The Culture of Computer Science

October 25, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

This month’s AAUW week posts will focus on the culture of college and university science and engineering departments, the subject of chapter six of Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

At the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, Jane Margolis conducted a four-year study of women in the program with Allan Fisher, associate dean for undergraduate computer science education at Carnegie Mellon. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing describes their unusual (and successful) project, which combined ethnographic research with a goal of increasing the number of women in the department. The proportion of incoming female students increased from 7 percent at the beginning of the study to 42 percent at the end.

In the words of Margolis and Fisher, “The rub for women in computer science is that the dominant computer science culture does not venerate balance of 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.”

But the reality is that young women and men often come to computer science in different ways. While many young men in computer science do report having had an immediate and strong engagement with the computer from an early age, many women who are interested in computer science report a more moderate interest, especially early on, that builds gradually. As a result, women can feel like they don’t fit the mold of a computer scientist, and feeling like a misfit can lower confidence. Margolis and Fisher assert that “the decline in women’s confidence must be acknowledged as an institutional problem.”

One recommendation that they make is for science and engineering departments to send an inclusive message about who makes a good (computer) science student. Carnegie Mellon changed the admissions policy that gave preference to applicants with a lot of previous programming experience once the university realized that this was not key to student success. This change sent a more inclusive message about who could be a successful computer science student and helped Carnegie Mellon recruit more women with no change in the quality of the applicant pool.

Has your department implemented any policies expressly to increase the diversity of applicants? Have these strategies been successful?

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Mathanas says:

    Jane Margolis has really done a great task worth recognition. It has and will always inspire those women students who have always aspired to take computer science as their career choice. It’s part of gender equality.

    Thanks for this informative post.

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