mamamusings: unlocking the clubhouse

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Monday, 4 August 2003

are women really less interested in computers?

In Chapter 5 of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher take on the idea that women simply don’t find computing as interesting as men do.

Back in January, I quoted a New York Times article on women and computing. In it, a female math teacher draws a parallel between this common assertion and the conventional wisdom surrounding women and math back when I was a kid:

”When I started in 1972,” she said, ”there were three girls in calculus out of a senior class of about 50. Now there are three sections of Advanced Placement calculus, in a class about the same size — in other words, about 75 percent of the senior class. This would not have happened if we had bought into the reigning mantra of the time, which was, ‘Boys are naturally interested in mathematics; let them do it. Girls are more talented in literature and history; why ask them to change?’

Margolis and Fisher echo my story about my high school math experience, saying:

Many once-enthusiastic female students find themselves in a descending spiral of eroding interest through the corrosive effects of lack of confidence, negative comparisons to peers, poor pedagogy, and biased environments.

Research has already shown that prior experience in programming is not a good predictor of success in a college CS program. However, the feeling that many women have of “being behind” because they don’t seem to know as much as their male colleagues, is in and of itself a major factor in their erosion of confidence. Women’s loss of self-confidence in scientific and technical fields has been documented by researchers in a number of academic disciplines. And because women’s confidence in their technical abilities may already be weak, they are far more at risk in classrooms with poor pedagogical practice.

Some things really jump out at me here in terms of small things that we as faculty can do differently to change the climate for the women in our classes. At the very least, those of us teaching in intro classes should tell the students that prior experience is not necessarily a predictor of success in class. They need to hear that from us to believe it. (And it’s certainly true in my classes—quite often the students who come in believing they know everything about making web sites are writing embarassingly bad code and implementing pages with no sense of basic design concepts. Those who come in tabula rasa are in much better shape by the end of the quarter, because they have no bad habits to unlearn.)

Margolis & Fisher note the importance of relationship-building between faculty and students. This is always a challenge in our department, where intro classes have 35 or more students, and the 11-week quarter system leaves faculty with barely enough time to learn their students’ names, let along develop lasting relationships with them that make them feel valued. Nonetheless, it’s the building of those relationships that makes teaching a rewarding profession, and it’s something we all need to do on some level to stay sane.

Our freshman seminar classes are one place where students can form a bond with faculty members. Unfortunately, many sections of freshman seminar in our department are taught by professional staff. While these are student support staff members, who do a fabulous job in the class and who are wonderful resources for the students, it is still a lost opportunity for freshman to develop a mentoring relationship with a faculty member.

The clear message in this chapter is that the burden is on the institution to find a way to bolster and reinforce the confidence—and through that, the interest and commitment—of female students. Later in the book they detail specifics on how those kinds of changes can be implemented.

(This is one in a series of entries from mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the “unlocking the clubhouse” category page.)

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Friday, 1 August 2003

does IT share CS mythology?

In the fourth chapter of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher spend a good bit of time describing the CMU environment, and discussing the mythology surrounding the computer geek persona. They discuss popular culture portrayals of technogeeks, as well as internal institutional imagery.

One of the reasons Tona and I felt it made sense to do our study is that at RIT, the distinction between IT and CS (as well as SE) creates a different type of environment. At least from the faculty point of view, IT and its students vary significantly from the standard geek persona. The “persistent image of the the computer science student” that the book describes is something that IT has tried to distance itself from.

Our biggest question, really, is whether IT has done that successfully. Do the students perceive IT as qualitatively different from CS? Or do the same images persist in their understanding of the field? This is important. At CMU, they found that:

while the stereotype of the computer science student as someone who is myopically focused on computing is rejected by many male and female students, women report more distress and are more affected by the perceived diference between themselves and their peers. […]
The rub for women in computer science is that the dominant computer science culture does not venerate balance or multiple interests. Instead, the singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is assumed to be the road to success in computing. This model shapes the assumptions of who will succeed and who “belongs” in the discipline.

It’s also worth thinking about this from the end of the chapter:

It is important to note that it is not only women who resist a myopic focus on computers. Some men resist a narrow orientation but do not question their ability to become computer scientists because their gender has not rendered them suspect. The social history and culture of computing, based on the activities and culture of boys and men who have made computing the central focus of their lives, contribute to boys’ sense of belonging and girls’ sense of “outsidership” in computer science. The model of a successful computer science student is viewed through a male prism. This perspective bolsters men’s confidence and sense of belonging. The same culture expects little success from women. Women’s interest in and attachment to computing are considered outside the norm, and their abilities are never taken for granted. This places women students, especially those who resist becoming myopically focused, at high risk in the discipline.

Given all this, and the fact that there are very few women in our entering class, I’m thinking about expanding the first year of the study to include the handful of women entering CS at RIT this year. It would be interesting to see how much the “geek mythology” perceptions differ (if at all) between students in the two disciplines, and how they perceive each other.

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href=”<$MTBlogURL$>”>mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the “unlocking the clubhouse” category page.)

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Thursday, 31 July 2003

emotion vs rationality

In discussions of gender differences, it’s not unusual to hear people ascribing emotional responses to women, and rational responses to men. But what Margolis and Fisher found about men’s and women’s reasons for studying CS were very different. They discuss this at length in chapter 3.

