Fewer women than men pursue computer science, but correcting that imbalance won't be accomplished by quick fixes or making coursework less strenuous. Rather, the culture of computer science departments must change, as outlined in the new book, "Kicking Butt in Computer Science: Women in Computing at Carnegie Mellon University."
A cultural makeover at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, a top-ranked computer science program, is one of the reasons why the school consistently attracts and graduates a higher percentage of female computer science students than the national average, according to authors Carol Frieze and Jeria Quesenberry.
Frieze, director of the school's Women @SCS faculty/student organization, and Quesenberry, associate teaching professor of information systems in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, explain the rationale and methods of this approach in their book.
"We have encountered so many questions about this over the years — and so many misconceptions. It's why we became convinced we needed to write this book," said Frieze, who has worked on diversity issues in the School of Computer Science for 15 years. Their book includes many years of observations and several case studies, some told through the voices of students.
"There's a lot of thinking out there that you need to change the curriculum to suit women — to make it female friendly — based on the idea that men and women relate to computer science differently," she said. "But that's just not true. Cultural factors play a more important role than gender differences. Indeed, here at CMU in a more balanced environment we've not seen the familiar, simplistic gender divide in computer science. Rather we've found men and women relate to computer science through a spectrum of attitudes and with more similarities than differences."
"Those similar attitudes even extend to identifying with the image of 'geek' — a word once shunned, but now embraced as a point of pride by both men and women," Quesenberry said.
"What's critical," Frieze said, "is that you don't marginalize women, that you integrate them into the school so that they receive the same opportunities, visibility and networking that have worked well for most men. Integration means women can help shape the culture and environment."
As Frieze and Quesenberry note in their book, CMU's approach began to change in 1999, when Lenore Blum, a longtime advocate for women in science and mathematics, joined the computer science faculty. She worked with graduate students to form Women @ SCS, providing a way to connect women across the departments within the school. A year later, Blum recruited Frieze, who had a background in gender and cultural studies, to help guide their efforts.
Frieze said she was fascinated by studies showing that the gender imbalance in computer science varied from country to country and culture to culture. In Israel, for instance, some studies of high school students found that computer science enrollments in Jewish sectors were just 28 percent female, while enrollments in Arab sectors were 61 percent female.
"So, how could it be that an Arab-Israeli schoolgirl, or a young women from Mauritius, could study computer science in high school or a university as if it was no big deal, while in Denmark, or the United States, young women are feeling out of place in computer science?" Frieze and Quesenberry wrote.
With leadership from students, Women @ SCS developed programs that helped women make connections that men took for granted, such as discussing homework with roommates late at night, or receiving job and course recommendations from fraternity files and upperclassmen. The organization developed activities to help all students — not just women — meet socially and help develop each other's professional skills. Women @ SCS events and activities often draw equal numbers of male and female participants.
"This was not a small intervention that occurred in a few months, but a sustained effort to make a change in the culture," said Quesenberry, who joined CMU in 2007 and whose research focuses on societal, cultural and organizational influences on technology and tech professionals.
"Lots of people have documented the problem of low female enrollment in computer science, but you don't see a lot of sharing of success stories," she added.
Carnegie Mellon's approach may not work for every computer science program, Quesenberry acknowledged, but she and Frieze hope that their book will provide insights that will help more programs — and ultimately the profession — become more inclusive.