women's Welcome Potluck (G):
Graduate women try to have at least one organized social (Summer
Get-together) over the summer while the Potluck 'officially'
starts off the new academic year. It provides an opportunity
for all women graduate students and faculty to get together,
share home cooked food, and welcome the new women graduate students
and faculty. [y]
- Breakfast and Coffee/Dessert Breaks
(G): These events allow students to start the day and/or
take an organized break from their research and classes. Often
discussions focus on timely topics, for example, on issues of
privacy and security. These events are often open to women faculty.
- The "Carnegie International" Guided
Tour (U, G): Students attended a guided tour of "The
Carnegie International" at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Museum Of
Art. "The International" is North America's premier survey of
contemporary art. [o]
- Ice cream Event (U): The undergraduate
Council sponsored a very popular ice cream dessert for all students
at the annual SCS Undergraduate Picnic. [y]
- End of Year Picnic (U, G): This
event, for all Council members, is well attended and heartwarming
as we are also saying goodbye to some of our graduating members.
Upcoming Events and Activities:
- T-Shirt, Logo Design and T-Shirt Exchange
(U, G): Occasionally undergraduate and graduate student
ideas seem incompatible. A very polarized discussion emerged
as the Council set about designing a Women@SCS T-shirt and a
new logo for the web site. The more mature graduate students
tended to have a feminist consciousness that affected how they
want to be defined/identified. The younger undergraduates tended
to see the T-shirt project as a search for a "pretty" fashion
statement, and also preferred a "feminine" design for the logo.
The T-shirt disagreement was resolved by allowing the undergraduates
their choice, modified by input from female faculty. The end
result in fact proved to be very popular. Women@SCS T-shirts
were given out to SCS students (men and women) in exchange for
a donated, decent item of clothing for the local women's shelter.
Given the initial debate over design, this proved to be surprisingly
successful! The more permanent, public web site image was left
open to further debate. We are, after all, an evolving community.
- Grace Hopper Conference 2002, Vancouver,
Canada (U, G): To complement the GH 2002 theme of ubiquity,
we have submitted a proposal for a panel presentation "FROM
BITS TO BOTS: Women Everywhere Leading the Way".
- Middle School Presentations (U, G):
The Council is working with the local Coordinator of the Girls,
Math, Science Collaborative to plan middle school visits aimed
at increasing the visibility and work of women in computer science.
- Women's Self-Defense Event (U, G):
Undergraduate sub-Council members, together with the SCS Associate
Dean for Academic Affairs Jeannette Wing, will teach some basic
- Unix Help Session (U): This
will be a help session in which undergraduates who are proficient
with Unix help those not so skilled. Many students have expressed
a need to learn from their peers in an informal atmosphere.
This event will be open to both women and men students.
- International Student Event (U):
This event, open to all, will give our international Council
members an opportunity to share aspects of their culture with
the rest of the community.
- Graduate Retreat (G): Members
of the graduate Council plan to hold a winter retreat for relaxation,
inspiration and for planning new community events.
Our goal has been to foster a supportive community that promotes
academic success and professional growth, one that will benefit
women in computer science as well as the community-at-large. We
endeavor to view problems as challenges to be tackled in creative
and constructive ways. With good organization, faculty and administrative
support and commitment, a student organization with a student Advisory
Council at the helm, will provide the talent, energy and innovative
ideas to lead the way!
Throughout this article "computer science" is used as
an umbrella term for the range of computer sciences and related
IT fields such as robotics, human computer interaction, etc.
is Women@SCS Associate Director and Program Coordinator. She brings
to Women@SCS an interdisciplinary and diverse perspective, having
taught Cultural Studies for four years while a graduate student
in Carnegie Mellon's English Department, and having previously been
Head of the Children's Department of the Royal National Orthopeadic
Hospital in England.
*** Blum is
Women@SCS Faculty Advisor. For over 30 years, she has created programs
to increase the participation of girls and women in scientific and
technical fields and co-founded many pro-active organizations such
as the Math/Science Network and its Expanding Your Horizons conferences.
She joined the Carnegie Mellon faculty in the Fall of 1999 as Distinguished
Career Professor of Computer Science.
(1) SCS comprises seven departments: The Center
for Automated Learning and Discovery (CALD); the Computer Science
Department (CSD) which houses the undergraduate program; the Entertainment
Technology Center (ETC); the Human-Computer Interaction Institute
(HCII); the Institute for Software
Research, International (ISRI); the Language Technologies Institute
(LTI); and the Robotics Institute (RI).
(2) Fisher A. and Margolis J. "Women
in Computer Sciences: Closing the Gender Gap in Higher Education."
Margolis and Fisher, Unlocking the Clubhouse, Women in Computing,
The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.
(3) Blum, L. "Women in Computer Science:
The Carnegie Mellon Experience," to appear in The Innovative
University, Daniel P. Resnick and Dana S. Scott, Eds., Carnegie
Mellon University Press, Pittsburgh, 2002. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~lblum/women_in_computer_science.pdf
(4) Blum L. "Transforming the Culture
of Computing at Carnegie Mellon," Computing Research News,
vol. 13, No. 5, November, 2001, p.2.
(5) J. McGrath Cohoon stresses the importance
of institutional support in "Toward Improving Female Retention
in the Computer Science Major," Communications of the ACM,
(6) At Carnegie Mellon, students enter the computer
science major as freshman.
(7) Cuny, J., Asprey, W. "Recruitment
and Retention of Women Graduate Students in Computer Science and
Engineering: Results of a Workshop Organized by the Computing Research
Association," San Francisco, June 21-22, 2000. http://cra.org/Activities/craw/
(8) Fox, M. F. "Organizational Environments
and Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Women in Science and Engineering
Departments," Women's Studies Quarterly, 28 (1 & 2), 47-51,
(9) The web team currently consists of four
(work-study) undergraduates and one graduate representative.
(11) "Women Compute: Carnegie Mellon's recruiting
of females in computer science adds up to change," front page,
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Wednesday, April 18, 2001. http://www.post-gazette.com/regionstate/20010418cmu2.asp
(12) Blum, L. "Women in Algebraic Geometry
Workshop at MSRI," Notices of the American Mathematical Society,
September 1993, pp. 960-962.
(13) As you will see from our activities, food
often proves to be the social glue!
y =Once a year (or will be)
s =Once a semester
m =Monthly w =Weekly
f =Frequently (between m and s)
o =One time event (so far)
to Carol's homepage