Cover Story: Smashing the stereotypes

Computer science's future depends on attracting people who aren't white male gamers--and making women and other under-represented groups feel less alone

It's a Monday night at the Raj Reddy Conference Room in the Hillman Center. Groups of squirming middle-school girls are sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the middle of each group there's an old desktop computer, donated by the School of Computer Science's IT team. Each computer is about to give its life for science.

This is one of the weekly Creative Technology nights, or "Tech Nights," for girls presented by CMU's Women@SCS program. Natalie Hildebrandt, a senior computer science major and undergraduate student organizer, puts a slide on the screen listing cookie ingredients. "I have a pop quiz for you," she says. "One of these ingredients is the wrong amount. Do you know which one?" Hands shoot up. One girl says too many chocolate chips. Another says "too much butter." Finally, one gets the right answer--too much salt.

"Right!" Hildebrandt says. "A half-cup of salt is way too much! And what would those cookies taste like?" Really nasty, the girls say.

"You just did something called 'Reverse Engineering,'" Hildebrandt says. "You took apart something and figured out how to make it better by changing the ingredients.

"Tonight," she adds, "you are going to reverse-engineer a computer." After Hildebrandt reviews safety rules, the girls are tearing apart their computers--first with prying fingers, then screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers.

"We tend not to let girls do things like this, or we tell them 'be careful, don't hurt yourself,' and then we complain because they won't take risks," says Carol Frieze, director of Women@SCS, watching cautiously from a corner. "As you can tell, this is not like a regular classroom, and it's not meant to be."

Each girl is expected to find the hard drive, CD drive, memory chips, processor, fan and power supply. They aren't being dainty and delicate. One girl is jumping up and down on a stubborn subassembly to loosen it. Soon, boards, parts and cables are stacked in neat piles on the floor. By the end of the night, the girls are listing features they liked about their computers, and things they didn't like. ("Our computer needs more USB things," one girl says, "and our power supply was on top of the motherboard and it was insanely hard to get open.")

Drawing more women--and men--into CS

"TechNights," held Mondays on the Pittsburgh campus, let these young women experience the "nuts and bolts" (literally, in this case) of computer science. It's a part of an ongoing, multi-faceted effort by Women@SCS to boost the stagnant percentages of women seeking careers in computer science and information technology, and to diversify the pool of men entering the field beyond white and Asian male gamers and hackers.

In fact, an increasing number of male students now volunteer to help Women@SCS outreach programs, including "roadshows," where CMU computer science students visit Pittsburgh-area middle- and high-school students and talk to them about computing and robotics. "And many of the men involved are minorities," Frieze says. "They 'get it'--they understand what it's like to not be represented in a field."

Several Women@SCS volunteers also are involved in an organization called ScottyLabs that's helping spread "maker" culture among CMU undergrads, and its related effort called TartanHacks, which is designed to broaden the appeal of "hackathons."

There are abstract reasons--moral, ethical, cultural--for wanting to encourage women and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM," fields. But there are practical reasons as well. According to 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, people in STEM fields earn about 21 percent more per hour than people in non-STEM jobs. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in comparable non-STEM jobs, the same data indicate. In February, the National Center for Women & Information Technology announced that 20 universities and 14 companies had signed onto "Pacesetters," a two-year program that encourages senior executives to recruit women for technical careers from previously unused talent pools, and develop strategies to retain women who are at risk of leaving computing and IT careers. CMU has been a member of NCWIT's Academic Alliance since 2004 and is a partner in Pacesetters.

Having a more diverse pool of people working in the field will pay off in innovations, argues Lenore Blum, CMU distinguished career professor of computer science and founding director of Women@SCS. She currently serves as the group's faculty advisor. "When you increase the variety of the people involved, they start paying attention to more different kinds of things," Blum says, "and there's a bigger potential for some big disruptive technology breakthroughs."

