January 2006


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Alison Pechenick <[log in to unmask]>
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Technology Discussion at UVM <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 12 Jan 2006 12:37:33 -0500
text/plain (351 lines)
Hello everyone,

The CEMS faculty received this today, and I found it to be an 
intriguing, and somewhat startling piece.

Best wishes,


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 	From today's Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 	Thu, 12 Jan 2006 09:00:51 -0500

The Chronicle of Higher Education <>
Information Technology <>

  From the issue dated January 13, 2006

       Wanted: Female Computer-Science Students

* Colleges work to attract and support women in technology majors*


Are computer programmers from Mars? Is computer science a guy thing?
Some experts are wondering just that  at least, as it is taught now.
While other fields, like mathematics, science, and chemistry, have seen
growing enrollment and involvement of women, the number of women in
computer science and related fields remains low and stagnant. According
to the Computing Research Association, only 17 percent of undergraduate
computer-science degrees were awarded to women in 2004, down from 19
percent in 2000. Those dwindling numbers come at a crucial time for the
discipline, which has seen shrinking enrollments in since the dot-com bust.

Could it be that men are more attracted to the nuts and bolts of
computers, while women are more interested in the social and cultural
applications of the devices? Perhaps computer-science programs, suggest
some researchers, are stacked against women and the way they learn.

Some women who have been successful in computer science, however, say
that is nonsense. What is needed, they say, is more social support for
women in the discipline  and for peers and parents to stop telling
girls that computers are not for them.

To provide that support, programs and clubs for women in computer
science have recently cropped up at colleges across the country, notably
at Carnegie Mellon University and at the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County.

Women who want to go into computer fields can face discouragement and
discrimination from as early as grade school, through college, and into
the work world. Consider the story of Kim, who graduated from Ohio
University in 2004. Kim, who asked to remain anonymous, arrived at the
university intending to major in mass communications. But, having grown
up building ham radios with her father, she thought a technical field
would provide better job options and offer more of a challenge.

Communications-systems management, a technical degree with lots of
programming, was definitely challenging, but not in ways she had
anticipated. She was one of only a handful of women in the program. "The
guys wanted to be my partner when it came to writing papers, but no one
wanted to be my partner when it came to lab time," she says.

Advising sessions for the degree were held at a local bar. "All the guys
would sit together, eating the hot wings," she says. "I hated going
there, because I knew that unless the other girls showed up, I would be
sitting by myself."

The challenges did not end when she got her first job after graduation,
at AT&T, as the only woman on a team of techies charged with selling
equipment and services. On her first day, a senior male colleague tossed
a pencil on the floor in front of her. "Could you pick that up?" he
cooed, clearly wanting to ogle her.

"I was floored," she says. "I called home that night and just cried."

*Downward Trend*

Studies of women in technology inevitably refer to /Unlocking the
Clubhouse: Women in Computing,/ a highly influential and celebrated
study of women in computer science, based on research conducted largely
in the late 1990s at Carnegie Mellon. At the time of the study, only 7
percent of the computer-science majors at Carnegie Mellon were women.

Nationwide, "things have not changed that much," says Jane Margolis, a
researcher at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was one of the
book's authors. "In fact, they've gotten worse."

Her studies indicate that boys get more hands-on experience with
computers at home. In addition, she says, games and computer software
are generally designed by guys, for guys, and tend to engage boys more
than girls.

In high-school and college courses, computer science is presented as
straight programming, which is seen as tedious, especially by women, she
says. Men are generally interested in computers as tools and objects of
study, according to her research; women are more interested in what
computers can do for science, the arts, or society.

"What our research found was that their motivation for learning computer
science very much hung on the purpose that computing was going to be
used for," she says. "It wasn't just hacking for hacking's sake. There
was a real social context that gave them motivation and meaning."

In response to such findings, Carnegie Mellon changed the admissions
policies for its School of Computer Science in 1999. Instead of
primarily looking for students who had prior programming experience, the
university broadened its criteria to include students who had ambitious
goals, who showed leadership skills, and, of course, who had excellent
grades. After 2000, the number of women entering the computer-science
program went from below 10 percent to more than 30 percent and has held
steady there since.

Lenore Blum, a professor of computer science, arrived at Carnegie Mellon
just as the admissions policy changed and as the population of women in
the program surged. Local newspapers were celebrating the arrival of
women in the computer-science program. "I could see that unless we did
something that provided the critical professional support for women in
the program," Ms. Blum says, "you would see articles the following year
saying that half the students had dropped out."

