Wednesday, March 24, 2010


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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Pink Blue Project

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rising computer science enrollment?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bureau of Labor Statistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Official!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Medical Doctors and Computer Science

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

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

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

Monday, February 1, 2010

AP Exams

At our last meeting we talked a lot about AP exams - specifically the AP Computer Science Exam. I know Anthony already discussed the extraordinarily low numbers of students who take the AP CS Exam, but I wanted to discuss that further and also the gender distribution of the exams.

After a lot of poking around on and downloading lots of files, I came up with some graphs and a spreadsheet of some AP CS gender related data from 1996 through 2009.

I found that the AP CS Exams - both the A and AB exams - have never accounted for more than 1.7% of all AP exams in a year (and that, unsurprisingly, was in 2001). It has been steadily declining since then - leveling off in recent years. The AP CS exams now make up .72% of all AP exams taken.
A small distinction is the number of students who take one of the AP CS Exams (referred to from now on as AP CS students) out of all students who take AP exams (referred to from now on as AP students). AP CS students have never accounted for more than 2.85% of all AP students and in 2009, that number was down to 1.24%.

These are alarmingly low numbers. In 2009, only 16,061 students took the AP CS A Exam and only 4,900 took the AP CS AB Exam for a total of 20,961 taking either AP CS Exam. Compare this to something like Calculus (which isn't even the most popular AP Exam) which has 108,249 students taking the AP Calculus AB Exam and 28,974 students taking the AP Calculus BC Exam for a total of 137,223 students. That's more than 6.5 times the number of students!

Well, okay, you say, Calculus is far more general subject than CS. It is far more applicable to more fields. Okay, then. Let's compare CS data against CS data. In 2009 we were less than 2500 exams off from the peak number of AP CS exams in 2002. In 2002 23,459 students took an AP CS exam. In 2009, 20,961 students took an AP CS exam. That's about 89% of what it was. "Not bad," you might say, "I still don't see the problem - 90% of the peak." However, it should be noted that the number of AP students in 2009 was 1.8 times the number of AP students in 2002. And that the number of AP exams taken in 2009 was 1.85 times the number of AP exams taken in 2002. Taking that into account, the number of AP CS exams in 2009 is 61% of what it was in 2002.

Then there's the question of women taking AP CS exams. In 2009, women accounted for 55% of all AP students. However, they did not account for 55% of AP CS students. In fact, they accounted for less than 18% of AP CS students. Women accounted for 19% of AP CS A students but only 13% of AP CS AB students. And this is the best it's ever been.

While the number of students taking the AP CS Exams has been going up over the past few years, the percentage of all AP Exams that are AP CS Exams and the number of AP Students that are AP CS Students has been declining and is only now leveling off. While the percentage of women taking AP CS Exams has been slowly increasing over the past few years, still fewer than 4,000 women are taking AP CS Exams - and the percentage (18%) is nowhere close to the number of women taking any AP Exams (55%). Fewer than 700 women are taking the AP CS AB Exam.

While I recognize that not everyone who takes CS in high school takes one of the AP CS exams, the numbers are alarmingly low. Something needs to be done to introduce students to CS in high school! I don't know what, but something...

Friday, January 29, 2010

AP Tests

So I've been conducting focus groups with International students recently. I've been listening to lots of different inputs and insights into computer science perception and how women fit into the picture of computer science both in their home country and in the United States. A recurring theme has been the exposure to computing and computer science prior to arriving in college and being forced to make an educational decision that will impact the next 4 years of their life at least and how women aren't enrolling at numbers comparable to men in computer science. At one point one person told me that making computer science compulsory in high school would close the gap significantly. This got me to wondering exactly how many people in high school are getting exposed to computer science in some way, shape, or form.

Now, I know the AP test is by no means an exact or even remotely close to exact figure of how many people are taking computer science in high school. I also know that the AP test is more a measure of your programming knowledge than anything else. However, for someone to take the Computer Science AP test, it suggests that they believe to have had some exposure to something akin to collegiate level in computer science. After digging around on the College Board website for a while, I made a list of the number of people who took all of the AP tests in 2009. The chart is below:

From this information we've learned some information that at least to me is a little bit shocking. I mean, I know that not very many people get exposed to computer science prior to high school. Going in I knew computer science would be dominated by tests like Calculus and English. However, there were quite a few that surprised me considerably. For one Art History has significantly more takers than Computer Science, almost 33% more. More people in high school are exposed to a collegiate level of art history than they are to computer science. I have never met anyone who's met anyone who's taken the Art History exam but it's still taken more often than Computer Science. In fact, about the same number of people are exposed to Computer Science as are exposed to Spanish literature. I don't know this for a fact but I get the feeling there's a lot less people majoring in Spanish literature than in computer science. Why then are the numbers taking the AP tests comparable? While collecting this data I cringed with every new page I opened up (and not just because half of College Board's data is corrupted, which is why several figures are missing including Spanish Language and Music Theory). I could make arguments for issues of class difference that keeps computer science being as popular as microeconomics since it's probably more expensive to teach, but it's hard to make that argument for all of the tests it's outstripped by.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Comparing Global Statistics

This week I've been trying to compile some data on global levels on computer science enrollment. I think it would be really interesting to be able to access an all-in-one resource that would give data on computer science students all around the world so that I had a better picture of what exactly was happening internationally. However like most things the reality of the data is a lot more complex than it is in my head. I've run into more than a few little caveats that make my question just how valuable any numbers I find will be.

Finding data in the US generally isn't a problem. The NSF keeps statistics regularly for most disciplines and for computer science we have the luxury of the Talbee reports which have demographic information for undergraduate and graduate students that give a very nice picture of how Ph.D. granting America universities are doing enrollment wise.

However, looking internationally the picture gets a lot more confusing. It is difficult to find the equivalent of the NSF or other large reporting organization body that will handle statistics like this if they have one at all. Reports are littered with all kinds of figures that are often outdated or not sourced at all. It's hard to find where exactly these numbers come from if they arise at all.

Vashti Galpin has been sort of my inspiration for a lot of this as her 2002 paper Women in Computing Around the World gave one of the clearest pictures I've seen of the international enrollment levels. However, 2002 was 8 years ago and I imagine some of these numbers have changed so I was hoping to get updated data. It's only once I've begun digging that I've realized how important the many footnotes her paper included on the statistics are.

Most specifically, I've been wondering about the large section of her paper that details the many different computing disciplines she found statistics for. I remember blogging early about our lack of a common language but I'm wondering how can we measure a degree in Informatics against a degree in Computer Science. I've spoken to many people who say they're the same but I wonder again how a name can affect enrollment.

I find this point especially intriguing after our first focus group. A couple of the participants who are now graduate students at Carnegie Mellon in computer science did not do their undergrad work in computer science. Rather, they found their passion through computer engineering. The work they were doing in computer engineering was still computer science by Carnegie Mellon's definition but in their home countries they still had computer science programs. While I've been so focused on collecting statistics for only computer science it's becoming more obvious that I may need to be doing more investigating into computer engineering, informatics, and other disciplines.

I think if I stop and take my bigger question of "Who is doing Computer Science?" I can look at numbers all I want but I'll never get the answer. Only a closer reading of Galpin and the actual work being done around the world can I better understand where my data is coming from.