Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing

Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher addresses the lack of women in undergraduate computer science programs. Margolis, a feminist social scientist, and Fisher, then the associate dean for undergraduate education at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, analyze the way girls and boys are socialized to use and relate to computers from a very young age. The book traces this socialization from kindergarten through high school, looking at both the school and home environments.
After looking at the ways children and young teens use and relate to computers, the focus shifts to a case study of the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon. The authors interviewed both male and female students from 1995-1999, following them as they either stayed in the major, transferred to a new department, or left Carnegie Mellon. Of particular interest to the authors (and readers) is the culture of computing and hacking, from which the female students often felt excluded. Differences in perceived interest, as judged by peers, instructors, and the students themselves, played a large part in the women students' success and continuation in the program.
To end the book, Margolis and Fisher discuss possible solutions to this gender divide. Part of this is a summer institute created for high school computer science teachers, which was aimed at both teaching C++ to the instructors and educating them on how to recruit, teach, and inspire teen girls into their classes. At the undergraduate level, they detail the various changes made in the admission process and curriculum at Carnegie Mellon.
This book was published in 2002, and as all the data is from the late to mid-1990's, it is a bit outdated. However, some of the strategies and teaching techniques, along with the critique of computing culture, are very interesting and still relevant.


  1. This sounds like an interesting read, Meagan. I actually have a copy that I haven't had a chance to look at yet, so maybe I'll get to it after the semester!

    One thing that I'd be interested in is whether the authors considered the issue of women as role models or teachers. Does interacting with women who succeed in computers or technology make a difference in the confidence or retention levels?

    When it comes to the "hacker" culture, I'm always reminded of Sherry Turkel's work on early computing, and the competitive male culture versus the collaborative approach that women would take towards the work. It resonates with ideas of Web2.0 for me - the "female" style actually describes a lot of contemporary applications. It would be interesting to see an updated study that considers whether "hacker" culture has shifted, as well, and if gender dynamics have changed at all.

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  3. Take 2: I think the social construction of computers and computing is an interesting aspect of the digital divide, especially the collaborative aspects of open source application development.