For the past year, we have been studying the experiences
of undergraduate women studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon
University, with a specific eye toward understanding the influences
and processes whereby they attach themselves to or detach themselves
from the field. This report, midway through the two-year project,
recaps the goals and methods of the study, reports on our progress
and preliminary conclusions, and sketches our plans for the final
year and the future beyond this particular project.
The goal of our project has been to understand women's
attachment and detachment from computer science, and to find ways
for CMU to intervene at the undergraduate level in favor of gender
equity in computer science. Women are underrepresented in computer
science at CMU and in other higher education institutions across
the nation: for example, they receive 18% of the bachelor's degrees
in CS at the top 12 research departments . Since computers
and information technology play an increasingly pervasive role
in education and careers, this underrepresentation is critical,
not only for the women whose potential may go unrealized, but
also for a society increasing dependent on the technology.
Clearly part of the low representation of women in CS at the undergraduate level is inherited from the secondary school level, where girls do not participate in computer science courses and related activities as much as boys . There is a gap between male and female enrollment in high school computer science courses that increases as students progress from introductory to more advanced CS courses . Females have been only about 12% of AP computer science AB exam takers over the past five years (College Board, private communication). As we learn more about the different ways that students attach to and detach from computer science, we will apply the lessons learned to the design of pedagogical, administrative, and social methods aimed at both attracting and retaining women students.
This paper reports our findings in the initial phase
of our research. This part of the research is based on gathering
students' accounts of their histories and thoughts about computer
science. We have been studying students' perceptions of attachment
and detachment from the discipline. In order to conceive of the
most effective interventions, we are working to understand the
relative importance of the factors that have the greatest bearing
on the low numbers of women in the field.
2. Ethnographic Methodology
We have been using ethnographic methods [4,5], with
interviews being the primary source of our data. We regard the
students as expert witnesses in their own world, and try to ask
the questions that will enable them to best elucidate their thoughts
about computer science. It is then up to us to note significant
themes and patterns. We are not testing hypotheses, but rather
are generating testable hypotheses about students' attachment
The participants of our study are:
Analyzing the Data
Every interview is tape recorded. The interviews
are transcribed and the transcripts are entered into HyperResearch,
a commercial computer program developed to assist in qualitative
data analysis. After coding the interviews for events and themes,
the coder writes what we call a "narrative summary."
This is our attempt to keep the participants story as whole as
possible, to avoid "context stripping." We have worked
very hard negotiating the tension between presenting our data
as full portraits and the almost necessary "fracturing"
of the data into discrete elements so that we can detect patterns
across groups and categories (see [4, p. 63]).
We are aware of the risk of compromised data analysis
and we are continually asking ourselves how can we get the most
accurate and detailed picture of the situation.
We have three main defenses against drawing biased
or unwarranted conclusions. First, we are refining the coding
scheme to a fine level of detail, which tends to decrease the
subjectivity of the classification of elements of students' accounts.
Second, the cross-disciplinary makeup of our research team helps
to expose implicit preconceptions. Finally, we will be holding
regular focus groups this year to continually return to the participants,
and other groups of CS students, to double-check what we are hearing
3. Initial Findings
In this section we briefly discuss our "working
hypotheses" from the first year of interviews.
Gender Gap in Previous Experience
During the interviews with first-year CS students, many of the women speak of feeling less prepared than the other students in the department. To obtain more insight into this issue, we distributed a survey questionnaire to all first-year CS students regarding their experience and knowledge of computers prior to attending CMU. Our study confirms a significant gap between male and female prior experience, noted in other studies as well [2,3]. It is notable that 40% of the male respondents from the CMU first-year class passed the AP exam, thereby placing out of the CMU introductory level computing class. None of the first-year women placed out. Also, we found a correlation between females students' sense of feeling less prepared and their actual experience with computers prior to CMU.
Gap Between Perceived and Actual Ability
Despite this difference in how students evaluate
themselves, there is a gap between women's perceived ability and
their actual performance. Despite their modest estimates of their
own standing in the class, three out of the seven first-year students
made the Dean's List (which turned out to be about the top third
of the class) in the first semester, and six of the seven women
made a B or A average for the first year.
Hacking Not a Prerequisite for Success
Many of the female students have entered the department
with very little computer experience, yet they do well. Their
stories counter the suggestion that prior computing experience
is necessary to do well in undergraduate computer science. Their
stories of success raise some challenges to widely-held beliefs
of who does computer science. Their success is not without costs,
though -- they often go through a very difficult period of adjustment,
facing tremendous self-doubt and feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
Nonetheless, it is clear that one need not have been a high school
hacker to major in CS. Our findings have become an important talking
point for prospective students, and may have contributed to the
improved recruitment of women students for the coming year.
