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:. Experts on the Digital Divide
:. Framing the Digital Divide
Unlocking the Clubhouse:
Women in
Computing

by

Jane Margolis
Graduate School of Education &
Information Studies, UCLA

Click here to read Jane Margolis' bio.

Photo: Jane Margolis
This submission is an adaptation of the introduction to the forthcoming book "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" (MIT Press) by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher.

Amidst the tumult of changes created by technology and its influence on our culture and the way we live our personal and professional lives, women and girls have fallen out of the loop. Girls and women are surfing the web in equal proportion to men and make up a majority of Internet consumers; yet, few girls and women are learning how to invent, create, and design computer technology. In the nation’s research departments of computer science, fewer than 20% of the graduates are female. Look around your computer science programming classes, fewer girls are enrolled in high school programming or advanced computer science classes. Despite the relative youth of the computer industry, much of which has developed since the rise of the women’s movement, women have lost ground in the world of computing. The gender distinction found in a 1970’s elementary textbook, "boys make things and girls use things that boys make," is uncomfortably true thirty years later.

The conversations among computer scientists can no longer be isolated to all-boys clubhouses; women’s voices and perspectives must be part of this conversation.

Why should it matter if the inventors, designers, and creators of computer technology are mostly male? At the most basic and individual level, girls and women who have the necessary talent and inclination, but do not become engaged in the technology, are missing the educational and economic opportunities that are falling into the laps of computer-savvy young men. Computing salaries are high, jobs plentiful, and entrepreneurship opportunities unbounded. Furthermore, a command of information technology is a valuable asset in many contexts outside of the field itself. Where in the "new economy" are advanced computer skills not valued? Where in education are advanced computer skills not an asset? This applies to the arts, social sciences, as well as the hard sciences.

The greatest impact of women’s absence may be on the health of computing as a discipline and its influence on society. A product design group that is not representative of its users can go wrong. For instance, it was a predominantly male group of engineers who tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in mortal danger to women and children. It was a mostly male group of engineers who designed artificial heart valves sized to the male heart. In an example from computer science, some early voice recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard. Similarly, some early video conferencing systems, in which the camera automatically focused on the speaker, ignored the participation of women. If women could not be heard, they could not be seen.

We found that very early on computing is claimed as male territory.

Along with technology’s power comes the responsibility to determine what computing is used for and how it is used. These concerns may not be on the minds of young male adolescents who get turned on to computing at a very early age and go on to become the world’s tech-Gods. But, these concerns must be part of a computer scientists’ line of work. The conversations among computer scientists can no longer be isolated to all-boys clubhouses; women’s voices and perspectives must be part of this conversation. For this to happen, women must know more than how to use technology; they must know how to design and create it.

Claiming the Computer

I am a social scientist, with a focus on gender socialization and education. From 1995-1999 I conducted research at the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, one of the leading departments in the country. My collaborator was Dr. Allan Fisher, a computer scientist, and the Associate Dean of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. We wanted to understand the daily experiences of women studying computer science, capture the dynamics and details of the "leaky pipeline,"---the exodus of women from computer science---and develop ways of increasing women’s participation.

We found that very early on computing is claimed as male territory. At each step from early childhood through college, computing is both actively claimed as "guy stuff" by boys and men (and parents), and passively ceded by girls and women. The claiming is largely the work of a culture and society that links interest and success with computers to boys and men. Curriculum, teachers’ expectations, and culture reflect boys’ pathways into computing, accepting assumptions of male excellence and women’s deficiencies in the field. Then, there is the subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male, and enshrine their preferences for single-minded intensity and a focus on technology in its culture. We found that these influences express themselves in a variety of ways at different stages of life, both at home and at school.

"Dreaming in code" then became one of our working metaphors, describing how male behavior becomes the icon of this computer-oriented world.

The corresponding process of women ceding the field, largely through disinterest and disaffection, is also complex. Careful observation shows that disinterest and disaffection are neither genetic nor accidental nor inherent to the field, but are the bitter fruit of many external influences. By the time they finish college, we find that most women studying computer science have had to face a technical culture whose values often do not match their own, and have encountered a variety of discouraging experiences with teachers, peers, and curriculum. Many wind up doubting their basic intelligence and their fitness to pursue computing. One woman student viewed her misfit with the prevailing culture this way:

    When I have free time, I don’t spend it reading machine learning books or robotics books like these other guys here. It’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this isn’t for me.’ It’s their hobby. They all start reading machine learning books or robotics books or build a little robot or something and I’m not like that at all. In my free time, I prefer to read a good fiction book or learn how to do photography or something different, whereas that’s their hobby, it’s their work, it’s their one goal. I’m just not like that at all; I don’t dream in code like they do.

"Dreaming in code" then became one of our working metaphors, describing how male behavior becomes the icon of this computer-oriented world.

Boys Make Things; Girls Use Things Boys Make

Today, the world of cyberspace is affecting the way we live, our environment and our culture. There really is very little that is unaffected by the onslaught of technology. The actual products of computer science are affecting how we do business, the pacing we expect from work, life and pleasure, the way we now regard entertainment. It matters if boys make things and girls use things that boys make. Our culture reflects the desires and sensibilities of males, to the exclusion and often denigration of females.

In our forthcoming book "Unlocking the Clubhouse," we review what teachers can do to recruit and retain more girls in their own computer science classes. We hope that our research will help spark public conversations on why there are so few girls and women studying computer science. What does early gender socialization and schooling have to do with this gender gap? And what will women add to the world of computing that will be missing until they are represented? My additional questions for TCLA readers are: Why do you think there are so few girls enrolled in computer science classes beyond the introductory level at your school? And, if your school is an exception to the national picture, what would you attribute this to?

:. tcla

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* The fact that this subset of boys are mostly White and Asian points to another glaring "digital divide." Among the 1999 recipients of computer science bachelor degrees from Ph.D. granting institutions in the US and Canada, only 4% were African-American and 4% Latino/a. Such low numbers are found elsewhere, as African-American and Latino/a students together make up less than 7% of the high school advanced placement computer science test-takers nationwide. In 1999, only 7 California African-American female high school students took the AP CS exams (out of a total of 455 female test takers), 24 African-American males (out of 2501 males), 21 Mexican-American females and 52 Mexican-American males.

Click here to read Jane Margolis' bio.

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