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."

Geek Mythology

Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller

Interviewer: So talk to me a little more about the reasons you are thinking that computer science isn't for you?

Student: When I have free time I don't spend it reading machine learning books or robotics books like these other guys here. It's like `Oh, my gosh, this isn't for me.'...In my free time I prefer to read a good fiction book or learn how to do photography or something different, whereas that's their hobby, it's their work, it's their one goal. I'm just not like that at all; I don't dream in code like they do."

-- Female computer science student

"Geek Mythology": A Paradox

Many computer science undergraduates we have interviewed describe computer science students as myopically obsessed with computers to the neglect of all else -- if they are not at the computer they are talking about computers, they have no outside interests, and lack interpersonal skills. This paper explores a paradox we call "geek mythology": while many CS students, both male and female, echo the same stereotype of their peers, more computer science students than the stereotype would suggest feel that "this is not me," asserting that their lives do not revolve around computers. While we have interviewed some self-described "computer geeks" who tell us that computers are the primary passion of their lives, our research reveals successful computer science students, both male and female, with a wider variety of interests and ways of relating to the computer than the stereotype portrays.

This paper explores the nature of the geek myth and its differential impact on male and female students. We have found that the image of a person whose life is centered on the computer and knows everything there is to know about computers is particularly damaging for female students. They are more likely to conclude that they do not belong in computer science because they do not have the same relationship to the computer and do not know as much about computing as their male peers. In contrast, male students who differ from the stereotype do not question whether they belong in computer science, do not question their ability to learn the material, and do not feel a need to change. The result is that women enter the field in smaller numbers than men, and are more likely to leave.

The CS Culture: "At the computer 24/7"

In the article "Pool Halls, Chips, and War Games: Women in the Culture of Computing" (1985), authors Kiesler and Sproull assert that "computing is more than a set of skills. It is embedded in a social system consisting of shared values and norms, a special vocabulary and humor, status and prestige ordering, and differentiation of members from non-members. In short, it is a culture." (p. 453) Our interviews with students, both male and female, are rife with descriptions of a culture and its expectations of who will succeed. The cultural norm of the successful CS student is someone who is who is at the computer twenty-four hours a day/seven days a week ("24/7"), "living, thinking and breathing computer science." Our interviews capture lives focused on computing. In response to our opening interview question, "Can you tell me the story of you and computers?," many students, mostly male, tell how they fell in love with the computer the minute they put their fingers on the keyboard--at a very early age--and the screen responded. The computer is the ultimate toy. From then on their activities, conversations, waking hours are centered around the computer.

Yet plenty of other students, both male and female, actively dissociate themselves from the myopically-focused stereotype. Sixty-nine percent of women and 36 percent of men we interviewed find most of their CS peers to fit the image, but say they themselves are different. They say they strive for a more "balanced" relationship with the computer and computing, and they have a broader array of interests. Male and female students can sound alike in this regard. A male student notes:

I am interested in doing computer science but I don't think it's the be-all and end-all of human existence. I think that's a mentality that some of these people have -- it's a hacker mentality that I don't really identify with, and I am not very much like that. People who, their intellectual interests aren't necessarily very broad.

A female student says:

I don't live to program {laughs}. I know guys who live to program, or at least they seem to. You find them on the weekends doing nothing but programming and I just think, `How can they do that?' I guess I think I'm more balanced. But, um, I don't hate it, I just don't like it as a lifestyle.

While substantial numbers of men and women feel different from the image of the obsessive hacker, we have found more women to be in distress about the perceived lack of fit between themselves and the prevailing notion of who a computer science major is. They come to question whether they have the ability to succeed in CS. Comparing their focus on and knowledge of computers to their male peers, they feel inadequate and deficient. Then they are fearful -- they do not want their participation in computer science to subsume all of their other interests and concerns. Some express fear of having to change, articulating a struggle to maintain their sense of self and not be "co-opted", not wanting to become "like them."

