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."

Living Among the "Programming Gods": The Nexus of Confidence and Interest for Undergraduate Women in Computer Science

Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller

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 I'm like, "I don't think so!" You know, I'm 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, "It's not true. Just say, ‘My SATs were better than yours,' and they'll shut up, even if that's not true." I mean, that's one thing you get a lot of.
-- undergraduate computer science major


The trajectory of many of the undergraduate women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (Carnegie Mellon) goes something like this: They enter the program excited about majoring in computer science, and confident in their abilities. Many have had successful experiences with high school computer science courses, and all have been high academic achievers. Upon arrival at Carnegie Mellon, and throughout the first semester, many are shocked and discouraged as they discover how much experience and computer knowledge most of their male peers have. Even so, most of the students (male and female), regardless of prior experience, do well in the first semester introductory course. Grades are generally high, and so are spirits. But as they continue into their second and third semesters, a number of female students experience a crisis in confidence, an internal struggle over whether they are suited for computer science, followed by a loss of interest in the field. This becomes a chicken-and-egg problem that affects each female student as she thinks about her experience: is it lack of confidence or lack of interest that is discouraging her? It is very hard to disentangle one from the other, to know how they interact.

We are in our third year of longitudinal research at Carnegie Mellon to understand the reasons for the gender gap in undergraduate computer science. Women have made up 7%-15% of the undergraduate computer science population over the past three years. From our sample of 32 computer science women, 10 women have transferred out. This is slightly higher than the average for all female majors, but overall women leave the program at twice the rate of men--although transfers out for both sexes tend to be balanced by transfers in. Nonetheless, this reflects the national retention problem of women in the sciences--referred to as the "leaky pipeline."

Seymour and Hewitt [1997], in their seven-institution study of the reasons students leave science, math and engineering majors (SME), found that "switching decisions were never the result of a single, overwhelming concern." (p.31). They found that the average number of factors contributing to each switching decision was 4.2, and that the problems students cite in their decision to leave are experienced to some degree by all SME majors, including the persisters. We too have found that detachment factors are multiple and entangled; however, the overwhelming themes of decline in interest and decline in confidence pervade all of these women's reasons for leaving computer science. We also have found that the confidence and interest issues described here are felt to some degree by the majority of female CS majors, persisters and switchers alike.

This paper focuses on the nexus of these two recurring themes. We discuss the difficulty for women students to experience and hold on to "intrinsic interest" in computer science in an environment that can undercut their confidence, motivation and sense of belonging in the field. We assert that confidence issues for women in computer science, which are commonly relegated to the world of the personal, require and deserve an institutional response of attention, intervention, and remediation.

Decline in Confidence

"Everyone knows so much more than me"

On average, undergraduate women who enter Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon have less prior computing experience than their male peers. This experience gap reflects the national picture of female and male early involvement with computing. [Keersten, 1988; Martin, 1992]. While women students' focus on computing has been less single-minded and intense than that of their male peers, they enter with their own enthusiasm and orientation to the field. We have identified women students as more interested in the uses of computing, and in the connections between computing and other fields, rather than focused on the machine itself and hacking for hacking's sake. (See working paper on Computing for a Purpose.) This gender difference in orientation has been found in other studies of computing [Honey 1994, Turkle 1988], as well as studies of the sciences generally [Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Strenta, 1994].

First-year computer science students at Carnegie Mellon are entering a highly competitive program, and admission to the program is a source of pride for many students here. The department ranks in the top three in the country. The computer science program has the most competitive admissions standards of any undergraduate department at Carnegie Mellon, and has become increasingly competitive over the past few years. Throughout the rest of the campus there are numbers of computer-savvy students hoping to transfer into the department, to take one of the highly coveted seats.

