Working Papers

This page outlines a set of working papers that articulate and define phenomena as we interpret them, and provide examples from our data that we view as evidence. While these papers present our thinking on a topic, they are not yet ready for journal publication. Below is an outline of the topics addressed in our working papers, along with links to those completed.

Computing For a Purpose: Gender and Attachment to Computer Science

This working paper focuses on the dissimilarities between female and male students' initial attraction, engagement and experience with computers.When we interview males and females about their history, attachments and concerns about computing, we hear more females contextualize their interest in computer science within a larger purpose: what computing can do in the world, linking computer science to other arenas, rather than focusing on the workings of the computer alone. More of the males, on the other hand, express their interest primarily in terms of enjoyment of the computer itself and learning all there is to know about computing, focusing peripheral attention and concern for specific context. We should note that in each group there are men and women who are more similar than different -- there are individual women who love computers and are fascinated by them, and there are males who are more interested in utility or the broadness of the field. But as a group, males' and females' interest in computing is articulated and shaped differently. This paper explores this gender difference and its implications for attracting, engaging, and retaining women in CS.

We refer to this orientation as "computing for a purpose", and it is one of the most significant differences we see in incoming male and female majors. About 44% (14/32) of our sample of female students situate their interest in computer science within a larger framework, tying computing to other arenas that give meaning to their computer science work, while only 9% of the male students describe their orientation towards computer science in this way. In this paper we examine the nature of these two different attachments and discuss the necessary innovations for computer science education (curriculum, pedagogy, and culture) if greater numbers of potentially interested women are to be attracted to and engaged with the field.

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The Paradox of "Geek Mythology" and the Culture of Computing

Many computer science undergraduates whom we have interviewed describe computer science students as people who are 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 they lack interpersonal skills. Our 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.

A series of questions evolve from this investigation: Do the non-hacker male students feel the need to innoculate themselves against the hacker culture? And if so, how do they do it? Do they have alternative success norms and social bonds that protect them? Could "non-hacker" women students ally with non-hacker men for support? Could these alliances begin to provide an alternative culture for the discipline? In what ways can the institution (as embodied in the authority of the faculty, the curriculum, the pedagogy) create alternative cultural norms?

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

The trajectory of many of the undergraduate women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) 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 CMU, 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. They evaluate themselves in comparison to the hackers, often concluding "I don't dream in code the way they do." They are confronted with questions like "You are a computer science major and you don't know that?" and "You are only in the department because you are a girl." 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 which impacts 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. But the higher transfer out rate for women students is evidence of the problem.

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 undercuts 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.

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Failure Is Not an Option: International Women in Computer Science

When we began our qualitative research study to better understand the reasons for the low numbers of women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), we were not attuned to specific differences between the experiences of U.S.-educated women and the experiences of those women raised and educated in countries other than the U.S. But as we interviewed CS women majors about their decisions to major in computer science, their experiences at CMU and their hopes for the future, we quickly became aware that the international women had a distinctive story to tell, a story that calls into question common assumptions about who is best suited for computer science, and that suggests important sources of persistence. The international women enter the program with the least computer experience of any population in the program, and in some cases, no experience at all. Most surprisingly, some even enter the computer science program with little or no specific interest in computers or computer science. Once here, many go through a very difficult period of adjustment, facing tremendous self-doubt and feelings of isolation and inadequacy; and yet most succeed in the program, often going on to employment in the computing field or to graduate school in computer science. Furthermore, their persistence often leads to an intellectual pleasure in computer science that they did not have when they began. In a field dominated by images of obsessive hackers, their successes challenge the U.S. male norm of who can do computer science. In this article, based on interviews with seventeen female international computer science majors attending CMU, we discuss how a set of motivations, and beliefs that link success to effort, rather than ability, are critically important for these students' persistence.

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Persistence and Resistance

This paper focuses on the stories of the women students who have persisted as a small minority in the computer science major over the four years. We examine what their stories reveal about their sources of support, and how they sustain interest in the subject and confidence in themselves.

Is Programming A Gendered Activity?

While there is contention over how much programming a student needs to know to be a computer scientist, which language they should learn, and what place programming should have in the curriculum, it is clear that programming is one of the building blocks of computer science. This paper explores gender differences in experiences and attitudes towards programming.

Holding Our Feet to the Fire: Innovative Interventions

This paper discusses the institutional, curricular, and pedagogical changes resulting from our findings. We describe the changes that have been implemented in the Carnegie Mellon program, as well as programs we have initiated for high school computer science teachers. Our thinking about institutional and programmatic change is always in the context of the social-pyschological aspects of gender socialization and computing in the home, schools, and in society in general. In this paper we discuss our interdisciplinary collaboration and how the research project assisted with institutional change.