Women: "I don't dream in code they way they do"

In response to our interview question, "What do you think it takes to be a good computer scientist?," a woman student who was considering transferring out of CS replied:

I don't know. I think a lot of people are just born with it. You just gotta be like, "Computers! Yeah! They're awesome! They're my life!" You know, a lot of computer scientists, that's all they do.

When the interviewer asked her, "What advice would you give to a high school senior thinking about majoring in computer science?" she replied:

I think they kind of have to be the people that do programming and other . . . that do other computer science stuff in their free time. They have to be the people that, like, know a lot about it and like really like it in order to spend a lot of time learning about stuff, and having the motivation to just . . . learn about random computer science stuff.

When the interviewer asked her if she was like this, she responded:

For me it's kind of like, "Yeah, it's fun." And in high school it was like, "It's fun. I'm good at it. I'll do it." That's what I thought, at least.

Now this student feels that her interest in CS does not measure up to that of her male peers. Twenty percent (8/39) of the female CS majors interviewed have questioned if they belong in CS because they feel they do not share the same focus and intensity of interest they see in their male peers. For these students, the question is whether they are interested or passionate "enough," a concern we rarely hear from males. A female student reveals:

Sometimes I feel they [male peers] have a motivation that's deeper than I do. It's weird, I have that kind of feeling like, `What? Do I belong in this major if they love programming that much!' and I have friends who will be like, `Well I'm going to teach myself a new language' and they'll go an pull an all-nighter. I don't have that motivation, so `Am I in the right department? Am I in the right thing?'

A female junior student who was very involved in the Internet before coming to CMU and who has always regarded herself as a math-science person, after several semesters now doesn't think that computer science is for her because "it's not my passion like everyone else. They're all, like, really into it." In her particular case her boyfriend is "really into robotics," planning on going to graduate school and becoming a professor, but she sees herself as different. When the interviewer asks her to "talk to me a little more about the reasons you are thinking that computer science isn't for you," she says:

When I have free time I don't spend it reading machine learning books or robotics books like these other guys here. It's like, `Oh my gosh, this isn't for me.' It's like their hobby. They all start reading machine learning books or Robotics books or build a little robot or something and I'm must not like that at all. In my free time I prefer to read a good fiction book or learn how to do photography or something different, where as that's their hobby, it's their work, it's their one goal {laughing}. I'm just not like that at all; I don't dream in codes like they do...

Comparing herself to peers who "dream in code," read computer books on the side, and do computing as their hobby, she feels she is misplaced. Women students frequently share a sense of being an intruder, a guest in a male hosted world (Elkjaer 1989), which is aggravated by a culture in which the dominant image of being good at computing is doing it all the time, loving it above all else.

Computational Reticence

For students, especially women, who relate to computing in a "I am interested in computers, but I am also interested in other things" style, and who have had less prior computing experience, being in a department filled with peers who have more experience and who appear to do and enjoy computing above all else can be discouraging (as in "everyone knows so much more than I do"), and uncomfortable (as in "I am not like them nor do I want to become like them"). The particular tasks required in introductory computer science (learning programming language syntax, debugging programs) require much time, preparation, and organizational skill, and can compound the sense that one must focus on computer science to the neglect of all else. A female student reports: scares me sometimes. Because I see these people, they can sit in front of a computer for hours and hours and they would have, like, no expressions on their face and they would just, like, do whatever. And then it scares me, because I don't want to make computers my life. It's part of my life. I know this is what I'm going to do. I like to study, I like computers, but I can't make it my life like some of the other people do...I only know a few people in CS who seem to enjoy other stuff besides computer science. They seem to have a balance. I admire those people, though.

"Scary," "intimidating," and "seeing no expression on their faces" are phrases women frequently use to describe their perception of CS peers who are extremely focused on computers. One female student didn't like the changes she saw in herself as a result of being in the CS environment:

...Once you start working in computer science, you tend to limit your world to the world of computers, and you sit in front of the machine, and everything that is on the machine is your life. I saw that about myself. Like since I've come here, I feel like everything is with a computer, you know? And a few weeks ago I went and watched a nature movie, you know? I used to read National Geographic regularly, and now I was like, "Oh my gosh! What's happened to me? I've forgotten this part of me altogether! What's happened?"... sometimes I feel like I'm getting segregated from the rest of the world. It's like the CS world...Yeah, I'm really struggling with that (laughs) kind of, because I want to be like a very broad person...I mean, that is a part of me just as much as anything else...But I guess if you want to be specialized, you have to focus, you know? Yeah, I guess that's necessary.

In her article "Computational Reticence," Sherry Turkle interprets women's distance from computers as "not computerphobia, needing to stay away because of fear and panic, but rather computer reticence, wanting to stay away because the computer becomes a personal and cultural symbol of what a woman is not." (p. 41) We also have heard women students who value being "well-rounded" (considering relationships and other outside activities to be important) describe themselves as ill-suited for the study of computer science. The following woman student is not alone when she wonders if she is in the wrong field:

Sometimes I wonder if maybe I'm in the wrong field because of this, too, because I think of myself as a real well-rounded person, you know, because I really like history, I really like cheerleading, and I go out to parties and I dance and things like that and it just seems like a lot of the people in computer science aren't like that. A lot of them are, like, hard- core hackers I guess because that's what they like to do and there's nothing really wrong with that, but that's just not who I am, so I feel like there's like....I'm a minority in that sense because I've only met 5 or 6 other people in computer...I mean I'm sure there's more, but 5-6 other people in CS who are like me in that they like to go out and do other things. I mean, that pretty much relates to the way that I feel, too, because it makes me feel even more minority.

Men's Sense of Confidence and Belonging

It is important to note that it is not only women who don't want to become like "them." A male student we interviewed described his struggle to hold onto his other interests and not get sucked into the computer science vortex. When the interviewer asked him if there was anything he disliked about computer science, he replied:

Maybe what it does to certain people. I don't know. It's . . . whenever I think of computer science I tend to imagine, like, people sitting in front of computers typing away code, and that whole image is set aside in my mind as being depressing.

A male novice, comparing himself to his peers says: " I may not know as much as they do 'cause, you know, they probably had computers all their lives or whatever. " He goes on to explain that he does not want to live the lifestyle they live:

...But I don't see, I don't have as many interests as, the same interests as they do ...I like computers, I love programming, but it's not my entire life. I love playing sports, I am a very competitive person. And, you know, I like to party too. I can't just sit here and work all the time. Otherwise I would go insane. It keeps my stress levels down also. That's pretty much it. I don't spend all day long sitting at my computer. I like to do a little bit of Internet surfing myself and all that and I like to do the same things that they do, play computer games, etc. But I don't make it, I don't try to have it take up too much of my time.

Despite these feelings of difference, we find that male students report less distress, are less affected by the perceived difference between themselves and their peers, and leave the major in smaller proportion; and despite resistance to total absorption in computing, they do not feel like frauds. The 36% of male CS majors who say they feel different from their CS peers, regardless of experience level or obsession level, do not question their ability to become computer scientists if they choose to do so. While male students might be critical of those whom they believe are too narrow in their interests, or too obsessed, they seldom feel the need to conform or change to match this norm. They do not speak of being discouraged by others who are passionately involved with computers and thereby know more. And from the men with less experience, we do not hear anguish over whether they "have what it takes." While they perceive themselves as different from the dominant image, this does not excessively discourage them or immobilize them with self-doubt. They remain in the program. They are also less alienated. When asked about any expectation that students do computing on their own time, he says that there is no outside pressure to do this and " I mean, if you would want to do it, do it; if you don't, don't, basically." He then concludes:

I mean, there's kind of like a lot of people who are . . . that are, like, different than me in that aspect, but there's also people who are like me. So that's fine."

Instead of talking about feeling deficient, lacking or unable, these male students either emphasize their other interests or describe how they have a different type of relationship to the computer than those around them. A student uses the metaphor of a contractor and his hammer: "It's kind of weird. Since doing so much work with [computers], it's become more to me a tool and I can't imagine a contractor getting exciting over a hammer but having a great respect for it." Regardless of feeling different from the majority of his peers, he does not question his rightful place in the major. He describes students who act as if computers are everything and talks about how different he feels. He states:

...most of the computer science people seem to talk all the time about computers, about this and that, and I'd rather talk about other things. I don't really get into it."

