Friday, December 11, 2009


A friend of mine just e-mailed me a link to two articles about women in computer science (thanks Jack!) which I thought were interesting and I thought that I would share.

The first article is about a psychology researcher, Professor Sapna Cheryan who did her PhD at Standford and is now a professor of psychology at University of Washington. She is looking into computer science stereotypes and how they affects women's and men's interest in computer science. Professor Cheryan sets up two computer science classrooms - one which is filled with stereotypically geeky things like Star Wars posters, computer parts lying on the floor, cans of soda all over the table, and Star Trek figurines; and another which is filled with items that are not associated with the "geek" stereotype such as water bottles, neutral abstract art posters, and potted plants. She brings subjects in and asks them to rate their interest in computer science.

Cheryan [...] has placed students in situations like this for nearly five years. She has found that women rate themselves as less interested in computer science than men in the “geek room” described above. But in a room decorated more neutrally with art posters, nature photos, and water bottles, their interest levels were about the same.

The article goes on to describe Cheryan's explanation of why there is such a difference in interest levels between men and women when placed in these situations:

Women don't identify with the archetypal image of computer scientists. Cheryan's subjects describe this image as “nerdy, techie, stay up late coding, energy drinks, no social life.… They don't frequently take showers.” The geek room conjures this picture in our minds, Cheryan says, based only on the stuff we find lying around.

Now Cheryan has moved to virtual classrooms which allows more control over the environment and has allowed her to place avatars in seats in the classroom or a teacher. Going back to this theme of "seeing people like you" - Cheryan can place all women in the seats or put a female teacher in the front of the virtual classroom to see if these things change interest levels.

The virtual classrooms have been put into all sorts of configurations with different avatars or no avatars. Students were again asked about interest in computer science and also about which room had a more masculine vibe. Cheryan found the following:

Every time they changed the study, the results were the same: Most women avoided the geek space. When prompted, many said it gave them a masculine vibe. The more masculine they found the room, the less they liked it.

Very interesting article!

The second article was much shorter and focused on "pair programming." The studies conducted seem to based on a gender differences model - that pair programming would make programming a more social activity and thus attract more women. However, the findings were that pair programming helps retention regardless of gender.

“I thought it would give a boost to women, but the results were gender-neutral,” McDowell says. “It helped everybody.”

Students were paired in some introductory programming classes and not paired in others. Students who were paired were supposed to complete homework assignments as a pair, but do exams solo and students in the other class did everything alone. The findings were pretty drastic:

A year later, 59 percent of the paired female students were still computer science majors, compared with 22 percent of the women who programmed solo. The results were striking for men as well: the department retained 74 percent of male pair programmers, versus 47 percent of lone coders.

Again, these studies show that a gender differences model is not acceptable for explaining women's low enrollment in computer science - the first article shows that it is clearly a cultural thing. The second article shows that the social aspect of computer science appeals to both men and women despite researchers belief that it would only boost women's retention.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


If there's one thing that almost every one of my friends have in common it's that they read some form of webcomic on the Internet. At some point the funnies were translated into online format and have since exploded. I still remember back when Penny-Arcade was the only real webcomic online but they have now grown quite numerous and cross many genres. It used to be another way to gleam humor out of video games but now you can find web comics on everything from tech news to history.

It was by chance that a friend linked me to a paper that explored webcomics from a different perspective than any I had previously been acquainted. Specifically, Tatalovic in his article "Science comics as tools for science education and communication: a brief, exploratory study" examines the multitude of ways that this genre of webcomic that has exploded in the past 10 years has increased the way we discuss and perceive science. It wasn't until this was made salient that I became aware of how often I learn some new scientific concept through the reading of a comic. Moreover, I get a sense of accomplishment from "getting" some nerdy joke in some comic that I can then explain to friends who may not be as familiar with some of the concepts.

So where does computer science fit in? Tatalovic spends the majority of the paper addressing specifically educational comics and how they spur communication but the humor comics that evoke conversation through science references still receive mention. Unfortunately a search for computer science comics comes up relatively dry. I'm not aware of any real paper computer science comics and the webcomic world is significantly dry minus XKCD. While XKCD hits computer science topics fairly regularly and is notably popular around the CMU computer science department, someone unfamiliar with computer science may not immediately recognize XKCD as having anything to do with computer science, especially considering the author describes his background as physics, not CS.

This leaves me with some questions I'm going to take into further exploration of the undergrad culture. I'm continually interested in the role models that people take and who they identify as computer scientists. Given the recent popularity of webcomics, I wonder if XKCD has transformed or introduced any budding computer scientists to the field and what role these comics have as a medium. I remember a long time ago discussing with some people getting a Numb3rs like tv show on the air to introduce computer science and do for CS what CSI has done for law enforcement. Maybe we don't need a tv show though, maybe we just need a really sweet computer science comic?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In exploring different countries and how they perceive computer science, I've read a lot of different papers about the state of computer science. However, it didn't strike me until today while reading a paper about Australia that I realized how similar people around the world see this problem of participation. Eileen Trauth, Susan Nielsen, and Liisa von Hellens's paper "Explaining the IT Gender Gap: Australian Stories for The New Millennium," many of their insights into the world of IT professionals come to near identical to the attitudes we adopt.

In the beginning they identify the issue of low participation in computer science compounded with a substantial gender imbalance. However, they run into similar issues as we do with problems of gender difference. Trauth et. al. describe the collection of gender differences as flawed, in part as their case study identifies several women who upset the principles assumed by gender difference. Many of the approaches centering around gender differences ignore the countless women already participating in computer science and instead of focusing on improving this value they spend more time alienating the women already participating in computer science.

In interviewing women who are currently participating in the IT field they found a number of different factors that don't fall into the gender differences spectrum. For example, they found that imbalanced environments create hostile cultures for minorities. Crude jokes demeaning women and hostility are more likely to be present in male-dominated populations. Additionally, not seeing women regularly in the workplace creates false perceptions that women are somehow not qualified to participate in IT careers. Further, many of the women identified prominent female role models in their academic careers that helped to create or continue their interest in realizing that IT was an acceptable path for them.

So while we may be looking globally to operate on the US, these studies have implications globally outward as well. Many countries around the world suffer the same gender imbalances and are buried under the same gender differences suggestions that plague the United States.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Retention and Attrition Rates in CS

This past week I have been looking into retention and attrition rates of both men and women in CS programs. One of the first papers that I looked at was the paper about the University of Malaysia - Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE! by Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih. Here are the tables which show intake and withdrawal / failure rates based on gender.

The university has fairly equal intake rates and in almost all years (with the exception of 1999/2000) examined in this study, more men failed / withdrew from the program each year.

While attrition rates may be fairly low overall, and in particular for women at the University of Malaysia, that is not the case at many U.S. universities.

In the paper Scavenger Hunt: Computer Science Retention Through Orientation by Talton et al. from the University of Illinois:

"Like many large research universities, the University of Illinois has struggled with the high attrition rate of first-year students in computing disciplines. In the five year period prior to 2003, roughly 25% of the total number of entering freshmen have dropped out of the program by the end of their first year (see Table 1). In particular, the attrition rate of women and minority students is quite high, averaging about 35% for the same period."

Similar situations exist even at CMU.

In a paper on W@SCS, (Women in Computer Science: The Carnegie Mellon Experience by Lenore Blum), Blum looks at retention rates of men and women in CS.

In a paper (not the book), Unlocking the Clubhouse: The Carnegie Mellon Experience, Margolis and Fisher examine the same data at CMU and show promising trends of retention of women in CS.

