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GDI Book Talk

Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing

“Girls and women are not interested in computers.” For many years this phrase rang a bell with thousands of girls and women in the US. Why is this happening? The Gender and Diversities Institute and New Words Bookstore co-sponsored an opportunity to examine the issue. Drawing on their recent study, social scientist Dr. Jane Margolis of University of California, Los Angeles, and computer scientist and educator, Dr. Allan Fisher, president of the Carnegie Technology Education, provided a deeper understanding of why females have been "locked out" of computing. They also reported on successful strategies to improve the situation for females in computer science education at the elementary, secondary and college levels. Their research documents one successful model drawn from Fisher's own work at Carnegie Mellon, where the percentage of women entering the School of Computer Science increased from 7% in 1995 to 42% in 2000. Their research and findings are compiled in Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, a guide for those concerned with creating a more equitable and creative technology environment.

Fisher and Margolis conducted multiple interviews over four years with more than 100 male and female computer science students from Carnegie Mellon, one of the premier computer science departments in the country. They asked students about their experiences with computers when they were younger, their school and home environments, their interest in computers, their decision to enroll in a computer science program, and their experiences as an undergraduate. Margolis and Fisher documented the results of these conversations, classroom observations, discussions with hundreds of college and high school faculty, and compared their data with a growing body of research on this topic. Their work both confirms some of the prevailing concerns and points to ways to change the situation.

Margolis and Fisher looked closely at the notion of a “magnetic attraction” that boys supposedly have with computers. Boys are more interested and enjoy working with computers more than girls; they see it as fun time. Girls, on the other hand, use computers as a tool to do homework, so it is not as fun. This sense of work and not play could have contributed to the disinterest of girls in computers. At the same time, they noted that many times the computer is situated in the boys’ room. So the girls do not have easy access to the computer and the boys seem to dominate its use. They suggest placing the computer in a more accessible place, and for teachers and parents to give both girls and boys fun activities that they could do on the computer.

When it comes to the popular concept of “geek mythology” Margolis and Fisher found that a lot of girls and women are still not comfortable being labeled "geek" or being seen as part of that culture. They suggested that strategies should be put in place in schools so female students realize that they do not need to “dream in code to belong, to be a computer scientist.” They noted that the girls’ and women’s lack of interest in computers seem to be preceded by a lack of confidence.

Why does it matter that we close the computing gender gap? Margolis and Fisher documented at least two good reasons. First, from an equity and career perspective, high-paying technology jobs currently are held by predominantly middle-class white men. There is a big need to fill these positions, but the women who are qualified are few and far between. From a health perspective, more women need to have a say in the design of products that consider their physical needs, such as smaller heart valves and airbags--and they will not unless they are involved as scientists. Margolis and Fisher underscored the need for both men and women to be actively engaged in the dialogue about how technology can shape

Margolis and Fisher offered some recommendations to bridge the computing gender gap. First, educators should pay more attention to the quality of the student experience. Second, educators must be able to accommodate a wide-range of experiences that their students can learn from. Third, educators must link curriculum to real-world applications. Last, educators must establish mechanisms that support students’ meta-learning.

The book discussion and the book itself offer a blueprint for change. For more information, contact Jane Margolis or Allan Fisher. Additional resources on how to change the face of computing and technology is found on our website. The winter issue of GDI News Online provides additional information and resources on gender and technology. The Gender and Diversities Institute also invites you to share your effective work in this area by submitting information to our "Impact Stories" section or submitting digital materials for the Gender and Science Digital Library.