Geek Mythology and Expectations for Success

Given the fact that significant numbers of both male and female students feel different from the stereotype of computer science student, why do female students feel more distress over this difference and male students less? Our proposition is that the computer science culture assumes that success is linked to a stereotype based on a common male pattern of desires, interests, and attachments to computing. It also assumes that men conform to the stereotype, and will succeed. Hence it bolsters men's confidence and sense of belonging. This same culture does not assume (often accurately) that women conform; hence they enjoy no default expectation of success, and their interests and attachments to computing may be regarded as deviant from the norm, and less serious than those of the male students. This, combined with a vast array of gender socialization factors, chips away at women's sense of confidence and belonging in the field.

The "Boy Wonder" Icon

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, exploring the reasons for the low numbers of women in computer science, found that "female students are seen as competent and `good' students, but not as very creative or brilliant and likely to come up with exciting innovations." Instead, it was the "values and interests of the hackers with their machine-fascination and fixation, their work hours and their work style, that dominate the subject." (Hapnes & Rasmussen 1991, p. 401) They also found that a larger percentage of students, both male and female, rejected the hacker way of life; yet it was hacker culture that dominated. The domination is created because the teachers and students (mostly males) share certain values with the hackers. Most faculty like the "playing attitude" of the hackers; they like their total absorption in the subject, and project that these will be the best students. Male students may feel different from the hackers, but their own attraction to computing is more aligned with the hackers than with the experiences of the female students, and they feel less alienated from the culture as a whole. Sheila Tobias, in her study of women in science, shows how the ideology of science also casts suspicion on women students who don't fit into the typical male model of attachment and interest in the sciences:

"One of the characteristics of the ideology of science is that science is a calling, something that a scientist wants to do, needs to do above all else and at all costs. Another is that both scientific talent and interest come early in life--the boy wonder syndrome. If you don't ask for a chemistry set and master it by the time you are five, you won't be a good scientist. Since far fewer girls and women display these traits than boys and men, you end up with a culture that discriminates by gender." (Alper, p.411).

A Different Attachment

One of the predominant differences between male and female computer science students is the character of their respective attraction to computing. Our research shows that female students come to CS later such as in a high school programming class, and at a different pace; often their interest in computing is one among several strong interests. Women have been shown to be more interested in the social function, context, and purposes of computing (Honey, Martin) and less interested in "hacking for hacking's sake." This is not to say that the women we have interviewed are not interested in the actual tasks of computing. Almost every woman in our sample identified herself as a "math and science person." Many enjoy programming, problem-solving, and logical thinking skills, and do take pleasure in working at the computer. Yet, despite their "rush in having my program run," it is the context and connections of computing to other arenas that makes their study of computer science meaningful for them. About 44% of our sample of female students contextualize their interest in computers in other arenas such as medicine, space, the arts. Unfortunately, the academic curriculum and the reward system do not always reflect this orientation to computer science. Especially in early courses, instruction often focuses primarily on technical concerns. The arenas of computer science connected to applications and human-centered concerns (such as Human Computer Interaction) seem to some to carry less prestige than the highly technical.

Broadening the Culture and Curriculum: Multiple Ways to Be A Computer Scientist

Dianne Martin, in her article "In Search of Gender Free Paradigms for Computer Science Education," discusses a premise for the gender bias in computer science: the existing educational paradigm that separates studies of science, math, and computer science from studies of the humanities, starting in the secondary schools. She speculates that an integrated approach to computer science would attract more women students, and that "greater attention [should be paid] to values, human issues, and social impact as well as to the mathematical and theoretical foundations of computer science" (p. 1) Faculty must also be mindful of ways that the hacker culture (which promotes the image of a successful computer science student as the young obsessed, myopically focused male) becomes an ideal that is consciously and unconsciously promoted. We believe it will take pedagogical , curricular and cultural expansion and reform.

