Wednesday, March 24, 2010


So, I have been conducting interviews of students who started as CS majors, but later transferred out to another major at CMU. I have interviewed 4 students so far, all women, from varying backgrounds. One person switched first semester junior year, another, second semester freshman year. Some had 3 CS courses in high school, some had none. Some felt they fit in socially, others did not. One of these women attended a very unusual boarding school for high school, others had more traditional high school educations. But 3 out of the 4 women that I've interviewed so far had poor math skills, or didn't like math, or weren't the best at math in high school or the math courses they took at CMU. These 3 women are also the ones who didn't perform well in CS courses, which was a contributing factor to their decision to leave the CS major. I look forward to interviewing more people and finding out if this trend continues for both men and women.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Pink Blue Project

I stumbled across JeongMee Yoon's thesis work "The Pink & Blue Project" and I've been obsessed with these photos ever since and I've also thought about them in terms of our research.

Much of our research is predicated on the hypothesis that the behaviors and characteristics that people explain as masculine and feminine are not essential or biological but rather cultural. Many people describe pink as a girls color and blue as a boys color, and JeongMee Yoon's work shows just to what extreme that the blue/pink dynamic is being taken. Literally, every inch of his subject's space is a reassertion of their gender identity as the boys' ceiling to the airplanes on their floors are blue. On the other side the girls are dwarfed in a sea of pink, sitting alone in their pink dresses with even more pink accessories in the background.

It also helps that you can see the children in some of the pictures and some of them aren't really old enough to have such strong preferences for a certain color considering they don't look like they've mastered walking yet, meaning that the preference is less theirs and more the one people force on them. I still remember the episode of The Office where a woman brings her little boy in with a pink hat and gets upset when people assume she's a girl. While these photographs are surprising for the sheer volume of gender colored items in them, it's still not as surprising as encountering a child with the "wrong colors."

Yoon leaves you with a little explanation of his thesis work that describes his fascination with the blue/pink binary. While for some reason I feel like I've heard this before, I was shocked by the part where he tells you that the dressing of girls in pink and boys in blue is less than 100 years old: "Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to 'use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.'" Only since World War 2 have the colors been seen this way. It's a wonder if in another 50 years we'll switch again?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rising computer science enrollment?

I saw this pop up today on my Facebook news feed. There are multiple different points that deserve a whole post to themselves that the article brings up and not only the content but the tone the author utilizes is intriguing for the purposes of our study. The biggest question of the article is where to begin?

From the beginning of the article, it extols a very positive tone. "The top U.S. computer science programs, which are seeing rising enrollment and applications as more college students discover that their job prospects are better — and their starting salaries higher — if they have a computer-related degree" That's great news but I'm a little skeptical. For instance, what is the bright line on "top U.S. computer science schools?" Is it top 5, 10, 25? The school cites lots of different schools, including Carnegie Mellon, but it's unclear how computer science overall is changing. It did receive an uptick since 2009 but it's unclear if this is going to continue.

The article does continue into some good spots, especially documenting the versatility of computer science degrees. Unfortunately, they don't really expand beyond the financial sector "credit card companies, insurance companies — are very much interested in computer science students, as are defense companies and software development and networking companies." It's a positive that they explain how you can move fluidly into the financial sector but when citing the many different industries, stopping at finance seems a little short.

They do go a little beyond and explain how science students in biology find a need for computer science in their studies and explore the growing field of Computational Biology but it still seems like computer science for anything but computer science's sake seems to be still firmly in the realm of academia. It also seems that the guys at Princeton see a different world for financial sector by placing cs students in all different industries.