Confidence Gap Narrows
Based on the gender gap in previous computing experience,
it is not surprising to find a difference in the confidence levels
of male and female first-year students. Female first year students
report themselves as being significantly lower in computing experience,
preparedness for their computer science courses, and ability to
master the course material than the males. In contrast, in response
to a first semester survey, the males' stated confidence is quite
high. For example, 53% of the men rated themselves as highly prepared
for their classes, whereas none of the women rated themselves
as highly prepared. 50% of the men reported themselves as having
an expert level of at least one programming language prior to
CMU, whereas none of the women reported themselves as having an
expert level of knowledge of a language. We have heard in the
interviews how this gender gap in confidence affects the women
students' experiences in the program. In our first-year interviews
female students commonly refer to how much more other students
(males) know, and question whether they belong.
What we were surprised to hear from the upperclass
women was that confidence seems to rise, rather than fall, as
women progress through their junior and senior years. This is
contrary to the findings of studies from other disciplines. Junior
and senior women talked to us about a leveling process, which
occurs as the course material gets more difficult for everyone
by the junior year, and as women's hard work and discipline has
paid off. We asked first-year students and upperclass students
to rate their feeling of preparedness for their CS classes compared
to classmates, and their ability to master the course material,
for their first semester and their current semester. For both
groups, those students who felt least prepared at the beginning
experienced the greatest increase in feelings of preparedness
over time. Women rate themselves lowest in initial feelings of
preparedness, and show the most increase (1.1 rise in preparedness
for first-year women on a scale of 1-5, versus a .3 rise for men.)
If we continue to hear this, as we interview more
students, this finding could be very important for increasing
women's confidence about themselves in this field.
Attachment Begins at Home
Research on women in the sciences has highlighted
the importance of family influence on students' exposure to and
interest in majoring in the sciences . Our interviews certainly
confirm this. Most of the students, male and female, were first
introduced to computing by a parent who either works on computers
themselves or brings one home for the child. School is almost
incidental, except in a few cases. Male students, with only
a few exceptions, reported owning their own computer, or having
the family computer in their room, by an early age. Only one
of the seven first-year women reported having her own computer
prior to CMU.
While females are also influenced by a parent at
home, we hear a difference between the females and males that
we believe to be important and deserving of further inquiry.
Females' stories are filled with descriptions of watching
their dad work at the computer, or having their older brother
show them how he programs the machine. From there, their
interest is sparked, and some do become active in computing activities
in high school, but their participation is much more qualified
than the males'. There seems to be less tinkering, less unguided
exploration and less obsession. Indeed, even the female who
was president of her high school computer club, says in reference
to computing, "I never really got totally into it."
Males: Computers as the Ultimate Toy
Several males describe epiphany moments from their
earliest (before 10) computing experiences, sometimes receiving
the sense that this is what they wanted to do for the rest of
their lives. They become consumed early on and their computer
activities become a consistent part of their identity. One student
answers the question "Can you tell me how you got interested
in computers?" this way:
Well, I think it was sometime in middle school,
sixth grade about then, my dad borrowed a computer from a friend,
it was an old black and white Macintosh, just totally self contained
one unit thing, and I remember just playing with that all the
time and trying to figure stuff on it. And that got me really
hooked ... I was really getting into figuring things out on
computers and I just knew that that was going to be something
Other male students respond likewise:
I started playing around with computers before I can remember...I think I supposedly knew how to type on a machine before I could write....
I liked to play games a lot when I was growing
up on them. They just seemed to be really integral to how I like
to express my creativity....
But I like just what a computer can do. I don't know why it interests me so much...They say kids like to take things apart and see what makes them go and I do that a lot....
My mother brought me a computer back in Alabama
when I was four years old and I guess ever since it has been me
playing video games, thinking "WOW, how did they do that"?
The male narratives are filled with descriptions
of the computer itself as an alluring object. The computer
is the ultimate toy and they get "hooked."
Females: Computing with a Purpose
The female stories have a very different sound: When
the first-year females talk about their personal history with
computers, their narratives are not filled with long and detailed
accounts of all the different activities they have done at the
computer. They do not describe years of unguided exploration.
They contextualize their interest in computer science, instead,
within a larger purpose: what they can do in the world.
One female student who talks about her "lust" for technology,
continues to explain that she is "not interested in the
nitty-gritty of computers", but sees herself as "exploiting"
the department --- getting all the computer knowledge she can,
to then be able to apply it to puppetry and art. The women we
are interviewing describe computers as a tool to use within
a broader context of education, medicine, communication,
art and music.
What I would really like to do is teach...would
like to minor in education and how computers affect education
and what is the most efficient way to use them in education.