Networking, leadership, outreach

Women@SCS is not a club, department or office. It's an advisory council and a collection of student-led working groups (with assistance from faculty and staff) that focus on sharing information about women in computer science both on campus and in the wider community; promoting opportunities for women to contribute research and ideas; and connecting female students to mentors. The program has its roots in the late 1990s, when the School of Computer Science, under then-Dean Raj Reddy, made a concerted effort to encourage female high school students to apply and create a support structure to keep those students enrolled. It was launched with money provided by CMU President Jared Cohon and received continued funding from SCS deans Raj Reddy, Jim Morris and Randy Bryant, Blum says.

In fact, she says CMU may be unique in that its computer science outreach to under-represented groups has a dedicated, continual funding stream. "In other places, with other programs, they're funded by grants--and when the grants go away, the programs go away," Blum says.

At the same time Women@SCS was created, CMU also received a National Science Foundation grant to fund outreach to high school computer science teachers. In a single year, the percentage of women entering the SCS undergraduate program shot from single digits to near 40 percent. In 2002, then-SCS associate dean Allan Fisher and Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at UCLA, published "Unlocking the Clubhouse," a much-discussed book about the barriers faced by women pursuing CS degrees and ways to overcome them. (Much of their research was influenced by work being done at CMU, though Blum, Frieze and others say "Clubhouse" does not necessarily reflect current or past SCS practice.)

But the short-lived increase in women applicants couldn't be sustained; along with the end of the NSF outreach grant came the early 2000s dot-com bust, and the numbers declined. Today, the percentage of female computer science undergrads at CMU is about 25 percent. Yet Carnegie Mellon is still doing better than peer institutions, many of which have percentages near 10 or 15 percent.

'Paint it pink'

Throughout the U.S. and Europe, women remain a distinct minority in computer science programs, and faculty such as Blum say some universities took the wrong lessons from the work done by Fisher and Margolis: They watered down curricula in attempts to get women to enroll in computer science programs. Blum calls it the "paint it pink" mentality--trying to attract women by emphasizing the uses of computer applications rather than the fundamentals of programming, systems and operation. "If you want to know how to create computer programs rather than just use them, that's not good," she says.

Blum has been working to increase the numbers of women in science and technology careers since she was a faculty member at California's Mills College in the early 1970s, where she helped launch the first computer science department at an all-women's college, and served as co-director of Mills' "Expanding Your Horizons" math and science conferences for high school girls. "In some ways, progress hasn't been as fast as I would have hoped," Blum says.

The reasons for the lack of progress are complicated and have social and political overtones. The American feminist movement of the 1970s was followed by a backlash in the 1980s from people who considered it a threat to traditional nuclear families. Dwindling budgets for social programs meant that funding for some early efforts to encourage women to pursue science and technology (such as federal resources made available through the Women's Educational Equity Act) faded away.

High-school CS classes fading, too

For that matter, few American high school students--male or female--are getting any formal education in computer science these days. As the 2010 study "Running on Empty" (The Link, Spring 2011) pointed out, public school systems facing budgetary pressures have focused on improving math and reading scores to the exclusion of programs that aren't subject to mandatory standardized testing. Computer science is treated as an elective, and along with art, music, social studies and foreign languages, it's among programs being de-emphasized. Elizabeth Davis, a junior CS major, says her high school in southern Maryland listed computing classes under "business technology"--as if computer science were a vocational course, like typing. She knew of only one girl that took the class. "I also remember expressing my desire to pursue something in the computing industry as a career path," Davis says. One teacher "looked at me like I was insane," she says, adding that she got the feeling that computer programming was viewed as "menial" work.

"When I was in sixth grade, I was good at math, but I didn't know that math was useful," jokes Amy Quispe, a CMU senior majoring in computer science. The Queens native was fortunate enough to attend New York City's Stuyvesant High School, which offers accelerated programs in math, science and technology. "It wasn't until then that I found out there was such a thing as computer science," Quispe says. "A lot of kids don't realize that it's even an option."