After touting computer science as the recession proof field, an interesting angle considering the drop in computer science students since 2000 is most often associated with the dot com bubble burst, they close with some quotes from Carnegie Mellon. Our applications are up again this year and as cited, we're approaching our peak from 2000, however what makes the conclusion of the article curious for me is when she points out CMU caps enrollment at 130. This is the understanding of college enrollment that I understand, students apply and the colleges accept up to a certain number. However, the article seems to argue that this uptick may be on the way to dangerously high levels, where the University of Texas argues it couldn't handle enrolling 2400 students. I don't think that a university is obligated to handle as many students as possible and in the face of finally increasing enrollment I think it's strange to say "well let's keep it from getting too high." Because really, the more applicants, the more esteemed students you'll be able to enroll and the more qualified computer science are produced.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bureau of Labor Statistics

I decided to look again at Women in the IT / CS Workforce, and started by looking at some of the papers that Jeria had sent us. I started by looking at the ITAA Report from 2003. It goes over the same things that other people have found - lack of role models, information gap, the field not seeming attractive, etc. It gave some statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), so I decided to look there again - despite past failed efforts to locate good data due to the poor structure of the BLS website. I was more successful this time (though I only located the data that I wanted after downloading about 30 other PDFs and visiting 20 different webpages).

There were other occupations in the "Computer and Mathematical Occupations" category, such as actuaries, database administrators, statisticians, etc. But I only want to look at computer scientists, computer programmers, and computer software engineers.

I analyzed the data a bit to find out percentages of men and women in these occupations and also differences in wages. It was pretty astounding.

So, women earn on average, between 79% and 87% of what men do in these fields, and overall in all computer and mathematical occupations, earn about 83% of what men do. The statistics were given for weekly earnings, and I found that women in the CS occupations earned on average $207 dollars fewer per week than men did, which, when I multiplied by 52 (52 weeks in a year), gave an average difference of over $10,000! And when you look at all computer and mathematical occupations, you find that the average difference in yearly pay is over $12,000! That's a lot of money!

But then you look at summaries of the statistics (for 2007, instead of 2008): "Within professional and related occupations, women working as pharmacists, lawyers, and computer software engineers had the highest median weekly earnings."

Amazing! Women are earning on average more than $10,000 less than their male counterparts, and this is among the highest median earnings for women!

Building Buildings

This week during focus groups I spoke with someone who described their introduction and computing in a manor I hadn't really examined very closely. Specifically, she didn't cite teachers, parents, or counselors as the main factors that encouraged her pursuit of computer science. While they were supportive, it was the barrage of software companies she saw everyday in her hometown that sparked her interest. Seeing the gigantic buildings of software giants everyday were her biggest factor in continuing to pursue computer science. She talked about passing them everyday and seeing them at every corner. The ubiquity and presence of the companies made her realize that maybe pursuing a field of software would be a good field for her to get into.

It brings us back to the question of images which have always been an important part of our research. We're always asking "What is the public perception of computer science? Who are computer scientists?" But while I've always focused on geeks and nerds and the computers they love, I didn't think of the massive buildings that house our computer scientists around the world. When I think about it, big technology firms weren't very present in the landscape I grew up around. Granted I didn't grow up in Silicon Valley but nevertheless software companies weren't seen as necessarily giants of industry.

Rather, the buildings I saw everyday were banks and sports stadiums. The sports stadium speaks to the idolatry we hold professional athletes in and is a whole other tangent, but when I think about major corporations, it is the giant Bank of America building in Mesa that first climbs to my attention as buildings that dotted my hometown skyline. Consequently, I've realized how I've always thought about that company as massively powerful. There presence in my hometown serving as almost a beacon and essential landmark spoke mounds of how strong a company I personally believed them to be.

While Bank of America undoubtedly employs a large team of computer scientists, theyn're not the first job you think of when a company has "Bank" in its name. Getting back to the example of software companies, most people are familiar with Microsoft and Apple and they definitely have the feeling of large powerful countries but they also seem so far away at the same time. The software companies just aren't the ones that seem to dominate the landscape.