Once here, a cultural stereotype quickly gets established of how smart computer science people are, and how much they already know about computers and programming. Immersion into the culture and social climate in the Carnegie Mellon computer science department is especially intense as many students seek to establish their place in the college "I know more about computers than you do" hierarchy. Much of the introductory social talk among peers is part of establishing this informal pecking order. Women frequently begin to feel socially alienated, noting that they are interested in talking about things other than computers. Many women, in their first of a series of interviews, report feeling insecure about how little they know relative to the majority of their peers. Following the patterns found in other research studies [Brainard and Carlin; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997], it is during this first semester that the confidence of many women begins to unravel. A woman being interviewed about her first semester experience told us:

When I came to Carnegie Mellon I had no flighty ideals about being the best one in the class. I knew I'd finally be faced and surrounded by people who had grown up just like me, and I find it's more than true. If anything, its very intimidating because I often think I'm in the lower half of the class, working hard but below many people who still don't have to work at all, and it's frustrating. I'm 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.

This student's report is echoed over and over again by other female students who sense that their classmates (predominantly male) know so much more, do the work so much more easily, with less effort. These comparisons can be the kiss of death. When an interviewer asks a woman student whether her interest in computer science has increased since being at Carnegie Mellon, she first replies by describing a computer graphics lecture as "the most exciting lecture I have ever attended." Since this was the part of computer science she is interested in, she said that the lecture "encouraged me even further to pursue my goal." But then she adds:

I'm actually kind of discouraged now. Like I said before, there's so many other people who know so much more than me, and they're not even in computer science. Like 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 don't know what I think I need to know. And that inhibits my willingness to continue (laughs)...if you can understand that. It shouldn't. It should like make me want to learn even more. But I feel like I'll always be behind, and it's discouraging.

While most of the female students do come into the program with less computing experience than their male peers, prior experience does not appear to be a predictor of either success or persistence. Women with relatively high levels of prior programming experience are as likely to suffer from confidence doubts, and leave computer science, as women with little programming experience. But coming in with less experience is not irrelevant: the way students respond in the face of more experienced peers is important.

Lily was a first-year student who entered Carnegie Mellon University with a great deal of enthusiasm for computer science. Talking about her high school AP computer science course, she said, "As soon as I started taking that course in programming, I realized I loved it...I absolutely loved it." She described her first Carnegie Mellon computer science class as fun, adding, "It's not real work, you're just kind of tinkering around with stuff and seeing what happens." Yet, by the second semester her enthusiasm is extinguished. She says, "In high school, when I'd go home from class, I would be like ‘Oh, let's program a little.' But, now I am just like, ‘Let's not bother.'" Lily, who was full of enthusiasm when she began a year ago, now questions whether she should even be in the program:

I don't really feel like I should be in the department. What am I doing here? So many other people know so much more than me, and this just comes so easy to some people...It's just like there are so many people that are so good at this, without even trying. Why am I here? Do I want to work my butt off for four years, when there are so many people that it comes naturally to? Should I be here for the sake of the field even? You know, someone who doesn't really know what she is doing?

Another female student was psychically more prepared:

The one advantage I think I have over a lot of people coming into this class is that I came in knowing that I knew nothing. You know, I said `Oh, I don't know anything. This is going to be terrible.' So it really wasn't that much of a shock, you know, the first week when nothing was familiar and I was terribly confused all the time. And everyone else around me, you know back in their high school they had been a programming god or something. It was you know a rude awakening. But I came in prepared to be confused, which I was.

Clearly, a wide range of individual psychological and socialization factors contribute to these dynamics. For instance, there is the likelihood that male students are overinflating how much they know, or are overly confident, while women have been shown to underestimate their abilities [Sax, 1995; Lundeberg, Fox & Puncochar, 1994]. Regardless, it is clear that being in an environment where it appears that "everyone knows so much more" takes a particular toll on women students.

Nexus of Loss of Confidence and Interest

It is during the second or third semester when the confidence of many women takes a nose dive. This is when we begin to hear many women students who were initially very enthusiastic about computer science begin to seriously question their interest in the subject. As their confidence drops, so does their interest.

Libby was one such student, who entered very interested in and excited about computer science. In her first interview, she told us she had liked computers since she was very young. She became the person in her family who knew the most about computers, and her family thought of her as the "computer genius." For her, computing was a hobby and she did a lot of learning on her own. She took programming and AP computer science in high school, loved it, thought it was interesting and easy, and thought that "computer science people are cool!"