Consequently, most middle- and high-school-age students are unlikely to learn much about computer science unless they explore it outside the classroom, where many of the people held up as tech pioneers or heroes--Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft's Bill Gates, Apple's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak--are white males. The lack of visible computer science role models for women and people of color is a serious problem, Jocelyn Goldfein, director of engineering for Facebook, told The Huffington Post. "I've come to basically believe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy," Goldfein told the website. "The reason there aren't more women in computer science is that there aren't very many women in computer science. You look into a computer science classroom and see mostly men and think, 'Oh, this classroom is not for me. I'm going to go find a class that has more people that look more like me.'"

It's true that all "STEM" fields have more men than women. According to "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap in Innovation," a 2011 report by the U.S. Commerce Department, although women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs. But the problem in computer science is particularly acute and going in the wrong direction. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of women in STEM fields such as engineering and physical and life sciences went up slightly, while in computer science, math and information technology, the number of jobs held by women fell 3 percent.

And the problem in computer science is also odd because it's among the youngest of the scientific disciplines, and because there wasn't always such a big gender gap. Women such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are among computing's earliest pioneers. All of the programmers of the original ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania were women.

Blum notes that those women made in-roads during World War II; following the war, there was a concerted effort to force women out so that male veterans could return to those jobs. Nathan Ensmenger, a professor of informatics at Indiana University who has researched historical reasons for the gender imbalance, says a variety of other factors also combined to discourage women from careers in computer science.

The roots of disparity

Many early computer programmers were recruited into "data processing" departments from secretarial pools, which were overwhelmingly comprised of women, Ensmenger says. As computers became more important, programming jobs grew in status and salary, attracting more interest from men. In attempts to professionalize the field, businesses began recruiting people who had four-year college degrees in science and engineering; in the 1960s, that favored men. And some male managers simply didn't want to trust their increasingly crucial computer operations to women, so they didn't hire them. "There is in computer science a kind of sexism and misogyny that's not deeply hidden under the surface," says Ensmenger, who has expanded his research into a book about the phenomenon called "The Computer Boys Take Over" (MIT Press).

There were other factors as well. In the '60s and '70s, programmers often were only allowed access to computers after the day's data processing was done--in the late evening and early morning. But because some colleges and corporations didn't allow women on the premises overnight by themselves (supposedly for "safety" reasons), the programmers were mainly young, single men. Working in isolated computer rooms away from other professionals, programmers cultivated images as rebels--unshaven, unshowered, uncouth, anti-social--spending time alone in dimly lit labs, fueled by junk food, and rejecting anyone unwilling to live under those conditions as not dedicated to the craft. By the 1980s, the stereotype would be known as the "computer nerd" or "hacker."

The stereotype continued long after it had any basis in reality, Ensmenger says. "Take other professions that we recognize as taking a lot of time commitment--medical students, for instance, work long hours and pride themselves on hard work, but they don't think being scruffy or nerdy is one of the required attributes for proving that you're smart or competent," he says.

Persevering in a 'very male culture'

That image of the stereotypical computer nerd, reinforced by movies and T.V., has attracted like-minded people while simultaneously discouraging women and many men from computer science careers. Gabriela Marcu, now a Ph.D. student in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, has first-hand experience with the stereotypes from high school and college. With encouragement from her mother (an engineer), Marcu took AP computer science in high school, "but almost nobody else took the class," she says. "At first, I thought they were a bunch of nerds, and I didn't want anything to do with it."

Later, when she got to college, she can remember the "atmosphere of male competitiveness." "Some of these guys had been programming since they were five," Marcu says. "Every class, every assignment, they had to prove everything they knew." Her early interactions with her mostly male classmates filled her with apprehension. "As a new student, that made an impact," she says. "I felt like, 'No matter how smart I am or how hard I work, I'll never catch up, they have so much more knowledge.'"

With encouragement from faculty, Marcu persevered. "I found out that computer science isn't just about programming, and those people who are super-duper technically and want to impress you with their technical skills generally have very limited knowledge in a certain area, and don't have great social skills," she says. Still, it took time for Marcu to shake the feeling that she was an outsider in the world of computer science. "It was a very male culture," she says. "It's not that I doubted my ability, but I felt like maybe it wasn't the place for me."