She wanted to set up a program that would foster the professional
experiences and support for women at Carnegie Mellon that are "implicit
and often not acknowledged for a majority in a population," she says.

The program, called Women@SCS, draws prominent female speakers from the
world of technology who can serve as role models for the students. It
runs a mentor service, in which women who are juniors and seniors can
counsel freshmen and sophomores, offering support for course work or for
dealing with the rigors of the major. Social occasions, like lunches,
are set up to provide opportunities for the women to network.

"These are common-sense things to do, but you've got to do them," Ms.
Blum says, adding that she is tired of hearing people bemoan the fact
that computer science is losing female students. "What I'm realizing is
that there is too much talk the talk and not enough walk the walk. We
have the complete support of the president, the provost, the dean, and
the chair of the department. They're not just saying, 'Hey, you're doing
a good job.' They are paying the bill."

*'Bias In, Bias Out'*

The expanded population of women in Carnegie Mellon's computer-science
program has given Ms. Blum the opportunity to do her own research on the
classes of 2002 and 2004. She says her findings contradict some of the
conclusions of /Unlocking the Clubhouse./ The book's research was
tainted by "bias in, bias out," she argues, reflecting Carnegie Mellon's
admissions requirements at the time, which rewarded programming
experience that male students were more likely to possess.

Ms. Blum does not believe that women are oriented toward applications
and that men are oriented toward programming. "We didn't see any gender
differences at all, but found similar spectra in men and women," she
says. "We found that there were some men who were hackers and some women
who were hackers. ... One of the women we interviewed said that she
kisses her computer every morning."

"To say that there are intrinsic male and female differences and you
have to accommodate for those is absolutely wrong," she says. "Don't
devise the curriculum so that it's female-friendly. That will only serve
to marginalize women."

Other colleges have set up programs like [log in to unmask] The University of
Maryland-Baltimore County recently started the Center for Women and
Information Technology, or CWIT, as it is more commonly known. The
center supports female students in computer science, information
science, computer engineering, and information studies. Women in the
center's program live together on a designated floor of a residence
hall, allowing for the sort of support that all-night programming
sessions require. The center also helps women make connections with
local companies for jobs and internships.

CWIT attempts to counter some of the negative influences that have
ground down the students' self-esteem. Lindsay Mannchen, a senior, says
she was one of two girls in her high-school programming courses, where
her male peers told her again and again that she was no good at
programming and that she was out of place.

"One of guys I grew up with and was in all of the classes with told me
that, scientifically, girls were not programmed to do math like guys
could," she says. "And I believed him."

Since joining the CWIT program in college, her attitude has changed,
"mostly because I'm surrounded by girls who say, 'That's not right;
don't listen to that,'" she says.

"I do notice that a lot of my classes are male-dominated, and in
information science, we do a lot of group projects," she says. "The guys
don't want to listen to the girls, unless you stand up and prove
yourself right away."

The women's center is not all women. A select group of male students is
involved with the program, a strategy to draw UMBC men into the
conversation about women in technical fields. "It's not so much that
only women can encourage us," says Amanda Schwenk, a freshman. "It's
that the guys realize that it's harder for women to get a start or keep
going in this, and that it's not exactly socially acceptable."

*Social Factors*

Claudia Morrell, executive director of CWIT, is not a computer scientist
but a psychologist who has been studying the attitudes and influences of
women and girls in computer science. Support programs for female
computer-science majors can help women stay in the discipline, she
argues, but crucial influences in childhood are strong factors in
steering girls away from computer science and related fields.

"Parents are students' No. 1 source for decisions in career making," Ms.
Morrell says. "Daughters tend to identify or align themselves with their
mothers, and mothers aren't often the ones who are involved with
technology." Meanwhile, dad is the one who is often fussing with the
computer, hooking up the home stereo system, or even has a job involving

When girls enter middle school, Ms. Morrell says, these perceptions
begin to solidify into career goals, as young people start to form their
identities. "At that age, gender issues become important as an
expression of personal identity," she says. Too often, a middle-school
girl who says she wants to be a computer scientist is treated much like
a boy who says he wants to be a nurse  the professions carry gender
identities, even if they are outdated.