At Carnegie Mellon she placed out of the introductory course, but found it "scary" how much people already knew:

The problem is the friends that I have in computer science know so much about it--like more than is expected...And so I sort of feel like, "Gee, maybe I should know this already."

She began to have difficulties in her courses, and ended up getting C's in both of her computer science courses. She had criticisms of the teaching: she found the assignments to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. She said she did not care about the assignments (she cited the traditional Eight Queens problem) because she likes things that are practical (See Computing with a Purpose paper). She also feels that she learns best by having things shown to her, not by having to figure things out on her own, and she feels that in many of the computer science classes "assignments are just thrown at you." While taking these two courses, she began to lose interest. Ultimately, she concluded that she likes computers, and can spend lots of time at them, but doesn't believe she is able to master the material the way she would need to. She says she experienced a loss of interest and motivation to acquire the level of knowledge required to major in computer science.

Ultimately, Libby decided to transfer out of Computer Science to the program in Information and Decision Sciences. As we read her series of interviews, we witness an entangled web of factors contributing to her departure: she was critical of the teaching, experienced difficulty with the course work, and suffered a loss of confidence. Peer interaction also played a part in her loss of confidence. She relayed an exchange between herself and a computer science peer: she was admiring a black wine bottle and he said, "It looks like a NEXT box." She said, "What's that?" and he said he couldn't believe she was a computer science major and did not know what a NEXT box is. She says that this is the type of thing that happens when you are a computer science major.

Other students explicitly link decline in interest to confidence. A student in her junior year was describing her difficulty in finding a focus in computer science. When the interviewer asked her for her insights into why this was the case, she linked declining interest to confidence doubts:

There are a few aspects to it. One of them is that I don't...I enjoy computer science, but it's not my life. Especially not like some other people who can sit and just play with their computers a lot. I don't own a computer, I don't play with my computer. There are other things I'd rather be doing. Part of it is a confidence thing. Which may even stem from that...because I sometimes feel like I'm not nearly as good as some many other people. I'm not a whiz. I'm not someone who gets things instantaneously. 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.

Data Structures as a Turning Point

This drop in confidence and interest intensifies for a number of female students when they take what is reputed to be the first "real computer science course" and a "weed out" course (15-211, Data Structures) in the second or third semester. By objective measures, this course is not a weed-out course: the students who drop the course after midterms or receive a D or less in the course comprise less than 10% of its enrollment, and it usually receives good end-of-course evaluations. Nonetheless, in some semesters at least, it seems to have a disproportionate negative impact on the confidence of women students. It is here where some female students with less experience feel vulnerable, thrown over their head into unfamiliar territory. They feel they know little, and experience their male peers as having an easier time with the material. As one woman student said:

It is annoying to pick up a 15-211 assignment (which all my friends say is easy) and spend several hours trying to figure out what to do, then have to constantly get help from a smarter friend because I don't understand it. Then I overhear comments about how easy it was and how this person loved it, and did it in four hours or something, and it seems like I can't do anything on my own.

While the introductory courses are smaller (typically 25 students), and the teaching staff are welcoming, devoted to teaching, and make themselves available to students many hours a day, Data Structures is a very large class with a rotating teaching staff. It is a large lecture/recitation course where computer science majors of all experience levels are students together in a course for the first time. In some semesters, almost all students in our sample complain that this class tries to teach to too broad a range of students. Students who are less experienced often feel that the professors assume students know more than they do. Students from all levels have commented on confusing assignments.

For many women students who leave computer science, Data Structures is a large part of their "downhill turning point." Women students voice more criticisms of the teaching, large class size and assignments, and frequently conclude that if they are having so much trouble in Data Structures, things will only get worse. While the females are feeling like they are drowning, most males in our sample describe Data Structures as "easy," "boring," and "repetitive." Even the novice males do not report being as overwhelmed as the female students. Several women cite the fact that some male students leave the lecture hall shortly after class begins (or do not come at all), and interpret this as one more confirmation that "everyone knows so much more than me."

The good news about this course is that its offerings in different semesters yield very different student reports. Hence it seems likely (and we have some confirmation) that adjustments in class size and teaching style can have a substantial positive impact.