That feeling of being an "outsider" can become, as Goldfein put it, a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Numbers make a difference--people need to be able to see themselves in the field," Frieze says. The ratio of male to female computer science faculty also has a "subtle, not deliberate" effect, she argues. "Some women can go through an entire CS undergraduate program without ever having a female faculty member" as an instructor, Frieze says.

Providing a visible support network

Raising the visibility of female and non-white computer scientists is an important goal of Women@SCS. At social and research events, students are encouraged to meet and collaborate with female faculty and alumni. Faculty and alumni also participate in OurCS, an annual three-day workshop sponsored by Women@SCS that allows female undergraduates to work together on problems in computer science, explore research opportunities, and talk about graduate school. This year's workshop will be held Oct. 18-20. Mary Ann Davidson, chief security officer for Oracle Corp., will be the keynote speaker, along with Manuela Veloso, CMU's Herbert Simon Professor of Computer Science.

In other networking efforts, Women@SCS matches incoming undergraduate women with mentors in a "Little Sister/Big Sister" program; sponsors regularly scheduled social hours (some, for both men and women, are billed as "no faculty allowed," so that students discuss issues frankly); and provides financial support for students who want to attend conferences such as the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

"It's nice to have female friends who share many of my interests and are in the same classes as me, or have taken the same classes before," says Madeleine Clute, a CS junior from Concord, Mass., who chairs Women@SCS's outreach committee and also volunteers at Tech Nights. Clute, who came to CMU as a cognitive science major, wishes she had been exposed to a program like Tech Nights when she was in high school. "I was always under the impression that computers ran off of magic," Clute says. "Once I figured out that I could do this, too, I said, 'Hey, it's not magic, it's logic.'"

Providing a network of people who share common experiences is important to professional development in ways difficult to quantify. As Blum points out, being in the majority in a group offers professional advantages not available to those in the minority. When she was deputy director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at Berkeley, Blum remembers how on Monday mornings, her male colleagues would be excited about new findings, theories and gossip that female co-workers didn't know about. It wasn't that they were consciously excluding women; it's just that when they socialized together on the weekends, they shared information.

"If you're the only woman out of eight students, how do you find out about things?" Blum says. "If you're the only woman out of eight students in your class, who do you call up for help on a problem? The advantage of being in the majority is that you're part of a network, you have connections."

Some students say they've become inured to the gender imbalance and adapted. "It bothers me on a conceptual level, but it doesn't really bother me on a day to day basis," Clute says. "I had a lot of male friends growing up and I've never had a problem jumping in and making people pay attention to me." More importantly, she feels SCS provides a nurturing environment that allows her to assert herself.

She adds: "It might be at this point I'm just completely used to be surrounded by guys. When I go home I look around and say, 'Why are there so many women here?'"

Blum: No special treatment

There has occasionally been a backlash against SCS's efforts to address the gender gap. When SCS first began its outreach efforts, Reddy asked admissions counselors to broaden the criteria for accepting undergraduates. In addition to high academic performance, he asked them to look for students with leadership potential. Because students who had developed coding skills on their own tended to be male, prospective students were told that no prior programming experience was necessary. "People were calling and complaining, 'All of these women are taking the place of my son,'" Blum says.

That's why it was important, she says, for SCS not to water down its curriculum to appeal to supposed gender differences. Some researchers, for instance, have suggested that women are more interested in applications and interface designs, while men are more interested in coding and hardware. Blum says her own research, as well as 40 years' experience as an educator, disproves those theories.

"There are not intrinsic gender differences," she says. "There are internal differences within genders. There is a spectrum, where some men like coding, and others like applications, and some women like coding, and others like applications." Trying to target perceived gender differences is "counter-productive," Blum says.