Those gender identities still have power over enrollment choices. If
schools offer computer-science or programming courses  and all too
often they don't, scholars say  enrollment is often dominated by boys,
who are already playing around with computers at home. A middle-school
girl in a programming class might feel as out of place as a boy in a
sewing course.

Add to all those influences the image of computer scientists and
programmers well known in the media: the brilliant but socially inept
mumbler who could use a few tips on hairstyles and clothes.

"Unfortunately, computer fields have a geeky image," Ms. Morrell says,
"and girls in particular don't want to be perceived as geeks and nerds."

So by the time girls enter high school and start thinking about colleges
and careers, computer science and related technology fields are distant
thoughts compared with biology, chemistry, and mathematics, which have
seen tremendous growth in women's participation in the past few decades.

Ms. Morrell and others at UMBC are trying to change that in Maryland
with a couple of programs that are specifically aimed at middle-school
girls. The university runs a summer program that invites girls to
explore science and technology. While the girls are digging into
computers, people from CWIT sit down with parents to talk about the
troubles of attracting women to computer science, the subtle influences
on that trend within the home, and the potential women have in the field.

The university also runs an after-school program at six suburban
Baltimore middle schools, focusing on hands-on activities in science and
technology. Supported by a $1-million grant from the National Science
Foundation, the program covers basic tenets of science and technology,
while giving students the opportunity to tear apart cameras to see how
they work, to put together telephones from kits and string together a
telephone network, and to create presentations on computers.

At a middle school in Essex, an economically depressed community east of
Baltimore, Renee Yusuff and Anissa Nixon pore over a diagram for
assembling a blue plastic telephone, barely looking up to answer a
reporter's questions.

"I learned how to use a digital camera and how to use PowerPoint," Renee
says when asked about her favorite lessons in the program. "I want to go
into information technology." Anissa says that she is considering some
kind of career in engineering.

True to Ms. Morrell's observations, the girls have had strong role
models in technology within their families. Renee learned about
computers from her uncle, who used to work on them in the basement at
home. Anissa's mother used to climb telephone poles to repair lines for
Verizon. "She was one of the only women in that job," Anissa says, then
adds proudly, "and she was one of the best."

*Mentors Needed*

Among college women in computer science who were interviewed by The
Chronicle, many recounted special circumstances from childhood that
helped them enter the field and stick with it.

Amy Goodwin, a junior at Carnegie Mellon, picked up computers as early
as elementary school because she had a learning disability that affected
her handwriting. She dug into her laptop, a constant companion, and
learned some common programming languages by sixth grade.

In programming classes in high school  at an all-girls school in
Maryland, where, she says, girls "don't have to pretend not to be smart
when they're around guys"  she says she knew far more than the students
who enrolled from a nearby boys' school. Her mother, a law professor,
was a strong figure in her life and taught her by example to persevere
in a profession that is still an old-boys' club.

She considers her gender an asset  something that might make her stand
out in job applications. Recruiters from Microsoft and from Google  who
brought shirts with the o's in Google transformed into female symbols 
came to Carnegie Mellon to talk about the opportunities for women in
their companies. But she has also heard, from women who graduated from
Carnegie Mellon a few years ago, stories about male colleagues who said
things like "You don't belong here" and "You're only here because you're
a woman."

"Those are the people that are out there in the work world," she says.

Ms. Blum and Ms. Morrell point out that their programs for women are
building alumnae networks, through which women can find out about
friendly workplaces and evangelize about the field. National
organizations like the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology,
which is composed of female professionals from the computer industry and
academe, provide opportunities for women in the working world to get
together and support one another.

Progress may come, if slowly. Computer science, Ms. Morrell points out,
was once the dominion of women. Early programmers, called "computers,"
were women who worked on huge mainframe computers during World War II.
Grace Murray Hopper, an early programmer, is celebrated as a pioneer in
the field, having found the first computer "bug." Ada Byron Lovelace, a
19th-century mathematician, is credited with writing the first computer

"We forget to celebrate," Ms. Morrell says, noting the progress that has
been made over the years in mathematics and other sciences. "It's simply
a matter of time before women see the professional opportunities and the
financial opportunities. We'll reach a tipping point where women reach
some level of comfort, and this will no longer be a problem."
Section: Information Technology
Volume 52, Issue 19, Page A35
Copyright <>  2006 by The
Chronicle of Higher Education <>

Alison Pechenick, Lecturer
Department of Computer Science
College of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences
351 Votey Building
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405