Peer Interaction

"You are only here because you are a woman"

Peer interaction plays a critical role in women students' drop in confidence about their abilities and increased questioning whether they belong in the discipline. In the Fall of 1997, an electronic bulletin board discussion among computer science undergraduates began about why there are so few women in the department. A male student posted the following:

In fact, I haven't 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? I'd be very surprised if we even found one (but I am sure there are one or two around).

The student went on to speculate that the reason for his observation is the "cultural demands that girls be less technically oriented." His comments elicited a flood of discussion about women's experiences in the department. One female student wrote:

Now, I don't know about most other girls, but I've been playing with computers since I was four and coding since I was five or six. Back in high school I was on the programming team and won prizes and stuff and it was neat. Then I got here and just felt so incredibly overwhelmed by the other people in the program (mostly guys, yes) that I began to lose interest in coding because really, whenever I sat down to program there would to tons of people around going `my god, this is so easy, why have you been working on it for two days, when I finished it in five hours' and `Geez, you're such a terrible hacker, you must have only gotten into SCS because you're a girl,' and so on.

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"), 22% of the women we have interviewed mention having heard that they "got in" only because of their gender, and an additional 11% say they themselves wonder if this may be true. When the interviewer asked a student in her second interview how it felt being a woman in the program, she answered:

I have some idea now; last time I didn't, but now I do. It's because we get so much pressure from the male computer science colleagues because they give us such a hard time. It's hard to keep our confidence in because these people just make fun all the time. It's very disheartening. Eventually things like that do sink in. If you are continually told that you're hopeless, eventually you will start believing it. How long can you put up with that?

Another woman told us about a male student who told her something like, "Girls...they just bring you guys here to make our computer science department look better...They don't really expect you to be able to code, but if you need help, you got the goods to get help from any guy you want."

A female student who entered computer science very enthusiastic and with fairly high prior computer experience, ended up transferring into a major in Information Systems. Throughout her interviews she had talked about her frustration and embarrassment in knowing less computer science than some of the non-majors on campus. She told of students comparing SAT scores, to investigate whether women were affirmative action admits. After having transferred out, she recalls her experience in computer science:

I know for a fact that I was different from all the other guys [in computer science] just because--for whatever I got into computer science, I'm sure that if I was a guy I wouldn't have gotten in. I can tell you for a fact that I know I wouldn't have gotten in because I didn't have the qualifications to be in that school. People, I don't know what they did in high school, but they knew their stuff coming in there and I really didn't. I just had an interest in computers, taken a few programming languages, but I never really had the work experience most of these people have, they built these crazy computers with their dad or something -- I don't know! I think that's the major difference.

This student is certain she was only admitted because of her gender, despite the fact that there are males in the program with lower SATs and grades than she, and less computer experience. For her, the issue of whether she should have been here in the first place becomes a part of her story of her departure--that this was never really the right place for her. She believes admission into the program was not an indication that she was thought to be a capable, valuable member of the computer science community, but was based on her gender alone.

Even students who talk about how "special" it feels to be one of a few women in computer science have referred to these comments. When the interviewer asked one student how she experienced being one of a minority of women, she said:

I mean, it makes you feel special that there are so few women and you're one of the very few...But, of course, then the guys rub it know, they come in and say `Just because you're a girl you got accepted'...I guess they're just pulling your leg or something, but it still doesn't feel good, right?...when they come back and say things like that.

When the interviewer asked this student how these statements affected her, she showed the spirit of resistance that pulls some of these women through:

Well, we just say, `Don't say that!' (laughs). But...I mean it does hurt to hear that, but we don't really pay any attention to them...They are not worth paying attention to.

A woman student who feels that being a woman has no effect on her says:

You know, I just hope sometimes that I didn't get into computer science because I am a girl (laughs). But, other than that, it [being a woman] doesn't affect me very much, you know? In fact, I think maybe some people think I am even cooler. They are like, "Hey! She's a girl! She likes computers! That's pretty cool!"