Frieze, who has collaborated with Blum on research into gender imbalances in computing, surveys CMU undergraduates on a variety of topics, and says the differences between men and women are statistically insignificant. "We're up against this argument that 'Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.' I'm not in that camp at all," she says. Many perceived gender differences are the result of cultural and environmental conditioning, she maintains. "The good news is that if you're up against culture, culture can be changed. Sometimes it's very slow, but it can be changed."

Changing the culture

For volunteers in Women@SCS, one way to change the culture is by reaching out to younger children at elementary, middle and high schools in the Pittsburgh area through roadshows and TechNights. Blum calls it "proselytizing" for computer science. "Our students do a lot of outreach," she says. "So many of them say, 'I never realized computer science was so great, and I don't want these high school kids not thinking of it.' They feel a duty to go back and share it, because they don't want anyone else to miss out."

Getting kids excited about computer science means "showing off the magic," says Kenny Joseph, a Ph.D. student in the Institute for Software Research who volunteers through Women@SCS to work with students in grades 6 through 8 at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a public school not far from the CMU campus. That includes demonstrating computer science and robotics with experiential, hands-on methods, such as the Alice software developed at CMU.

One bit of "magic" that never fails to thrill middle schoolers was created by Blase Ur, a Ph.D. student in computer science, who put specially engineered Ardunio micro-controllers into a variety of household appliances that allow them to be operated remotely from the children's PCs using BYOB, a custom implementation of Scratch--a programming tool developed at MIT for use by kids. "I've never seen kids so excited as when they turn on a toaster oven from across the room and melt cheese," Joseph says, with a grin. "When I see the kids smiling and engaged, I know they're enjoying themselves."

With kids who aren't yet in high school, it's a little early to discuss the merits of computer science as a career, he says. But it's not too early to demonstrate the benefits of solving problems using computational thinking, or to show kids that they have the power to invent and control technology, rather than just being passive consumers. "Part of it is just trying to push these kids who would otherwise not be exposed to this kind of thinking," Joseph says.

Yet even among pre-teen kids, it's hard to smash the perception that computer science is something for white folks. Joseph, who's researching social networks, has noticed among his middle schoolers less of a gender divide than a racial divide. "You can kind of see kids sometimes looking at an activity like they want to try it, but aren't sure they should," he says. "It sometimes comes down to, 'Are my friends doing that activity? No? Then I can't do it.'"

Joseph's observation is important, says Ensmenger, the IU professor. "There's a restricted range of masculinity for young African-American men," he says. "To be seen as a computer 'geek' is seen as behaving 'white.'" The cultural pressure closes off entire career paths to young men of color, Ensmenger says. "There's no job today that's not mediated by computers in some way, and therefore it's really important to change that," he says.

Joseph hopes the outreach helps chip away at stereotypes. "It boils down to the fact that there are lots of kids who would be really good at this, but if they don't have the perception that they should try it, they're never going to find out they enjoy it," he says.

Peer pressure a factor

If it hadn't been for a similar outreach program, Margaret Schervish wouldn't know that she enjoyed computer science. Schervish was encouraged by her father, Mark, a CMU statistics professor, to participate in Andrew's Leap, an SCS summer enrichment program for high school students. "I thought it was going to be nerd camp," Schervish says. But she thrived and made friends with one of the other girls in that summer's group. "She's now at CMU, too," says Schervish, a senior majoring in computer science and math.

Schervish, who was attending Pittsburgh's all-girls Ellis School, remembers experiencing some culture shock when she entered a co-educational setting. "Some of it was just high school boys being high school boys," she says: Loud, boisterous, pulling pranks and discussing video games. "To tell you the truth, it turned me off, but a group of women acting like that would have turned me off, too."

Later, when Schervish took a discrete math course at CMU as a pre-college student, "there were all of these guys in the class answering questions, and I just remember being shocked because I didn't remember that guys could be good at math, too."

Many of Schervish's high school classmates who pursued careers in science have gone into biology or chemistry, she says. The Ellis School offered computer science classes, she says, but "maybe four kids signed up every year. It was seen as kind of strange to take (computer science), like, 'Why are you interested in that?'"