These graphs so something that should not be surprising, that higher percentages of women in the major seems to lead to higher retention. In Blum's paper Peter Lee, Associate Dean for Computer Science Undergraduate Education at the time is quoted as saying, "[Retention] seems unnecessarily negative to me, and at any rate seems to aim too low. The goal, it seems to me, is to take advantage of the great recruiting success and produce a crop of graduating women who will be the future leaders, world-class scientists, visionaries, and captains of industry. . . . "

Other factors which seem to raise retention rates of women in CS are discussed in IMPROVING THE PERSISTENCE OF FIRST-YEAR UNDERGRADUATE WOMEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE by Rita Manco Powell. Powell did a study at UPenn about retention and found that there was a 50% persistence rate of women before changes were implemented compared with an 85% persistence rate after changes were implemented which is equal to the male persistence rate. Some changes include more faculty-student interaction, social gatherings for students, mentoring groups, and the organization of WICS (Women in Computer Science). These are very similar to the findings at CMU with the organization of W@SCS.

Powell also examined why women were leaving CS - why the attrition rates were so high:

"This research study found that many of the study participants began the computer science major with an inadequate background from high school in the subject, causing them to struggle to perform as well as their peers with more computer science experience. Because of this fact, which was further heightened by the women’s perception that the male students knew more than they, several women lost confidence in their ability to be successful in the major and subsequently lost interest in the major. Social isolation accompanied their gender minority status within their peer group further weakening their resolve to persist."

I am interested in examining whether women at CMU have similar reasons for leaving CS, and also examining what men's reasons are. I am currently working on coming up with interview questions for men and women who have switched out of SCS at CMU. I am also interested in looking at attrition and retention rates, because I know of 4 women in my year who have left CS (and a few in other years), but I don't believe that I know of any men who started in CS and are now in a different major.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


So recently I blogged about how coming out of computer science one would get the impression that computer science is nothing more than software engineering. In so doing, I brought up that one of the driving forces behind how we perceive computer science is industry. By approaching computer scientists with software engineering positions it's hard to see computer science outside of this paradigm.

However, industry is just one of the facets describing what computer science is. Another, we can find in academia. In detailing what is required to give a computer science degree we describe what computer science is. While examining different enrollment requirements across schools I learned we don't even have a common language for describing computer science. Some people where getting bachelors of science in computer science. Some can only get a bachelor's in electrical engineering with a computer science concentration. Some get a bachelor's in technology and some even get a bachelor's in computer applications. To describe some of these different facets I examined six schools describing my academic options in computer science and a couple schools internationally to see how the language varies across the schools. I also did my best to determine where in the suggested course sequence the first theory/discrete math course would be taken.

1st, my home institution and thus easiest to research Carnegie Mellon:

Carnegie Mellon has a very descriptive and intense description of what computer science is, in part because we know what a problem describing computer science can be. The SCS website says:
"At Carnegie Mellon, our curriculum encompasses the entire study of computation and how it can be applied to the world around us. Computer science can organize information, build smaller, faster, more secure systems, create channels of communication and delve deep into complex data sets."

with even more at

Additionally, my first discrete math course was my very first semester taking the difficult concepts of mathematics which was a real crash course into what I would be studying in my years.

2nd, an institution I grew up around Arizona State University:

ASU's degree description leaves a lot to be desired, stating:
"The discipline of computer science is concerned with the design of computers, computational processes and information transfer and transformation. Examples of projects a computer scientist might work on include: design of next-generation computer systems, computer networking. biomedical information systems, gaming systems, search engines, Web browsers and computerized package distribution systems."

It's hidden in there with "information transformation" but there's nothing really shocking that tears you away from computer scientist equals programmer. Examples of projects a computer scientist might work on include: programming some stuff. More can be found at:

Additionally, ASU computer science students are tasked to get started programming early while fulfilling their gen eds. In their third semester in the suggested course sequence I was finally able to find discrete mathematical structures which I assumed to be their first discrete math course.

3rd, the Massachusettes Institute of Technology:

MIT I found interesting because their program was the only one I found explicitly coupled with electrical engineering. I think you can only obtain a bachelor's in engineering with a "computer science track" if you wish to pursue computer science. As such their "what a computer science degree is" description is less concrete and I had to settle for the learning objectives from acquiring a degree the part of which I found most noteworthy being:

"4. Students will develop an understanding of the importance of the social, business, technical, and human context in which a process or product being designed will work."

Being implicit about the social and human context in which a process is designed I think is a valuable component to the description. Computer science involves a lot of teamwork and thinking outside of the programming paradigm that also necessitates looking at the human component. More about MIT's objective is here

MIT's suggested course sequence wasn't easy to find in the literature I perused but I believe in the first year one of their options is for "Math for Computer Science." The name I don't feel is the most inspiring but it's very early on in the track.

Looking at a global level I also examined how Oxford University structures its CS program:

Oxford also makes the computer an explicit part of computer science stating:
"Computer Science is the study of problem-solving using computers. Digital computers and the programs they run are among the most complicated products of modern engineering. This practical discipline has its foundations in basic, curiosity-driven science. What kind of thing is a computer program? How can we create programs whilst being sure of avoiding bugs? What is the fastest way of solving certain kinds of problems? Are there problems that can be stated simply but have no simple solutions? Are there problems that cannot be solved by computers at all?"

While it does tap on computer science, but attempts to make programming an ingrained part of computer science. How do we avoid writing programs without bugs is particularly jarring in this regard and I'm not sure where they're going with that. More about Oxford's CS program is:

Additionally, the suggested course sequence expects students to take both design and anaylsis of algorithms as well as discrete mathematics, logic, and proof in their first year starting theory off early.

Finally, I looked at one of the schools in IIT, Kanpur:

IIT is very proud of its reputation as a leader in computer science and proudly expresses the fact that they were the first college in India to offer computer science. How the degree itself is described however is hard to find on the website. I was unable to find an actual description of computer science on the department website. If you would like to search their website is

One interesting thing about IIT Kanpur is students don't take any courses described as computer science until their third year. In their first two years they take only core courses while their last two years are almost exclusively computer science with their first discrete mathematics course appearing in semester 4.

Looking across all of these perspectives I don't feel comfortable describing any as optimal or the best. I lean strongest to Carnegie Mellon because it's the program I've grown out of but I expect any member of any of these institutions could critique similarly. What is very apparent however is we all have different expectations and different language for computer science. Some schools get their students in theory earlier while some get them in later. Some schools also like to market their computer science programs as very closely attached to computers while some like to describe computer science differently. These issues of language will have to be taken into account when evaluating how different cultural factors are in play.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Girls in CS

I'm not sure why I haven't written about this before, because it is definitely relevant to this research.

The summers after my senior year in high school and after my freshman year in college, I taught at a technology summer camp called iDTech. I taught a week long programming course in Java to high school / middle school aged students. There were other tech classes taught at the camp like 2D and 3D game development, web development and flash animation, video editing shooting and editing, among many others which varied at camp locations (we didn't have LEGO robotics at Brown, but they did at MIT, for example).

And one of the things that I found was that the percentages of girls who attended these camps was astonishingly low! Some weeks would have maybe 2 girls out of 30 kids. There were weeks when we had more girls, but I don't think that we ever had more than 7 out 30. Often times we had little girls (7-10 year olds) who were too young for the programming class, but who took the web development or 2D game creation class. A lot of girls also took the video editing class. I can't quite recall the exact numbers, but I don't think I ever had more than 2 out of 8 girls in my programming class per week. Often times there was one or no girls in my class.

I guess I never stopped to think about how young kids are when this problem starts. It's not like girls and boys are equally represented at tech camps or in learning to program at a young age, and then girls get turned off to it. It's that girls are never getting introduced to this stuff. Many of my guy friends at CMU in CS started programming when they were 7 or 8. I had used computers and could help my grandmother set up her printer, but it wasn't until high school that I learned how to program. I think that graphing / programmable calculators are one of the best things that ever happened to me. I learned how to program basic stuff like the quadratic equation or a program to generate the Fibonacci numbers, but I didn't learn how to do anything with more algorithmic complexity or more applied until I joined the Robotics team and learned C.

One of the things that's being done by Women@SCS is holding TechNights for Girls which introduces middle school girls to a series of tech related topics in weekly sessions. They might learn how to make a web page or program LEGO robots or use Photoshop.

I found a few other similar programs, but had never heard of most of them. Microsoft runs one called DigiGirlz. I found the iDTech page about girls and technology and encourages girls to come to camp, though similar to a page I found about the Navy a few weeks ago, seems to target what they think girls will like.

While we’re not strictly an all girls camp, girl camp, a summer camp for pre teen girls or a summer camp for teen girls, we DO offer a variety of courses that have curriculum tailored to what girls want to do. There’s nothing holding girls back from attending our summer camps. Whether you want to learn graphic design, filmmaking, 3D modeling, gaming, or even fashion design, iD has a course for you. iD Tech Camps is a great girl summer camps option!
- iDTech website

I found various other programs run at different college campuses aimed at getting middle school girls interested in technology, but I didn't find anything younger. Maybe we need to aim younger and target elementary school girls? While I think that it's great that there are a number of programs that aim to get middle school girls interested and engaged in technology, I think that if boys are learning to program at 7 or 8, girls need to doing the same thing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A lack of role models

We make a lot of lists. The Fortune 500 Top Companies. The Forbes 400 Richest People in America. The NCAA uses controversial systems to rank teams and decide a winner without using playoffs. Lists are our means of ranking things, they allow us to highlight the top people, team, organizations in a concrete format to decipher who's best, strongest, most important.

Lists of powerful individuals are often devoid of much diversity. Looking at the Forbes 400 list women aren't exactly abundant. Christy and Alice Walton make the top 10 but their fortune is from "inheritance." In a list of men tagged with "self made," the first woman I can find not tagged inheritance is Oprah Winfrey waaay down at 141. How do Forbes and others make up for their lacking diversity? By creating niche rankings of course! Forbes throws on a list of 100 Most Powerful Women to let us know that yes powerful women exist. But this sentiment seems tacked on, these lists are hard to be taken seriously and seem to further the idea that there's an existing power relationship between men and women that necessitates their own list. Women wouldn't make the 100 Most Powerful List so let's create a list for them.

I'm going on a long diatribe to try to ask what happens when women can't even get on a list for women? The other day somebody pointed me to 25 Women Influencing IT Today. The list begins innocently enough with women in executive positions in Yahoo and Google. However it doesn't take long to reach a strange, if not insulting, turn. #141 Richest Woman in the World Oprah Winfrey clocks in at #10 because she has "become an online phenomenon and is the 9th most followed Tweeter on the web." Are we so lacking female role models in computing that we can't even build a list of 10 women influencing IT? Are our role models so dire that we have to list Oprah Winfrey who has as much credibility to be on the list as Britney Spears? Women have won the Turing Award 2 of the last 3 years but this list still suggests they aren't being seen as leaders in the tech industry. Modis may not be the Fortune 500 or Forbes but they do a considerable amount of IT Staffing across the country. If nothing else this points to a visibility problem in computer science and the need for more projects like The Ada Project. Women may still be getting stuck making their name on niche lists but they aren't doing the niche work. At the very least we need to be sure we're getting better female role models in computing than Oprah Winfrey.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

More Surveys, Enrollment Data, and Next Steps

These past few weeks have been mostly filled with trying to convince people to fill out our survey. I've been inputting a lot of data into spread sheets. We're not doing any analysis until we've collected all of the data, but here are just the numbers in terms of surveys collected so far. (I do not have Anthony's data included in this.)

Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior (5th or 5th double)

Gender Totals 88 31 14 0 47 7 19 2 1 1 210
Totals 119 14 54 21 2 210

Looks like we did pretty well administering surveys to the freshmen. I could not find the statistics on freshmen in SCS for 2009, but past data seems to indicate a fairly stable number of students enrolled in the program. It is my guess, though I will of course confirm this when I can get the real data, that we have completed surveys from 80-90% of the freshmen in SCS.

We haven't collected very much data from sophomores due to professors for many of the sophomore classes being unresponsive to e-mails requesting to administer the survey in their classes. I am planning on coordinating with Anthony to wait outside sophomore level classes to see if we can increase the number of completed surveys.

We are doing pretty well collecting data from juniors, and I know that Anthony had some schemes to specifically target seniors, so I am sure that we will be approaching about 50% participation rate of juniors and seniors for the survey. Unfortunately, we do not have that many women responding to our survey, however, I plan on asking women in W@SCS to fill out the survey, so hopefully we will have a more representative distribution.

In looking at enrollment data, trying to figure out the stats on SCS entering freshmen, I came across enrollment data for 2008. Here is a copy of the data with some statistics that I calculate from the data highlighted. When compared against other colleges within CMU, SCS has the highest percentage of male applicants, the highest percentage of offers of admissions to male applicants, and the highest percentage of male enrollment.

In addition, one would expect that once students have been admitted, a certain percentage will enroll. While this percentage may vary across schools as some schools and majors within CMU are more exclusive / have better reputations than other, we would not expect this percentage to vary drastically WITHIN a school across gender. For example, in H&SS (School of Humanities and Social Sciences), 22.70% of males who apply decide to enroll and 22.22% of females who apply decide to enroll. These percentages are very similar. This is pretty much true for most schools at CMU. The percentages - with the exception of SCS - differ by no more than 6%. When we look at SCS however, 36.00% of males versus 24.60% of females who were admitted, enroll.

This raises the question of why, if women are getting into SCS, are they not enrolling? Clearly the arguments of "women not being capable of succeeding in CS as it is" or "the need for 'pink' curriculum" cannot be called upon. Admissions is not based on gender, but merit - and the admissions committee felt that these women could succeed in SCS at CMU without changing the curriculum to be more "female-friendly" or "pink." And if it is not ability based or some intrinsic difference between men and women, it must be a cultural thing.

I think that the next research step that I would like to take is to develop interview / focus group questions aimed at a particular group. Anthony is focusing more on women and CS on an international level, while I focusing largely at CMU. One of the groups that I would like to target for interviews or focus groups is students who left SCS to major in something else. I don't know about the stats on men, but in my year, at least 4 women have decided to switch majors from SCS to something else (which is a significant percentage). It would be interesting to see why they switched, what major they switched to, why they thought they wanted to do CS, if they had any role models in the field of computing, etc. I would definitely be interested in seeing if men and women had the same responses for those types of questions and to see specifically what the stats were on numbers of women vs. numbers of men who switch out.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Job Search

As a senior one of the things I have started conducting is the painful job search. Many companies are hiring and some have even reached out to me for interviews. It's actually fascinating hearing about some companies I never would have otherwise and learning about all kinds of work being done in the world. However, and partly due to this study, one thing I have to wonder is the variety of jobs available to me. Specifically, I have not spoken with one company that has been interested in interviewing me for anything besides a software engineering position.

In a world where computer science is so loosely defined I have to wonder how this happens. Lots of people confuses Computer Science with any number of disciplines related to computers. Software engineering, Information Systems, Information Technology, all could probably be filled by a Computer Science major but there is no job title computer scientist. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind fulfilling a software engineering position as I find developing software to be quite interesting but I can't help but wonder about the numerous computer scientists that don't consider themselves software engineers. Is academia the only refuge for a computer scientist who isn't a software engineer? Is graduate school the only place I could continue to be a "computer scientist" without becoming a "software engineer."

I fear this is one of the most significant reasons that computer science is becoming equivalent to programming. Once you enter industry how many people escape being labeled as software engineers? It's definitely better than being labeled a programmer but I still don't feel it's enough. One of my battle cries throughout it all has been "you can perform computer science without even working on a computer." However, how many computer scientists in industry are doing so? Are you CS job options really just software engineer or grad school? Sometimes it's worth it to wonder if it's not academia that is responsible for all the change but industry to understand that computer scientists are more than software engineers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Similarities Between CS and the Navy

Today a group of students and faculty from SCS had the opportunity to meet with Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations to discuss diversity. It turns out that the problem of recruiting women and minorities to a field is not unique to the field of computing. Admiral Roughead has faced issues in diversifying the Navy, similar to issues we face in recruiting women and minorities into CS programs.

One of the things that we talked about at the meeting were seeing "people who look like you" succeeding in your field - whether that be CS, the Navy, or another field. People love to see patterns. And if you see someone of your race or gender succeeding in a certain field, you think, "Hey, that computer scientist is a woman," or, "Hey, that admiral in the Navy is Hispanic." And then you might think, "I'm a woman too, I guess computer science isn't just for guys, I can do that too" or, "I'm also Hispanic, maybe I can succeed in that field."

We've talked at our meetings about how we justify having a women's group (Women in the School of Computer Science - W@SCS) when we claim that women and men aren't all that different. Why is there this need for a women's group if we don't need to make computer science "pink" or if women shouldn't be treated differently? And I think we've hit exactly on this. It's not that W@SCS aims to treat women differently, it aims to give women the same opportunities that men are given by default in a male dominated field. Men are automatically given a lot of "people who look like them" in the field. Whereas it is much more difficult for women to find colleagues, mentors, and role models "who look like them." If you don't feel isolated, if you don't feel alone, you will be much more likely to succeed in CS, in the Navy, in any field.

I was looking online for more information about Admiral Roughead, and it seems that diversity is one of his main goals as Chief of Naval Operations. I found a quote of his from 2008 that I found really brought across an important point. "I’ve been around the country meeting with opinion makers and shapers, attending events that give me a better sense of how we can best attract representative minorities into the Navy. I believe we have tremendous things to offer, we just have to make sure the opportunities are known to the folks that are out and about."

I think this is the same in CS. We have so much to offer, we just have to insure that everyone has the opportunity to participate by getting rid of stereotypes and by figuring out exactly how to draw women and minorities to the field.

I found a webpage which is a collection of quotes by Admiral Roughead on the subject of diversity which I thought was pretty interesting.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Splitting the numbers

A couple weeks ago I mentioned reading "Occupational Ghettos." I left off wondering what exactly would cause theoretical utopias in gender egalitarianism to be only on the surface. Why do these countries labor forces seemed to be so segregated at the manual labor level? While Charles and Grusky spend a lot of time working through case studies on the United States and Japan, the case on Switzerland I found the most intriguing.

Specifically, one point in Switzerland study I did not see addressed in the others was the discussion of nativity. I found this especially intriguing as I grew up in a state along the Mexican border where the question of who can perform a job often included the question of citizenship. While this discussion doesn't directly relate to the issue of immigrant workers in border states, Charles and Grusky do discuss the importance of countries with a history of immigrant labor forces. One interesting aspect is that while Switzerland's educational opportunities began opening up higher paying jobs to women, the jobs they began to leave were being filled with a largely male immigrant labor force. Additionally, nationalization efforts have pushed immigrant men out of a lot of government and service jobs that began to be filled by the native women labor force.

All-in-all this goes to show that sex segregation is not always driven by a more egalitarian movement. Switzerland's changes in the distribution of the work force were in some ways not driven by a policy for gender equality. Instead, the changes they saw were driven by alterations in the immigrant labor force. Rather than an increase in men in female dominated fields they saw immigrant men fulfilling previously female dominated jobs and instead of an increase in females in male fields they instead found a decrease in immigrant males. This purely by the numbers approach shows how not taking into account the different ways change occurs can suggest a change in society that may not be what it seems.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Besides reading Gender Differences, I have been doing a lot of work on getting the survey out there. We finalized the survey at our meeting last week and I've been contacting professors of core classes, asking if we can use the last 5 to 10 minutes of a class period to come in and do our survey. We believe that this method will give us a higher number of responses than just standing in a hallway trying to get people to answer our survey. No one wants to answer a survey when they're rushing off to class. I have contacted a number of professors, and of the one who have responded, all have said yes!

I administered the survey at my Competition Programming class last night and everyone was willing to answer the survey. Even in administering the survey, before reviewing the findings, I am learning so much. It turns out that about 1/3 of the students in the Wednesday Competition Programming class are not primary CS majors. Most students who were not primary CS majors were either ECE students (most of them) or math majors or graduate students in the CSD. Most said that they were double majoring or minoring in CS. I actually got one ECE student who asked to see the survey and when he looked at the questions, said that only a few of the questions were specifically related to students in SCS and that he would be happy to answer the survey! Unfortunately, I had to turn him down as this is specifically for students in SCS.

Gender and Culture (part 2)

Carol recommended that I read Same Difference by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers for more thoughts on gender and culture and the differences between them. I haven't finished the book yet, but even in the first few pages, the book gave some really great ways to think about gender and culture. It's very well written and enjoyable to read, and definitely a great resource for this research project. It has proved to be very insightful and I'm not even all the way through!

Barnett and Rivers write, "We begin with the premise - which we support throughout the book - that people's behavior is determined more by situation than by gender." (p. 5) I think that this statement is the very essence of what we're trying to get at when we ask the difference between gender and culture. Culture is everything that surrounds you, and affects you - gender is only the set of stereotypes or cultural norms placed upon you depending on whether you are a man or a woman. Clearly culture is so much more than gender and it makes sense that people are affected more culture than gender.

They go onto explain the following, which I feel is consistent with our view on culture and gender:

"In the past, gender was all-important. Whether you were male or female determined your role in society: the way you behaved and the work you did. Under these circumstances, it's easy to assume that the reason men and women were doing different kinds of work was biological. If you look around a community and see only women weaving and only men tilling the soil, you are apt to conclude that the "cause" of this difference is that women are suited for weaving and men for tilling. But that conclusion would be wrong. Being female doesn't automatically give you a talent for weaving. Rigid cultural norms, not biology, are operating here. As gender roles loosen - as they have done in the developed world - women's and men's behavior reflects many forces: their gender, their individual talents and preferences, their personalities, and the situations in which they find themselves." (p. 5,6)

As I mentioned in a previous post, my grandfather grew up thinking that French was the man's language and English the language of women because that's how it was at home. Barnett and Rivers bring up the same idea, people learn things by what they see around them. No wonder people think that women can't do computer science - they've grown up with books, films, television, family, friends, and teachers telling them that nerdy, white guys are computer scientists.

This idea - that culture not gender is responsible for women's low representation in computer science - is supported throughout many other papers. Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE! by Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih, An Expanding Pipeline: Gender in Mauritius by Adams, Bauer, and Baichoo, and Gender Gap in Computer Science Does Not Exist in One Former Soviet Union Republic: Results of a Study by Gharibyan and Gunsaulus are all papers about the gender divide in CS in other countries. In these countries (Malaysia, Mauritius, and Armenia, respectively) there's a pretty even balance of women and men in CS. And of the reasons is that in these countries there aren't these "rigid cultural norms" - these stereotypes of who can do computer science.

Othman and Latih write, "While the lack of female role models or mentors in the field has been cited as a demotivating factor for female students in the U.S. and Europe, this is not a problem for Malaysian females. The dean of Faculty of CS & IT at the University of Malaya was a woman, and three out four department heads are currently women. Of the faculty lecturers, 61% are female as are 73% of the Ph.D. holders. Nine out of 12 associate professors are females. At Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 66% of the lecturers at the Faculty of Technology and Information Science are female as are 40% of Ph.D. holders. Given this scenario, female students associated with these two faculties are clearly not lacking female mentors or role models, and are assured that pursuing a career in CS/IT is a normal, indeed, unremarkable option." (p. 4)

In Malaysia, where you grow up seeing women in CS, you grow up not even thinking that you wouldn't fit in or belong in CS. If you see lots of people like you doing CS, why shouldn't you be able to? And this is something that is missing in the United States. And it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If women don't go into CS because there are no women in CS (and consequently they think they won't fit in), then there won't be a high percentage of women in CS, so more women won't go into CS!