We have found that women decide to major in computer science based on a broad set of criteria. The simple enjoyment of computing is a leading factor for women, but other factors also weigh heavily in their decisions. They value the versatility of computing, its relation to their interests in math and science, its career path to safe and secure employment, the exciting and changing nature of the field, and the encouragement they received from parents and teachers. For many male students, in contrast, the decision to major in computer science barely reaches the level of conscious consideration; it is a natural extension of their lifelong passion for computing.

Of course, the dot-com downturn has had an impact on the “safe and secure employment,” and at least one person I’ve spoken with has told me that they think that’s a major reason for women not entering computing fields now. But when you look at the numbers from the CMU study, that factor ranks fourth.

In the CMU study, forty-four percent of the women—but only nine percent of the men—linked their interest in computing to other arenas. Margolis and Fisher call this “computing with a purpose,” and again, that’s what we’ve tried to do in IT as opposed to CS. Are we failing in conveying that to the students we’d like to attract? Or is our implementation not in line with our stated goals?

Margolis and Fisher end the chapter by suggesting that computing can—and should—be taught in interdisciplinary contexts.

[This] establishes multiple standards of excellence, which together can yield a stronger community of computing professionals than any one by itself. The perspective that computer science can make itself stronger by incorporating the values typical of women in the field changes the question from “How can women change to fit into computer science?” to “How can computer science change to attract more women?”

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href=”<$MTBlogURL$>”>mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the “unlocking the clubhouse” category page.)

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why should we care?

When I’ve written in the past about women and technology, or spoken with people about the small number of women in computing programs and professions, the response is often “so what?” So what if women aren’t in the programs—if they’re not interested, they’re not interested. As one person wrote sarcastically in my comments, “Clearly […] we must start forcing more women to become engineers! (Beware the use of a single statistic as an indicator of a complex system. Be-more-ware the tendency to take action based on such a statistic.)”

Margolis and Fisher must have faced similar questions, because they devote a large section of the introduction to this topic. They go beyond the obvious potential benefits to the women of the wider range of job options available to someone conversant with a range of information technologies. Here’s the passage I found compelling:

In the long run, the greatest impact may be on the health of computing as a discipline and its impact on society. The near absence of women’s voices at the drawing board has pervasive effects. Workplace systems are build around male cultural models, and entertainment software fulfills primarily male desires.

They provide several examples to illustrate this problem—voice recognition systems that were calibrated to men’s voices so that women literally went unheard. Automotive airbags designed for male bodies, which resulted in avoidable deaths of women and children. Artificial heart valves sized to the male heart. They continue:

Along with technology’s power come responsibilities to determine what computing is used for and how it is used. These concerns may not be on the mind of adolescent boys who get turned on to computing at an early age and go on to become the world’s computer wizards. But these concerns must be part of a computer scientist’s line of work. The conversation among computer scientists shold not be isolated to all-boy clubhouses; women’s voices and perspectives should be part of this conversation. For this to happen, women must know more than how to use technology; they must know how to design and create it.

Theoretically, IT is more focused on these aspects of computing than traditional CS, which is one reason we’d expected that our program would be more attractive women. Thus far, it seems we were wrong. What remains to be seen is whether it’s a function of the program itself, or a problem with the pipeline leading to it. I suspect both, but that’s the point of our research. (New and far more detailed web site underway for that…stay tuned.)

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href=”<$MTBlogURL$>”>mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the “unlocking the clubhouse” category page.)

book blogging

Loren Webster blogged his reading of Catch-22 this month, providing excerpts and commentary as he worked his way through the book. I really enjoyed that—being able to see a book through someone else’s eyes, read his thoughts and analysis along with Heller’s original text.

So today, as I started re-reading Unlocking the Clubhouse, I decided to try to blog the book as I work my way through it.

I’m doing this for several reasons. First, because it will help me read the book more actively, and integrate it with my own thoughts through the process of writing about it. Second, because I’ll have easy, searchable access to my notes once I’m done. And third, because I think it’s worth sharing parts of this book with those who haven’t read it. It’s not unlike real-time conference blogging, really. Except that anyone who wants a copy of the book can get one.

I’m of two minds on comments. I’m doing this primarily for myself, and to share some information—I’m not particularly interested in getting into arguments on every point. On the other hand, hearing alternative perspectives could be interesting. So I’m going to start with comments open on these posts…but I may change my mind and close them if they turn into flamewars. I’ll aggregate the posts under an “Unlocking the Clubhouse” category, linked at the bottom of each post.)

Written by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, the book chronicles Carnegie-Mellon University’s efforts to (a) understand and (b) address the issue of underrpresentation of women in their CS department. When they began their study, women made up 7% of their entering freshman class. (Sounds depressingly familiar.) Five years later, the percentage had risen to 42%. During that same five year period, it should be noted, the overall national percentage of women in CS programs had dropped steadily.

Here’s a key passage from the introduction:

The study of computer science can be seen as a microcosm of how a realm of power can be claimed by one group of people, relegating others to outsiders. While not ruling out the possibilities of gender differences in cognitive preferences, we challenge the assumption that computer science is “just boring for girls and women” by showing the weighty influences that steal women’s interest in computer science away from them. Our book tells the story of women students who were once enthusiastic about studying computer science and what happens to them in school.s. We describe what teacher sand parents need to do to engage and protect girls’ interests and change computer science into a field that is engaging and interesting for a much larger and more diverse group of students. The goal is not to fit women into computer science as it is currently taught and conceived. Rather, a cultural and curricular revolution is required to change computer science so that the valuable contributions and perspectives of women are respected within the discipline.
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna