TECHNOLOGY Study looks at lack of women in computer science
Changing course structure can attract more women to computer technology, researchers say.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
For all the strides that technology has made through the years, women have had little to do with designing the shoes.
Women make up the majority of Internet consumers but play a smaller role in the actual creation of the technology. Even though it affects so much of their lives, they comprise less than 20 percent of the nation's computer-science research graduates.
Two scholars, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, set out to find out why.
While researching their book, "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing," Margolis and Fisher interviewed more than 100 computer-science students through four years beginning in 1995.
They tracked men and women enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University, where Fisher formerly served as associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Computer Science.
Now they have presented their results at the University of California at Berkeley to an audience of computer-science students -- most of them women.
Aim of study: Combining Fisher's expertise with Margolis' background as a social scientist at the Graduate School of Education and Information Systems at the University of California at Los Angeles, the two tried to figure out why women shied away from computer programming even though they spent as much time in front of computers as men.
"Who designs the products makes the difference," Fisher said in an earlier interview, pointing out that women are noticeably missing from the process. "There's little gap in usage, but there is a gap in the creation of new products."
Different focus: Margolis and Fisher found that women tended to be more concerned with the usability and usefulness of a computer, while men focused more narrowly on the technology itself and spent more time inventing features for their own sake rather than for a particular purpose.
That matched the pair's findings that women who did gravitate toward computer science seemed to have a desire to connect technology to a larger social context, while men entered the field more out of an innate love for the technology.
Despite the fact that both men and women share an interest in computers -- even though they may differ in their reasons -- universities have historically developed computer-science courses with men in mind.
"The culture of computer science has been built around male preferences," Fisher said, pointing out how introductory courses in computer science home in on very technical aspects of the field.
Perception: Women might also feel more intimidated when they perceive their male counterparts to be more tech-savvy. Margolis said many female college students interviewed for the book expressed a loss of interest in computer science that really turned out to be a lack of confidence.
By broadening out and explaining the larger implications of technology early on, Fisher said universities might have a better chance of stirring wider interest among students, both women and men. At the same time, these universities could help fill a need for technology professionals in the world outside academia.
Some of the research by Margolis and Fisher has already helped improve enrollment at Carnegie Mellon. Redesign of admissions policy and course offerings, for instance, has elevated the percentage of women enrolled in the university's computer-science program from 7 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2000.