But then I also think to when I first visited Qualcomm, one of the things that got me was how large and powerful the buildings were. It evoked feelings of security and made me feel like they were a powerful and successful company. While at the base of what I'm getting to is probably just the biggest is the best, I wonder how people's perceptions of software companies are when they drive pass massive software companies everyday rather than banks or sports stadiums. While "building bigger buildings" may be a bit silly of an argument in order to bolster computer science participation, it's worth exploring strange avenues to present a face to the public of a discipline so often shrouded in secrecy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Official!

Here is the official press release making Barbie a Computer Engineer!

The Vote Is In: Barbie® Unveils Her 125th and 126th Careers

For the first time ever, Barbie® asked the world to help her select her next career. Over the past few months Barbie® did research around the world and also conducted an online voting campaign, calling upon the world to vote for her doll's next career – Barbie® has asked her Twitter followers and fans on Facebook to help her with this important career decision.

But that's not all! Consumers loudly campaigned for another Barbie® career. The winner of the popular vote is Computer Engineer. Computer Engineer Barbie®, debuting in Winter 2010, inspires a new generation of girls to explore this important high-tech industry, which continues to grow and need future female leaders.

"All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers - like girls - are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination," says Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers. "As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people's everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career."

To create an authentic look, Barbie® designers worked closely with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for Computer Engineer Barbie®. Wearing a binary code patterned tee and equipped with all the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag, Computer Engineer Barbie® is geek chic.

Always a trailblazer, Barbie® continues her impressive career path in 2010 and throughout the new decade as she takes on these two new aspirational careers. Both News Anchor Barbie® and Computer Engineer Barbie® are currently available for pre-order exclusively at

Now, if Mattel will get rid of the blatant "girls" and "boys" buttons on its homepage, things would be great! The "boys" section is blue and has mostly car racing games dinosaurs and the "girls" section is pink and has Barbie doing various things mostly involving fashion or cute animals. While it's great that Barbie is now a computer engineer, Mattel is still enforcing some gender stereotypes!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Medical Doctors and Computer Science

So in a couple of my focus groups I've come across that when some people are comparing computer science as a positive field to go into, it's often being compared to medical doctors. Why these two careers seem to be linked in many people's minds is starting to become an interesting question to me. At Carnegie Mellon, a couple of the women's studies courses have a significant focus on the women's health movement of the 20th century. The push to get women's bodies into textbooks, improved pregnancy care, a better understanding of women's bodies, and women's access to medical school are big topics of discussion throughout the courses. Whereas for some regions, these careers have been linked, I'm wondering how it comes back to the United States. How does the struggle for women in the medical field compare to the current participation of women in computer science.

In contrast to many universities today, medical universities used to have a maximum quota on number of female students. Many rejection letters simply stated that they'd already filled their quota and could not accept any more female applicants. However, today half of all medical students are female and a third of all practicing physicians are women. I looked back at a 1988 New York Times Article entitled "Are Women Better Doctors" and found the same arguments that many people use to explain the divide computer science experiences today: "part of the problem for women may be the need to delay starting a family for five to seven years of infamously arduous training" is the same, women don't want to pursue long Ph.D. degrees because it prevents them from starting a family. However, the most Taulbee report shows that female Ph.D. recipients in Computer Science are increasing, even when their bachelor's production is dropping. The article also cites that women are more likely to go into pediatrics. A similar argument is apparent in attempting to get more women involved in computer science wherein we need to develop projects that "help people." I remember specifically reading one report that encouraged high school computer science programs that created projects to help monitor patients in for pregnancy care. However, these arguments have been refused by the previous Carnegie Mellon investigations of the computer science department that found students interests varied widely and not according to gender.

However, while the comparisons may be eerie at times, there's little I've found useful in the drastic uptick in female doctors that can be applied to computer science. That being said, it's nice to be able to cite other industries that have dealt and in some ways overcome the same arguments that we run into on a daily basis. At the same time it's frustrating to be able to trace how widespread and how many different faces the same argument can take on. It's also interesting to note how while globally I get an impression for how closely medicine and computer science are tied together and strangely how I can in some ways weave them together in the case of the United States.