At Carnegie Mellon, various strategies are being explored to intervene against a vision of computer science as a field full of students interested in nothing but hacking for hacking's sake (or even theory for theory's sake.) The goal is not to devalue the single-minded pursuit of technical virtuosity, but rather to validate additional ways of being a computer scientist.

Initial indications are that these measures are contributing to a broader view of the field and the ways in which individuals engage it, but much remains to be done. In particular, we need to engage more fully the faculty, who define the field locally, in thinking about how to make the culture of the field inclusive of many styles and points of view.

Persistence and Resistance

Until the long-range goal of gender integration and cultural/curricular change in computer science is accomplished, it appears that an important component of women's persistence in the major involves conscious resistance to the dominant culture. We have found that women who persist are ones who have found a way to get the grades they are satisfied with, and are able to reconcile a different relationship to computing. One female student told us how she has refused to conform to the image of the myopically focused "computer geek." And since "she is getting really good grades without changing myself" she is ever more confident that she can remain in the major and be herself:

I: Well looking around and seeing that other students in the program are very focused on computers in a way that you're not, do you feel like you need to . . . is there any feeling of needing to conform to that, or are you pretty comfortable . . .

S: I refuse to. (laughs)

I: (laughs) You refuse to, okay.

S: Like, I was worried that, like . . . what if I don't . . . like, will I need to conform to that? Will I need to read, like, books on computers all of my free time or something to survive here? And I feel like so far I haven't. I'm getting really good grades without that . . . without changing myself. So I feel much more confident now that I don't have to. It's kind of nice, I can, like, define a . . . prove them wrong or something.

To get to this point, quite a few women have reported how important it was for them to eventually find other students in the major who had outside interests and valued being well-rounded. It appears that this knowledge of different ways to be in computer science is important to give women students a sense of place in the major. A particularly clear illustration of these theme occurred in an email exchange between two high school teachers who had participated in a Carnegie Mellon summer program []. The male teacher began the conversation with this message about the low numbers of female students in the computer science classes:

I have any number of boys who really really love computers. Several parents have told me their sons would be on the computer programming all night if they could. I have yet to run into a girl like that. A couple who are Internet nuts but that's social, not programming. Where are the girls that love to program? My girls sit up and take notice when I talk about programming as a good way to make a living, but look at me funny when I talk about it as fun. The boys think money is nice but fun is where it's at. Why is this?

The female teacher responded:

This is a point that many of my students make as well. They have the idea that staying up all night programming is a sign of love for computer science, and not doing so is a sign that one doesn't love it. I disagree. When I took my first programming course in college, I fell in love with it. It was organized, logical and, yes, fun. However, I did not at any time enjoy staying up all night doing it. I did not even spend a majority of my time programming. Also, I did not program on my own, coming up with games, entertainment, etc. I took computer courses. When a program was assigned it was a challenge I enjoyed immensely. I especially enjoyed the practical problems such as the one we worked on in my Software Engineering course.

My point is that staying up all night doing something is a sign of single-mindedness and possibly immaturity as well as love for the subject. The girls may show their love for computers and computer science very differently. If you are looking for this type of obsessive behavior, then you are looking for a typically young, male behavior. While some girls will exhibit it, most won't. But it doesn't mean that they don't love computer science!

The female teacher above has astutely observed how expectations for success in computer science are associated with desires, interests and behavior of male students. Her counter-point is that there are multiple ways of demonstrating interest in a subject, and that valuable contributions to the field can come from people with differing types of attachment to computers.

Today the prevalent image of a successful computer scientist does not lend credibility to those who diverge from the hacker stereotype. Until women no longer feel the need to struggle to fit into a way of being that goes against their grain and appears to compromise who they are or whom they hope to be, fewer women than men will chose to pursue computer science. If the computer science culture can let women know that they can succeed without knowing everything about computing before entering college, and without adopting a stereotyped obsessive persona, it will have taken a step toward creating a more diverse population of computer science students and professionals.


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