Schervish's story illustrates another reason that computer science can be a difficult place for women--female students feel pulled in different directions. On one side, they're pressured to conform to cultural stereotypes of femininity. On the other, they're pressured to conform to the perceived "nerd" culture and act less feminine.

For instance, Davis has heard women criticize other women for pursuing research in so-called soft areas of computer science, such as interface design. Men don't face that same criticism, she says. Davis compares it to an XKCD comic strip by cartoonist (and roboticist) Randall Munroe. In the first panel, two male stick figures are working on an equation. "Wow, you suck at math," one of the stick figures says when his partner makes a mistake. In the second panel, a male stick figure and a female stick figure on working on the same problem. "Wow, girls suck at math," the male figure says when the female figure makes the exact same mistake. Munroe's point? Things that escape notice when men do them are assumed to be "typical" female behavior when a woman does them.

"The only people I've felt discrimination from has been other females," Davis says. "I wonder how many women in technology feel the same way."

The pressure not to be "too feminine" extends to appearance. Female CS students have heard sarcastic remarks when they've dressed "girly" in skirts or dresses instead of wearing jeans, sweats and T-shirts like most male students. "Sometimes, someone just wants to cut you down," Quispe says. But the criticisms sting, she says. "It's almost easier to disregard people who are doing something malicious because they're trying to get to you, than to work with someone who you like, and try to tell them that something they intrinsically believe is messed up."

In computer science culture, women who wear makeup or seem "pretty" can be perceived as being less serious about their work--including among other women. "Even when women feel comfortable being feminine, the extra attention they get for looking different than the norm is still a reminder of that feeling they don't belong," Marcu says. "It's nice when people compliment me on my appearance, but it makes me feel like an alien sometimes. It's like you put on a decent set of heels and a skirt and everyone's like, 'Holy cow.'"

Building on the positives

As important as it may be to identify and root out gender or racial disparities, students say it's also important not to spend too much time looking for negatives. Marcu attended one conference for women in computer science in which participants told horror stories about sexual harassment, pay inequities and mistreatment. "It was just lots of negativity," Marcu says. "It felt like they were trying to scare women out of going into computer science."

Women@SCS "is not a support group for people to complain about sexism in computer science," Quispe says, "but it is definitely an outlet for me to feel better about being a woman in computer science."

Word about Women@SCS has spread, says Frieze, who has shared material developed at CMU with universities throughout the United States and around the world. "CMU has a reputation for paying attention to gender balance, but one of the things I have to always convince them of is that we don't do anything special for women," she says. That philosophy drew Marcu into the group in the first place. "I believe so strongly in what Carol is doing," says Marcu, who served as coordinator of SCS's Graduate Women's Mentoring Program and currently speaks at Women@SCS roadshows. "Networking benefits women, not so that we can get together and talk about 'women's issues,' but because seeing people who look like you is very important." Hearing prominent female computer scientists talk about their experiences is important as well, she says: "It helps me envision someday being in their place."

For Schervish, Women@SCS is not just her link to female faculty and students--it's her link to her college and to the university. "There are so many people in SCS that I don't know, but I feel so connected to it because of Women@SCS," she says. "It's made me feel like I'm not an outsider."

Marcu says that through the activities promoted by Women@SCS, the group practices the inclusiveness it preaches. "Men are involved in Women@SCS--highly involved--in things we do," she says. "I'm not interested in having 'more women' in computer science, I'm interested in diversifying it overall."

What's the payoff?

Does diversity in both gender and race lead to smarter technologies and computing products? It's hard to say, although there's anecdotal evidence that the myopia caused by lack of diversity can lead to product flops. Some of the e-commerce shopping sites that went bust during the early 2000s dot-com boom were designed from the perspective of male engineers, Ensmenger says. "They were focused on creating the least difficult means possible of acquiring something, and that's not what shopping is for most people. It can be fun, it can be social. People wanted more out of (e-commerce) than just what a male engineer might want."

For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu