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.

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