It's impossible for us to determine the exact impact that being in such an environment can have for each individual. In our interviews we are struck by the many ways that women experience and interpret the computer science environment. Some say they are completely comfortable in the program and that the skewed gender ratio is irrelevant to their experiences; others enjoy feeling unique, and take pride in being one of a special few. Some women struggle with these doubts and emerge stronger, their self-confidence resistant to such concerns. For others, however, the fear of confirming or validating the idea that women are not as cut out for computer science as men appears to have a significant impact on achievement and persistence.

"Stereotype Vulnerability"

Claude Steele's research on stereotype vulnerability offers one explanation for the link between these negative stereotypes, drops in confidence and declining interest. In his article "A Threat in the Air," Steele looks at the experiences of African Americans in higher education and women in traditionally male fields, examining what could be depressing their grades and test scores on standardized testing and in advanced math and science courses respectively. He argues that when one is in a situation in which a negative stereotype about one's group applies, one is fearful of confirming the stereotype. This creates "stereotype vulnerability," which can lead to poorer performance and 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, p. 614]. This is one way of understanding students' statements that "CS just doesn't interest me," when preceded by a drop in confidence.

Steele's theory can also help explain how these stereotypes might interfere in students' daily learning. Several female students we've interviewed describe their struggle to ask questions in class, and seek help from teaching assistants and professors:

There are classes where I am really afraid to speak, or to ask a question in class because I am afraid, that it's a stupid question. There's so many guys in the computer science classes that ask the dumbest questions. It's always OK for them. I feel like if I, as a girl, ask the question, they would always think `Oh, the stupid girl,' and I usually end up waiting after class and talking to the TA or the lecturer one-on-one because I don't want to speak up in class. I know that sounds horrible, but I'm really scared and that's bad. I don't know. I shouldn't feel that way because so many guys ask really dumb questions.

A female who wonders why so few people ask questions in computer science classes also reveals self-consciousness of gender. She speculates that "...It is a testosterone thing that you can't ask for help with computers. You can't admit that you don't understand something." This student insists on defying this "testosterone thing" by asking questions, yet relays the hazing she takes along the way. She said that when she asks questions in the presence of a particular male non-computer-science-major, he asks, "What's your major again?" But she remains adamant about asking questions. She reports that another male student said "You're a computer science major and you don't know that?" She describes reading an assignment and feeling she didn't even know where to begin and "not having any urge to ask my peers." She said, "I would go to my TA, but even that wouldn't be the greatest feeling...because it would be like a `Well, what are you doing here?' feeling."

Certainly there are male students who have confidence doubts, although we rarely hear the angst in men's interviews that we hear from the women. Yet 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. None of the male students we interviewed mention pointed barbs or snide remarks directed their way because of their gender. One female student's perception of this gendered learning environment:

They [male students] don't have that kind of pressure. They have the pressure to do well, but they don't have excess pressure from us [females] saying, `You know, you're pathetic, you just got in because you're a guy,' 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.

Intrinsic Interest

Seymour and Hewitt conclude that the "best foundation for survival and success is to have chosen one's major because of an intrinsic interest in the discipline and/or in the career fields to which it is leading" (p. 66). Our research shows that women's interest (or lack of interest) may not be as "intrinsic" as it feels, for interest is continuously shaped--encouraged or extinguished--by external factors and internal responses. 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 students' sense of their own "intrinsic interest" in computer science.

In every field there are "appropriate switchers" [Seymour and Hewitt 1997, p. 392]--students who find their interest elsewhere and realize that their interest in their major of choice is not what they thought it was. A subset of male and female students who have transferred out of computer science do so because they have come to realize that computer science does not match their passions and interest, and that their initial reasons for choosing the major were based on either inadequate information about the field, or a lack of clarity about what is really important to them; as they progress through the program, they clarify their interests and their priorities. It is convenient to hear exit comments from these women students as just that: their interest is not as strong as they thought it was, and they were attracted to another field. But as we interview students each semester over a period of years, we hear lack of interest emerge as a concern after semesters of eroded confidence. In the context of these interviews and related research, we are concerned with the number of women students who enter from high school with high interest and enthusiasm for computing, who undergo a drop in confidence, and then experience waning or extinguished interest.

Interventions: Holding Our Feet to the Fire

Entry to freshman science, mathematics or engineering suddenly makes explicit, and then heightens what is actually a long-standing divergence in the socialization experiences of young men and women. The divergence in self-perceptions, attitudes, life and career goals, customary ways of learning, and of responding to problems that have been built up along gender lines throughout childhood and adolescence, is suddenly brought into focus, and into practical significance. This occurs because young men and women of all ethnicities are entering an educational system which has evolved to support the ongoing socialization process of only one group--namely, white males. [Seymour and Hewitt, p.259]

While issues of women's confidence have been shown to have a significant impact on women's interest in majoring in computer science, these issues are often regarded as beyond the purview of faculty, who are focused on curriculum and research. A continuing goal of our project has been to introduce programmatic interventions based on the conclusions of our research, and to evaluate their impact. Past interventions have focused on two areas: accommodating the gender gap in experience, and trying to paint a fuller picture of the field of computer science beyond programming for its own sake. The former effort, which involved creating multiple courses at the entry level, is going well in that less experienced students are reporting less stress and strain in the first year, and do not seem to perform any differently than more experienced students in later courses. The latter effort includes an `immigration course' focused on helping first-year students see a more complete picture of the field.

In this section, we discuss current and planned interventions in several areas: the delivery of the curriculum, building positive faculty-student relationships, and the intellectual and pedagogical culture of the program. In most cases, while the interventions we pursue are motivated by considerations of gender, they are not gender-specific--they tend to benefit all students, but disproportionately those who have "nontraditional" backgrounds and orientations.

Pedagogical Improvements

Our interviews and other data have motivated us to take a very close look at the pedagogy in Data Structures, taken by most majors in the spring of the first year. The one unmistakable conclusion, based on comments from faculty and both experienced and inexperienced students, is that the course had simply grown too large in terms of the size of the lecture (nearly 300 students) and the spread of student preparation levels. Accordingly, the course has been divided into two sections--one designed for an audience mostly of majors and more experienced students, and one for an audience mostly of non-majors and less experienced students. Along with some changes is staffing, this change seems to have substantially improved the course's outcomes in its initial trial. This approach poses the risk of a "first-class/second-class" divide; we have so far been successful in avoiding this perception for the novices' programming course, and hope for similar results in this case.

Importance of Positive Faculty-Student Relationships

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" (p.267). In their study, 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 don't get to know the professor," faculty are "too impersonal," and "the professor doesn't 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" (p. 267). They also conclude:

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. (p. 271)

From our interviews with female undergraduate computer science students, we concur with this observation. 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.

Claude Steele also emphasizes the importance of positive student/faculty relationships. One of the critical components of "wise schooling", his vision for reducing the vulnerabilities that block educational success for African American students and women students in traditionally male fields, is for students to have optimistic and positive relationships with faculty. 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 1997].

Beyond working to control class sizes and encouraging student-faculty interactions around research, we have begun a more aggressive effort to involve students in teaching. Especially for students with a humanistic bent, involvement in the teaching activities of the department could be a powerful source of relationships with faculty. Much of this happens by accident now, and we believe it could be magnified and enhanced, especially when coupled with explicit education and training [Seymour and Hewitt 1997, p. 395]. Still needed, though, are enhanced opportunities for student-faculty contact in the early years of the program.

Affecting the Culture

In light of our observations regarding the cultural norms of computer science, we have been making some modest efforts to broaden perceptions of the field. Among faculty, this has taken the form of discussing the results of our research and that of others, and introducing diversity considerations into discussions of curriculum and programming. Among students, in addition to stressing to entering students that prior experience is not a critical issue, we have begun to talk about the fact that achievement in computer science is more multi-dimensional than the standard "boy hacker" icon.

A partly intellectual, partly cultural, agenda that we plan to pursue is to raise awareness of the issues that affect women students' self-assessment and confidence. 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 et al. [1994] 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" (p. 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. We intend 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]. We need to find ways to reduce the occurrence and remove the sting of comments such as, "You are only here because you are a girl." Students must be educated about admissions policies which show that this is not so, and also understand that the school considers taunting such as this to be unfriendly and hostile to students' learning environment.


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