It is very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that "women are suited for weaving and men for tilling." Unfortunately, a lot of researchers do fall into this trap. One of the most important distinctions in statistics is "correlation vs. causation." Just because it happens that there are fewer women in computer science, does not mean that women aren't in CS because they are women. Margolis and Fisher, Carol Gilligan (discussed at length in Gender Differences), and many other researchers mistake correlation for causation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Grace Hopper and Bathrooms

I had the esteemed honor and pleasure of being able to attend the Grace Hopper Conference this year, my first time. It was something I've been wanting to for a long time and thanks to Women@SCS and my work over the summer I was able to find the means to attend the conference this year. It's hard to convey the scale of the conference in only text but it's something I invite everyone to attend. While all of the sessions I attended had a positive affect on me, I don't think any really spoke to my experience more than the Women of Color session.

Specifically, at one point during the session Professor Taylor who was running the session spoke of meeting with the head of her university. She explained that for him to understand the situation she found herself in, he would have to attend a university where all of the students were women as well as the majority of the faculty and he would need to climb two floors in order to find a bathroom for his gender.

It was only at this point that I realized I was currently experiencing a case study in role reversal. I by no means think this a perfect reversal of the situation as everyone at Grace Hopper was very pleasant to me and I had a great time at the conference. However at the same time I became hyperaware of my surroundings. Having to walk all the way back to the lobby as all of the men's restrooms were converted to women's, the strange comfort I felt whenever I met with one of the few men at the conference, and most significantly the fact that on more than one occasion I felt I had to justify to someone I was speaking to why I was there.

While I can't pretend this scenario accurately portrays the minority existence in academic institutions I can say for me this brings a different perspective to the research we've completed thus far. Moreover it further convinces me of the need to find role models and images that support you wherever you go. It's hard to feel like you belong where there are so few people around like you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gender and Culture

A few weeks ago, Carol asked us to respond to a question about the distinctions between gender and culture. I know that Anthony and I both found it very difficult to come up with an answer to this question, even an incomplete answer. Before I answer that question, I need to sort out what is meant by gender and what is meant by culture.

When I first started thinking about gender, I thought of some experiences that my parents and grandparents have shared with me. I believe that these stories show what gender is - that it is a construct, an idea, a generalization of what women are supposed to be and do and what men are supposed to be and do.

When my parents moved to our current house in Rhode Island, they moved across the street from a family of four boys, the youngest of whom was named Evan, age 2. Their father was a very “macho” kind of guy and their mother did all the housekeeping and child-caring. My parents got to know Evan as he grew up and he would wander over at various times having escaped his hectic household without his parents knowledge. One day in the middle of summer when Evan was 5, he wandered over and found my mom building a lawn mower in the driveway. He thought this was very odd and asked, “Where's Ernie?” as if my mother must only have been building a lawn mower if my father was doing something even more important or macho. My mother replied, “He's inside baking a cake!” Evan could not believe this and shook his head incredulously, traipsed into our kitchen, and saw that my father was in fact, baking a cake. After that episode, my parents never saw Evan again. I guess he thought that the family across the street was too strange. A year later, Evan and his family moved out. I'm not sure if it's directly related to my parents' "strangeness," but it sure is a funny coincidence.

When my grandfather was little, growing up in France, he thought that French was the man's language and English was the woman's language because his father was French and his mother, American and they both spoke their respective native languages at home.

Both of these anecdotes show that even at such a young age, children can already have notions of what women are “supposed to do” and what men are “supposed to do.” And though many women may bake cakes, there are many men who bake cakes. Though there are many men who put lawn mowers together, there are also many women who put lawn mowers together! And I would bet that about 50% of the French-speaking population are women and 50% are men and the same with the English-speaking population. And that is what gender is: generalizations about what women do and how they act, and generalizations about what men do and how they act.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gender and Culture

One of the things we keep discussing during our meetings is the idea of gender versus culture. Many other studies considering the gender divide in computer science have always analyzed based on gender differences. By making a "pink" computer science, many people have claimed is the best way to solve the computer science problem.

Such presents the question of why we have decided to look at culture rather than gender. In truth, my belief stems from the understanding that gender is a product of culture. The not so well understood distinction between sex and gender grows out of the fact that sex is the set of biological differences. Gender on the other hand is the social construction of what makes men men and women women. I didn't feel I really understood the distinction myself until a couple years ago I read this piece by Kate Bornstein arguing that Wall-E is actually a lesbian love film.

When I had saw the film a couple weeks prior to the article I had left the movie, as I imagine many others did, assuming I just saw a male robot and a female robot love story. But what makes Wall-E a boy and Eve a girl? They don't have robo-genetalia. You can't calculate their hormone levels or whatever biological measure you believe separates men from women. How we see Wall-E and Eve are the superimposed impressions of what we expect from men and women.

As such, we can see gender as a construct but to see it as a real measure of how men and women behave we will only feed into and encourage stereotypes. Creating a "pink" computer science or a computer science targeting girls doesn't so much bridge a gender gap as it does reinforce gender constructs. By instead looking at culture, we can begin to ask more why questions. By looking at questions of culture we don't only bridge the gender gap but we diversify the computer science body. Any adjustments made when looking at culture will not only affect countless women, but countless men. By not narrowing ourselves to gender differences we can bridge other gaps along race and class lines.

The Faulty Human Development Index?

Long before this study started I had been a fan of the Human Development Index. The HDI is a collection of United Nations committees that investigate and rank most of the countries in the world in the quality of life according to different factors. There's a committee concerning the environment, access to health care, economic growth. It's a grand assortment and the reports they send out provide all kinds of neat graphs and charts describing the states of various countries. One committee/ranking worth noting specifically however, is the ranking of countries according to their gender equality.

A 12 megabyte behemoth of a PDF, the most recent report ranks every country in the world according to their gender equality based on a variety of factors including comparing male/female literacy rates, average income, and enrollment in education. Looking just at the tables on page 326 of the study, we find the United States at 12, with women earning 15,000 less than men. The top 20 on the chart are largely dominated by the richest countries in the world. Worth noting specifically for our study, Bulgaria, which graduates women and men relatively equally in engineering and computer science is down at 53. The top of the GDI contains Scandanavian countries like Sweden at 6 and Norway at number 2. From this I always believed that Norway and Sweden had approached or were approaching some sort of magical gender equality that I couldn't imagine.

Then I picked up "Occupational Ghettos." From the very intro on they take the countries at the top of this chart to task. They put forth the claim that countries like Sweden, hailed as pinnacles of gender egalitarianism were actually more segregated than countries lower in the list. Suffice to say this was a more than adequate shock to my preconceived notions. Maria Charles and David Grusky claim that in developed countries like Sweden, high paying jobs in the nonmanual sector are well integrated. Indeed, they can't afford not to be. Claims of discrimination come with a heavy cost and are well monitored to ensure the playing field is level.

However, entering the labor sector things get significantly fuzzier. Charles and Grubsky claim that the oversights that are so common to the office life are severely lacking outside that world. In the labor sector, employment is still heavily segregated with men occupying the more desirable jobs and women suffering from lower wages and less desirable jobs. This is continually covered up by the egalitarian status these countries have received. By ranking so high on the index, this segregation gets swept under the rug as people claim the problem is already solved. This is an argument I can already feel crossing boundaries beyond just looking at gender segregation. While this highlights a problem in the way analyzes of gender equity is calculated, I have yet to dive far enough into "Occupational Ghettos" to discover their solution. As such, I am quite excited for more as this has shaped my view of the world considerably in so few pages.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Challenging, What Shock!

Across the papers I read this week, there was one that really stuck out to me. Bettina Bair and Miranda Marcus's paper "Women's Interest in Information Technology: The Fun Factor." The paper takes to task the problem of careers available to computer science graduates have a perception of being fun. This grows out of the larger problem of computer science and scientists having a very stereotypical view as boring, tedious, or uninteresting.

Part of the study asked students to choose a job from IT related careers that they were most familiar. Then they had students choose adjectives to describe how they felt about the jobs. From these lists of adjectives they concluded that women don't see IT jobs as fun while many men do. The conclusion goes on to cite some examples of programs that encourage better perceptions of IT careers.

But everything isn't that simple. Looking at the lists that women chose, I'm not convinced that women feel IT jobs aren't fun. Citing one line specifically, "all students described work as a Web developer as 'creative,' 'interesting,' 'fun,' and 'complex'; but female students said that the job would be 'challenging,' while the male students said that it would be 'exciting.'"

When did challenging become a bad thing? I'm confused about when something hard became something not worth doing. We idolize the people who can do the difficult. People overcoming obstacles and challenging themselves are the stories we cherish everyday. I can't understand why in a list of "creative, interesting, and fun" why challenging would be a bad thing. Especially when compared to data entry jobs which both genders described as "easy" and "tedious." Moreover what are some jobs that are easy but aren't tedious? By describing a job as challenging I highly believe a job becomes more desirable rather than less.

In the end, this just feels like echos of the talking Barbie debacle. Sexist attitudes continue to resonate that women find certain fields difficult and I don't believe that assuming difficulty is isomorphic to uninteresting is valid. Just from attending classes at CMU I don't think very many students would hesitate to say that classes are challenging but I believe for most this is a positive, not a negative. Perhaps this is a question to keep in mind when we start performing surveys.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More Contests Follow-Up

I have been doing some more research into high school and middle school CS / programming competitions. As Anthony found, the two really big ones are USACO and ACSL. I've been talking to a lot of people here at CMU and I've found that some of them have done USACO and fewer have participated in ACSL. One interesting thing that I've found is there are many, many local competitions hosted by local universities or organized by some other party. If ACSL or USACO was not offered at a student's high school, many were involved in local competitions.

A lot of the students I know who have been interested in programming from a young age participated in online contests like Google Code Jam or other programming competitions. Unfortunately, these competitions have a heavy focus on only programming rather than algorithms and other parts of Computer Science.

Other competitions that are not just CS competitions are Robotics competitions which are all over the United States. FIRST has Robotics competitions for students from elementary school through high school. While it is not strictly CS (a large portion of many of the contests in engineering, most do require problems solving and programming). One of our hypotheses was that if CS is associated with math instead of engineering, it will be more attractive to women. I would be interested in looking at whether participation in Robotics competitions which contain a major engineering component as well as a CS component had any effect on women's decisions to major in CS.

I would definitely like to put some questions related to these competitions on some of our surveys. Find out how many people participated in CS / programming competitions and of what kind. ACSL / USACO, local competitions, online, Robotics, or some other kind?

I would also be interested in examining whether students participated in math competitions. Almost everyone I know in CS participated in some sort of math competition or math olympiad in high school. I would also like to look at it from a high school perspective. What percentage of students who participate in high school math competitions go on to major in CS? What percentage of students who participate in high school CS / programming competitions go on the major in CS? Robotics competitions?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Margolis and Fisher - Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing

Hmmm. That is my general sentiment after reading Unlocking the Clubhouse. I finally got my copy of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Margolis and Fisher in from Amazon earlier this week and read and took notes on it. I have mixed feelings about it. A lot of the points the made were valid, but many of them... I disagree with.

One of the biggest things that I took issue with was inconsistency between claims and statistics. "The practice of grouping computer science with math and science, both informally and organizationally, may exacerbate the gender gap in computing." (Margolis and Fisher p. 37) Not even 20 pages later, they present a table of statistics and percentages of the attractions of programming to men and women according to a survey. 6% of men and 29% of women say that the fact that programming is math related is one reason it is attractive to them.

A more significant thing that I took issue with, is the implication that men and women are really, truly different. Margolis and Fisher discuss this at the beginning of Unlocking the Clubhouse:

"It's too easy to fall into thinking that 'women are this way and men are that way' – to simplify the categories and underplay all the contradictions and differences within each individual and within each gender. At the same time, it is misleading to see women as sharing no unifying experiences." (p. 9)

"Throughout our study, we have worked hard to capture both gender differences and also the wide range of often contradictory experiences women have." (p. 10)

But, I think that they do fall into thinking that "women are this way and men are that way." Much of the book is focused on gender differences rather than on how culture has led to women avoiding computer science. One of the claims they make is the following:

“To spark and engage girls' interest and engagement in computing, we believe that computer science must be viewed as a fully human discipline that, while highly technical, is linked to other arenas and people.” (p. 120)

When I was a freshman in the Freshman Immigration Course (FIC) which is discussed in Margolis and Fisher, we had a speaker come and talk to us. At the end of his talk he focused on getting women interested in CS and made the claim that most women go into CS because they want to apply it to another field. Every single woman and many of the men in that room was absolutely shocked and offended by this statement. Most of us wanted to pursue careers as Software Engineers because we like to code, not write software for hospitals because it helped people. And while it may be important to some people to know that what they study can be applied to the real world, it is not only women who feel that way, and it is certainly not the majority of women (at least at CMU).

This same sentiment is expressed in Margolis and Fisher, and I am offended by it. It seems very sexist and seems to imply that women can't or shouldn't pursue the traditional CS jobs at tech companies. All throughout the book I found this implication of gender differences being the cause of low female participation in CS and that is not what I believe is the main cause of women's low enrollment in CS.

Reading More Papers!

These past two weeks have consisted of me reading many more papers for background research. I have also been thinking long and hard about a question that Anthony and I are to answer about gender and culture and the distinctions between. But that will be addressed in a later post. This post is about the papers I've been reading. (I hope I don't misinterpret any of Carol's papers!)

For those of you who do not know what Women@SCS is, it is a student organization at Carnegie Mellon for women (and men) in Computer Science. It is mentioned in many of Carol Frieze's and Lenore Blum's papers. From the Women@SCS website: "The Women@SCS mission is to create, encourage, and support academic, social, and professional opportunities for women in computer science and to promote the breadth of the field and its diverse community."

  • In a More Balanced Computer Science Environment, Similarity is the Difference and Computer Science is the Winner by Lenore Blum and Carol Frieze

    This paper cautioned against the findings of Margolis and Fisher because new research and interviews had been conducted at Carnegie Mellon which led to significantly different findings than those of Margolis and Fisher. New studies showed that women and men had similar perceptions about Computer Science and attitudes towards computers being used as tools and towards programming and applications. In addition, women were excelling because of a gender balance and the creation of Women@SCS and no longer felt so isolated.

  • Building an Effective Computer Science Student Organization: The Carnegie Mellon Women@SCS Action Plan by Carol Frieze and Lenore Blum

    This paper is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It details what the Women@SCS organization was set up to do. As a member of Women@SCS, I saw that much of what the Council was set up to do is still part of what goes on at Women@SCS.

  • Diversifying the Images of Computer Science: Undergraduate Women take on the Challenge! by Carol Frieze

    The Women@SCS Roadshow is discussed at length in this paper - why and how it was created and how effective it has been. Again, a fairly straightforward paper.

  • Culture and Environment as Determinants of Women’s Participation in Computing: Revealing the “Women-CS Fit” by Carol Frieze, Orit Hazzan, Lenore Blum, and M. Bernardine Dias

    This paper focuses on the cultural impacts on women's participation in Computer Science. The authors argue that many of the studies done in the U.S. which conclude that we need "female-friendly" curriculum are done in places where women are a significant minority. When women are better represented, women participate right along with men and the findings of past studies (studies done where women are a significant minority) do not hold. The second part of this paper focuses on Israeli Jewish and Arab high schools and the authors find that encouragement from friends, family, and teachers led to high participation of women in CS in the Arab sector as opposed to the lower participation rates in the Jewish sector associated with less encouragement from friends, family, and teachers.

  • Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE! by Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih

    This paper was based on a study of Malaysian male and female students at the University of Malaya. The study found that there were plenty of female mentors and role models for students and that while men had more prior experience with computers, women's performance did not suffer from this. Something of interest is that more women than men said that they liked math which is the opposite of some past findings in the U.S. and one of the hypotheses that we are investigating.

  • The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline by Tracy Camp

    This paper is cited in many other of the papers that I have encountered. It talks about the decreasing number of women in CS and how this number is decreasing at a steeper rate than the number of men in CS. Camp calls attention to the need to address this problem. Camp also addresses the differences in percentages of women in CS programs in Engineering colleges and non-Engineering colleges, which is definitely something that is of interest to our research. Like in Malaysia, perhaps having CS associated with math instead of Engineering will increase the number of women in CS.
I have read most of the papers in Frontiers: Volume 26, Number 1, 2005 at this point and found many of them interesting. I will be making a post similar to this one about the papers in that journal. I have also read Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Margolis and Fisher which I will devote an entire separate post to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Contests Follow-Up

This week has been a bit more preparation work. We've been discussing the surveys a lot as we hope to have that finalized sooner rather than later. Especially since September is slipping away oh so quickly. I imagine we'll at least have a prototype done within the next two weeks. Anybody willing to do a delightful fall survey?

That being said, a lot of my focus this week has been on the state of computer science contests in the United States. I found five specifically targeting middle or high school students that I found of note and will enumerate below.

SuperQuest: Not to be confused with the group that presented at CS4HS. SuperQuest was a competition for high school students. Teams were tasked with conceiving of a computational problem they found interesting. They'd create a proposal and submit it where a panel would pick out the most interesting proposals. The winners were then given the opportunity to model their problem on a supercomputer and in some cases the results were presented at various conferences.

Unfortunately, information on the SuperQuest program is rather scarce. Outside of an old paper linked on the Wikipedia page. I can't find any official information on the program suggesting it may have gone extinct at this point. That said, I feel like this program is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it makes the math/computer science relationship concrete. Students can use their already verbose backgrounds in mathematics and transform it into a computer science project giving them a readily available in. Additionally, it fosters teamwork, creating the proposal wasn't a solo activity. Further there is plenty of room for interdisciplinary projects. Just off the top of my head I can imagine modeling biological, chemical, and economic systems as being viable projects. It's a shame that information on this program is so scarce as I find this to be a fascinating idea.

A second contest I looked at was the USA Computer Olympiad. A contest running since at least 1992, this contest prepares and selects high school students for the International Olympiad of Informatics. The qualification contests are conducted over the Internet. A practice I think I like given that it offers more students the ability to compete as traveling to a central location isn't always feasible. However, the contest appears to be purely a test of programming. I investigated the online training website and the problems seem to be in the vein of, here's some input data, some output data, make 'em match. While it's everybody can participate nature is beneficial and online training materials are valuable, I feel this contest doesn't help us to move away from the computer science == programming paradigm. Additionally, skimming over quickly it looks like only 2 out of 68 students sent to the international competition from the USACO were women.

The ultimate goal of the USACO of course is the International Olympiad for Informatics which has apparently been operating since 1989. A skim shows quite a few women dotted amongst the crowds of competitors although without official designation of the competitiors I'm unsure just how prevalent they are.

Close to home, Slippery Rock University hosts an annual programming contest modeled off of the official ACM Intercollegiate Programming contest. Specifically, this targets the team programming disciplines that is touted by Meszaros and Kahle '07, Hazzan and Dubinsky '06, and many others. Unfortunately, it is a PROGRAMMING contest meaning the importance of the actual algorithms and analysis sometimes gets lost. The fact that the strategies page has a humongous section on I/O and a couple bullets about worrying about the actual problems suggests that algorithms isn't necessarily where the focus lies.

One final competition I looked at was the American Computer Science League competition. The first thing I have to mention about this is the fact that they include a short answer portion. If nothing else this contest I feel is valuable because it gets computer science off of the computer. That may have something to do with the fact that this is the only competition for "computer science" as the others have been for programming/informatics but I don't think this is a trivial difference. The problems featured in the sample problems aren't the most fascinating questions in the world (e.g. what does this program do?) but it's a start. The competition also includes a programming portion although with much misfortune the programming portion seems to be a solo exercise.

So none of these programming contests perfectly fit the ideal model I had in my head for a computer science competition but the fact that something exists I do feel is something positive and each of the contests offers a little bit of insight. I appreciate that there are competitions taking advantage of the agile programming and teamwork models to show how computer science is a team building exercise. I appreciate that there are contests that offer a written portion to show the idea that computer science can happen just as easily away from the computer as it can on it. I appreciate the ability to model interdiscplinary problems to promote a computer science way of thinking. If there is someplace we can combine all three in a way that is interesting, fun, and valuable to college applications is a question I'm going to continue asking.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Math Contests -> CS Contests?

This week I dived into a couple papers included in the book "Reconfiguring the Firewall" by Burger, Cremer, and Meszaros.

The first paper "Revisiting Culture, Time, and Information Processing Factors in Connecting to Girls' Interest and Choice of an Information Technology Career at the Secondary Level" by Meszaros and Kahle helped to really set the tone for my entire thought process this week. Specifically the line that reached out the strongest to me was concerning young women's decision not to take CS in high school was"computer science was either not offered or not considered necessary for acceptance to highly selective colleges." (45) The reason this line speaks out so strongly is the consistent narrative present in a significant portion of college computer science students. Specifically, the computer science courses at the high school level are few and the courses that are robust or go beyond programming are even fewer. Competition for positions in elite collge programs are getting worse all the time. No longer is a 4.0 GPA enough, you have to go above and beyond and GPAs start to approach 4.5. You can't just be valedictorian of your school you have to be valedictorian of the state. At some point the top of the class starts to look like a monolithic block and it becomes difficult enough to tell anybody apart as it is.

In such an environment, the high school computer science curriculum has no place. Too many narratives of inadequate cs courses abound. Much credit is due to the computer science teachers who are working to change that and make the coursework a valuable part of a college application. At times this argument feels like a backlash to Margolis-Fisher due to the removal of computer science background from admissions criteria but at the same time, the high school computer science courses that were being offered before Margolis-Fisher weren't any more gender balanced. I don't believe reversing the critiera is going to suddenly raise the national quality of computer science courses. What this does make me wonder though is how we can make computer science a valuable part of high school student's college applications?

From this springs one item which is undoubtedly present on countless members of CMU's computer science class. The heralded math competition permeates many college students applications and are well regarded across the nation. From the school to the state to the national level math contests continue to shape primary through high school education. In 4th to 6th grade I personally competed in math olympiads, 7th to 9th I was invested in Math Counts, of which the national competition is broadcast on ESPN. 10th to 12th I was a regular top finisher in the state math contest. Not a year of my adolescence when by when I wasn't competing in some form of math competition.

That being said, what exists in the same vein for computer science? Certainly they're not as apparent as the math competitions for a variety of reasons but what is out there and what can we do to increase their visibility? By establishing competitions we get around the "full schedules" Meszaros and Kahle cite as a reason students don't take computer science, give students something they can do to beef up their college applications, and most importantly increase the visibility of computer science in those critical pre-college years.

This little light bulb has highlighted some questions I intend to look at in the upcoming weeks. What content would be on such an exam for middle schoolers? What about high schoolers? Can we insert the agile programming and pair programming methods cited repeatedly as instances of the need for teamwork in computer science into the competition? What computer science contests already exist locally? Nationally? Internationally? What is the interest level for such a competition? Should we set quotas to ensure teams are gender diverse? What about the current student body, have they participated in computer science competitions? Moreover, did they participate in math competitions? Are these competitions remembered fondly? Are they part of the reason they became computer scientists?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Progress on Background Research

Since our first research team meeting, last Thursday, I have been constructing a reading list and reading / taking notes on some papers for background research. I will post some thoughts on my readings in this blog, but maintain more detailed notes on copies of the papers. Here are some of my thoughts on some of the papers I have read over the past week.