I really wanted to get people together...how can
this change the world as we see it today. You can get people
together. You can provide information.
I think with all this newest technology there
is so much we can do with it to connect it with the science field,
and that's kind of what I want to do(study diseases). Like use
all this technology and use it to solve the problems of science
we have, the mysteries."
You tend to think of computer scientists as people
that sit in front of computers all day...doing netscaping, that
sort of thing. I can't stand doing that. I have to be actually
making something, something productive, or I get depressed.
This is not to say that women totally lack interest
in the computing process itself. Female students describe computing
as enjoyable, interesting and "hard but fun." Two of
the women who had previous work experience in computing lab environments
describe the experience as "awesome." But, most of
the women talk more about the uses of computing. We have also
heard older males, as they progress in the program, articulate
more interest in the larger context of computing.
Computer Science: An Acquired Taste
Rather than epiphany moments as described by the males, females stories seem to reflect a process over time, in which their interest in computers evolves. Due to the variety of obstacles girls/women find in their computing path, it may take women more time to be drawn to computers (Sheila Tobias, personal communication). Developing an interest over time was expressed by one of the first year female students:
My dad's always been into computers... We always
had a computer in the house. It's always been like, we always
like tinker around with them, play games, stuff like that. I
never really got totally, like totally into it. I never started
programming. But, I don't know, I just kind of found that I really
enjoyed working with computers over time... So now I am here and
I get it more than I would have. And I'm pretty good at like
fooling around with something and just kind of getting it to work,
I guess you can say.
Similarly, an international woman senior student, who had no
computing experience at all prior to coming to CMU, described
her experience with computing as "an acquired taste."
As she progressed in the program she became more comfortable
in the department and with the course work and actually developed
a new-found interest in the field. This certainly speaks against
the notion that women are cognitively ill-equipped to do CS.
Rather, it bolsters the notion of cultural artifacts that stand
in between women and computing.
Decision to Major in CS: Love and Pragmatism
Reasons for becoming interested in computer science and selecting it as a major differ among the men, American women, and international women in our sample. We asked the students both why they became involved in computing, and why they chose CS as a major; the most salient reasons cited are plotted below as percentage citing a reason for majoring vs. percentage citing it as a reason for attachment.
As Figure 1 shows, all of the men interviewed cited an intrinsic interest in computers and computing as a reason for becoming involved in the field. While they cited a number of other factors (notably games, classes and the influence of peers) for their initial attachment, interest alone was the primary driver of their decisions to major in CS.
American women, while also citing intrinsic interest as a motivator, rank class experiences and their sense of the promise of the field and its future high among reasons for majoring. It is interesting to note that while they reported encouragement from family and teachers as reasons for attachment, these do not rank high in terms of reasons for majoring. Also notable is that few cite games or peer interactions as reasons for attachment.
Perhaps the most interesting finding in our interviews concerns the international women. Among this group, pragmatic factors (employability, the image of CS as a pragmatic choice among math, science and engineering-related fields) dominate both attachment and choice of major. While all of the US students cited interest as a reason for attachment, fewer than 60% of the international students did so. This stands in sharp contrast to Seymour's findings that interest above any other factor is critically important in retaining women in the sciences . Whether this contrast is due to cultural differences and/or to the circumstances under which international women find themselves studying in the US bears closer study.
Figure 3: Majoring vs. Attachment (International Women)
Perceptions of the Field
A large fraction of the CS experience in the first
year is programming. Upper class students comment on how they
realized in their Junior and Senior years that Computer Science
is more than programming, and they often express relief at that.
First- year students who have had the benefit of hearing from
upper class students, and who have regular contact with faculty
first-year advisors, also seem to know that programming is not
the be-all and end-all. But, outside of the School of CS, we hear
students' beliefs that computer science is programming.
Students from the Information Science major, who
share much interest in computers and computing, state their disinterest
in Computer Science largely based on the emphasis on programming
in the CS curriculum. Women students whom we interviewed in the
non-major introductory programming course (from a variety of fields)
describe their fear, dislike, intense anxiety, disinterest in
programming when they began the class. Most of these students
express an awakening in the course to the fact that programming
can actually be interesting and satisfying to understand. But
most are not motivated to continue to a deeper level, and they
associate the CS major with programming.
Geek Mythology: Lore about Being in CS
Interviews with all students are filled with local lore and impressions about CS and about the CMU department in particular. The beliefs we hear over and over again are that:
The stereotype is clearly the myopic, narrowly focused,
young male who sits at his computer all day. This is how one
of the female CS students describes this type of student and how
they affect her:
I ask them, "How can you sit in front of
a computer for eight straight hours and then when you go home
you start to play on computer games again?" And then they
say, "oh, because it's fun." I say, "don't you
spend time with your friends?", and they say, "no, I
just like sitting in my room and just play these games."
So I just felt really different because, I don't know, I don't
know... if you want to major in computer science, what you
are supposed to do? Like just play on the computer all day?
I don't, so I felt different.
It is important to note that most of the CS students
(both male and female) we interviewed feel they do not match the
stereotype: their interests are varied (including sports, theater,
poetry) and not isolated to computer science. The gap between
reality and stereotype of the qualities needed to be a successful
CS major and who CS majors are is important to analyze, because
the stereotypes work against gender equity. If we can dispel
the perceptions of most CS students being immature males who burrow
into their computers for all forms of satisfaction, there is hope
From our interviews we hear a tension between some
women who believe gender to be a non-issue, and other women who
feel disrespected in the department because of their gender.
The former group feel experienced at handling male environments,
feel at ease, and believe attention to gender is unnecessary.
The latter group of women describe concerns and/or unhappiness
about the male environment and/or the way they are treated. For
instance, one first-year woman describes unwanted romantic attention
when she is trying to complete her assignments in the computer
lab; another describes her alienation from the culture of CS,
which she attributes to testosterone run amok.
It is not unusual for a woman student, within one
semester, to report differing impressions: that most of her male
peers are willing to help, and that male students make her feel
so stupid when she asks them a question. Several of the women
talk about the male students knowing so much more than they do.
We asked every student for their views on why there
are so few women in computer science. As we understand their
comments at this point, we have found some of the male interviews
to be particularly provocative. Many of them have concluded,
from their school and family experience, that women just aren't
interested in the subject the way males are. Most of the males
describe school classes with only a very few women, and families
where mothers are "unable to plug in the machine" etc.
One male student added that he doesn't think he has had a computer
conversation with a girl in his life. We wonder how this socializing
history may influence male students' attitudes towards women students
and faculty in the program.
Faculty and Teaching
While one upperclass student who had transferred
out of the department reported negative experiences with an unsupportive
and unhelpful professor, most of the female students either have
felt supported by the faculty, or have not voiced any complaints.
It is not clear to us whether the disparity between this finding
and the commonplace occurrence of behavior discouraging to female
students in other studies is due to a favorable environment at
CMU, failure of the students to notice those behaviors, or the
peculiar effects of especially low ratios of women in classes.
We will need to carry out more classroom observations and focus
group discussions to clarify this point.
4. Conclusions and Next Steps
As we work forward from these observations toward a program of interventions, the three sets of issues we will be working to elucidate are those surrounding individual and cultural conceptions of computer science, those involving pedagogy, and those involving institutional culture. In all cases, we will be working to sort the essential features of computer science from the accidental (and perhaps harmful), and to understand how perceptions and misperceptions are formed and influence students' decisions. We will be asking how we can improve both the reality of the computer science program and its culture, and the accuracy with which they are perceived by computer science students, other students and prospective students.
A key question that pervades students' accounts of
their relationships with computing is their understanding of the
nature of the field, in both its intellectual and social aspects.
Considering that a wide range of conceptions of computer science
exists among faculty, what about the nature of the field gets
translated to existing and potential female and male students?
Among the issues that seem to deter women from pursuing computer
science is the conception that it is narrowly focused on programming
and other technical issues, and that people who enter CS are forced
(or choose) to be narrowly focused themselves. Even students
within CS carry this stereotype of others, while denying it applies
to them. In our ongoing study, we will work to elucidate these
issues, and to develop ways of communicating the "big picture"
earlier and more accurately to first-year and prospective students.
Part of this effort will be to sharpen our picture
of the CS education process and ways in which it could be improved.
If women prefer to learn about the computer in a purposeful context
(i.e. "programming for a purpose, not just to program"),
does the curriculum respond? Are assignments more in line with
what seems to be young male desires, such as focusing predominantly
on the machine? Although the department has made improvements,
it is arguably still true that the early curriculum (here and
nationwide) fails to paint a complete picture of the field's possibilities
[3,6]. We are also aware of the possibilities of different pedagogical
approaches to programming . One question we are analyzing
is whether females and males differ in their cognitive preferences
Another issue we plan to address is the prevailing
conception of gender in CS among the student body. The only significant
"chilly climate" issue raised in our interviews concerns
the attitudes of fellow students. This is a delicate issue, posing
substantial risk of backlash against clumsy consciousness-raising
efforts. In seeking effective means of shifting the prevailing
culture, we will be asking students about the roots of their assumptions
about women and computer science, and about experiences that have
changed or might change them.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Alfred
P. Sloan Foundation.