I read "An Expanding Pipeline: Gender in Mauritius" by Adams, Bauer, and Baichoo in which the authors examine the trend of increasing percentages of women in CS at the University of Mauritius and hypothesize about cultural differences between Mauritius and other countries like the U.S. which have a trend of decreasing percentages of women in CS. I thought that one of the most interesting quotes from the paper was the following: "The growing percentage of female CSE students plus the low and declining percentage of female CSE instructors contradicts the hypothesis that women require female academic role models to be attracted to computer science." At our last meeting, we discussed the possible influence of role models in attracting students to computer science. The paper only discuss professors at the University of Mauritius as potential role models and not any women or men in industry who may be role models to pre-college students which may influence students' decisions to study CS. I would be interested to learn if there were any cultural role models in the field of CS in Mauritius.

Another paper that I read was "Gender Gap in Computer Science Does Not Exist in One Former Soviet Union Republic: Results of a Study" by Gharibyan and Gunsaulus which examined women's involvement in CS in Armenia. I did not find this paper as informative as other papers, but this may be due to the fact that this paper was based on only one part of a study with several parts left to be conducted.

The paper seemed very informal and not terribly scientific when analyzing cultural influences. For example, one sentence from the paper reads, "Armenians are very realistic and reasonable in almost all aspects of their lives, including the planning of their future." Besides quotations like that, there were interesting conclusions drawn from the research done by Gharibyan and Gunsaulus which support some of our hypotheses such as "CS is viewed as more closely related to Math than Engineering in countries where women's representation is higher in the field." Other interesting observations the authors had were that women and men had similar motivations and influences when choosing a major and absence of role models and male dominated fields are not intimidating to women.

One thing that I found very interesting was the fact that for all of the 1980's and 1990's the percentage of women in Computer Science never fell below 75% at Yerevan State University in Armenia. However, it has fallen to 44% in recent years. The authors attribute this to growing popularity with men and not falling interest with women. But my question is, why isn't Computer Science growing in popularity with women as well?

I have been reading various papers in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Volume 26, Number 1, 2006. It is a special issue on gender, race, and information technology. I have started reading "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher on Google books, but there is only a limited preview, so I am waiting for my copy to come in from Amazon to finish it! I have also been constructing a reading list (of more papers / books that I need to read), which I hope to put up here in my next post.

In addition to reading papers, I have been thinking a lot about the questions that we will want to put on our survey. We don't want the survey to be too long because it might discourage participation, but we also want it long enough that we can gain useful information.

At our meeting last week, we also discussed having a separate survey for freshmen. At this point in the school year, freshmen have only 2 weeks of experience to answer questions like, "Do you feel that you fit in at CMU, specifically within the CS department?" While they have limited experience with living / fitting in at college, freshmen can answer certain questions that will benefit our study. For example, in studying cultural attitudes towards computer science, a natural question to ask people in computer science is, "Why did you decide to major in Computer Science?" A freshman may provide a more unbiased answer to this question than a senior - while the senior may know why he or she has remained in the field, he or she may not remember as clearly as the freshman, exactly why he or she had initially decided to study computer science.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

About the Project and About the Blog

Anthony and I are doing a year-long independent study / research project on the culture of computing specifically on how cultural attitudes towards Computer Science affect women's representation in the field. Our full proposal is detailed in an earlier post. Our advisor is Dr. Carol Frieze who has done a great deal of research in the area of the culture of computing.

We are able to do this research through the Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates (CREU) program which is a program designed to provide positive research experience for teams of undergraduate students. The CREU program is a joint program of the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing (CRA-W) and the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC). The goal of the CREU program is to increase the numbers of women and minorities who continue on to graduate school in computing related fields.

Part of the CREU program is maintaining a weekly journal and website, documenting progress on the project, by the students involved in the project. So, Anthony and I will be using this blog to give (at least) weekly updates. We also have a separate web page that currently has bios and a copy of our proposal that we may use to document progress.

Monday, August 31, 2009


This is a copy of our proposal for our CREU research project.

Cultural Attitudes Towards Computer Science: How do they Affect Women’s Representation in the Field?

General Project Description

This study is based on the premise that gender differences do not provide a satisfactory explanation for the low participation of women in computer science (CS) and that we need to look at factors other than gender differences. We propose a CREU study that will investigate cultural attitudes towards computer science. We will try to compare the localized culture of a CS department with some broader cultural attitudes.

To investigate the localized culture of a CS department the study will build on previous research which examined the attitudes and perceptions of undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon University (including a previous CREU research study). Post 1999 studies (2002, 2004 and 2005) revealed that Carnegie Mellon had developed a culture and environment in which women felt they fit and could contribute to the CS culture alongside their male peers. We will begin our study by finding out if this still holds true. We will try to identify the cultural factors that currently prevail and assess whether or not they have changed since the last studies.

To investigate some broader cultural attitudes we will pay close attention to the perspectives and attitudes of non-US students and faculty. Carnegie Mellon has a sizable number of faculty and students (especially graduate students) from other countries and cultures. At the same time we understand that in some countries and cultures women are well represented in computer science. With this in mind the perspectives and observations of our non-US faculty and students could be very illuminating. We will also tie in what we learn from discussions, interviews and focus groups, with literature searches to see what cultural factors have already been identified as contributing to better representation of women in CS.

Ultimately, we aim a) to assess attitudes and perceptions towards CS to identify some specific cultural factors that are already contributing to the increased participation of women in computer science, and b) to ask how we can apply this information to improve our strategies for change.

Specific Questions/Hypotheses (to be addressed)

In the USA and many western nations women’s participation in CS is very low and has been declining for many years. Data show that for several years Carnegie Mellon has had better than average percentages of women in the undergraduate CS major. Research studies show that in some countries women are well represented in computer science. We are curious to see which cultural factors are contributing in these seemingly different situations. For example, how computer science is perceived and represented (in a micro-culture or a broader culture) could be important factors. We have observed that interest in mathematics seems to be a very salient factor for students (men and women) entering and succeeding in the CS major at Carnegie Mellon. It also seems that in some of the countries where women are well represented in computer science the mathematical aspects of, and associations with, computer science are salient.

  1. We hypothesize that cultural attitudes and perceptions of CS are playing a major role in women’s participation in the field, be it the localized culture of a department or the broader culture of a nation.
  2. We also hypothesize that there is a relationship between math and CS which could be exploited to re-present how CS is perceived in the USA.

Some specific questions to be addressed:

* How is CS currently perceived among undergraduates in Carnegie Mellon’s CS department?
* Do women still feel like they fit into Carnegie Mellon’s CS department both socially and academically?
* How is CS perceived in those countries in which women are well represented?
* Is math interest a motivator for women going into CS in these other countries?
* Is math interest a motivator for women going into CS at Carnegie Mellon?
* Are there ways in which we can make better use of the cultural factors that are already contributing to the increased participation of women in computer science?

Methods (to be utilized, including background research to be studied):

* General searches: internet and library searches of papers, data and reports related to aims of the study.
* Background reading: becoming familiar with majors papers and reports on cultural perspectives on women and computer science, and on women in computer science in other countries.
* Documentation: findings and data from searches and background reading will be documented.
* Surveys, interviews and focus groups: these tools will be used to assess attitudes and perceptions towards CS among undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty. This will include discussions with students and faculty from other countries. Some of these activities will be tape recorded and transcribed.
* Analysis: data collected from surveys, interviews and focus groups will be analyzed to see if they support, or do not support, our hypotheses.
* Conclusions: we aim to write up our findings and conclusions in a paper that could be submitted to conferences where these issues are of interest.