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CMU's recruiting of females in computer science adds up to change

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The notion that computer science is all about male nerds who hug their laptops late into the night doesn't square with a Web site gaining popularity at Carnegie Mellon University.

Sure, the site has talk about grueling software problems. But there are also notices for a Big Sister/Little Sister program, ceramic painting sessions and get-acquainted dinners to help young women realize they are no longer alone.

CMU junior Ariss Zhao, a computing science major, works in the computer laboratory in Wean Hall yesterday. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette)

The Web site owes its existence to an influx of female undergraduates that a couple of years back made Carnegie Mellon a national model for schools trying to break the gender barrier in computer science.

Its content also symbolizes how the growing presence of women on campus is reshaping daily life in one of the nation's top computing programs, affecting the kinds of courses offered, the way students conduct themselves in class and even how they socialize.

Women, once invisible in the program, now account for 41 percent of freshmen computer science majors. Their ranks have risen steadily since 1995, when only 8 percent of freshmen in the major were women.

The shift is visible in the group shots of females now featured on the Web site run by "The Women@SCS Advisory Committee," an advocacy group created in 1999 for women in Carnegie Mellon's school of computer science. The change is noticeable in the classroom, too.

"Before, when there were fewer of us, you'd walk into a computer cluster and you could feel everyone turn around and look. It was like the men all knew a woman had entered," said Ting-Chih Shih, 21, a native of Taiwan who plans after graduation to do consulting work in information technology.

A look at the numbers: women majoring in computer science


Rather than speak up herself, Shih said, she sometimes used to relay ideas in class to a man nearby, convinced her thoughts were more likely to be listened to if uttered by a male.

But now, she said, women accustomed to being interrupted, or having their viewpoints lost in a sea of male voices, are beginning to assert themselves.

"The guys seemed to be the ones asking questions, showing off," Shih said. "Now, since there are more females, they speak up, too."

No one is saying that computing has suddenly become a woman's world.

Girls still don't get enough encouragement at an early age to spend time with computers, experts say. All of the software aimed at young males, including violent shoot 'em up games, does little to pique female interest.

Once they arrive at college, lingering stereotypes of computing students as junk-food-snarfing male hackers steer some women away from the major. And some women who try computing are prone to lose confidence and sometimes falter early on, educators say.

At Carnegie Mellon, even with the female increases, men still account for nearly 75 percent of the 553 undergraduates in computer science. Even some who praise the school's success say it remains to be seen if Carnegie Mellon will be as good at graduating women in computer science as it has become at attracting them.

This spring, only 10 percent of the computer science graduates will be female, but given the influx of women, the school expects to see that increase to about 40 percent by 2003 and 2004, said Peter Lee, associate dean for undergraduate education.

In some quarters of campus, a backlash of sorts has developed against the rising ranks of women.

In a computing school that gets 3,200 applications from both sexes for just 130 freshmen spots, administrators already have heard complaints from male students who had to settle for a second-choice major at Carnegie Mellon because they could not get into computer science.

Some perceive it as being the result of recent changes in the program's admission policies. Administrators who once relied heavily on how much experience a student had writing programs concluded that such a system favored men and did not necessarily predict academic success. They now place greater emphasis on science and math aptitude.

"Some of them who are men actually feel some deep resentment," said Lee. "It's very hard when you're 17 or 18 years old and you are not chosen over a woman who might not be as experienced a programmer."

Still, as the school prepares to host a forum tomorrow on making computing more attractive to women, it's clear that officials at Carnegie Mellon believe they are on the right track.

Women entering the program have interests outside technology, said Lenore Blum, a distinguished career professor of computer science and adviser to the women's group. They expect to be shown how computers can be used as a tool in all kinds of fields, from psychology and business to performing arts.

"That's forcing the faculty to really revamp," she said.

And it's contributing to curriculum changes as the school tries to cater to students of both genders who want real world applications as much as fundamental theory.

In one new course, "Technology Consulting in the Community," students help clergy groups and nonprofit organizations solve technology problems, Lee said. In another new course, "Building the Future," student teams build contraptions that might turn lights on and off in a room, or walk across ceiling tiles to do a head count of students.

A few years back, a typical homework assignment in freshman algorithms might have involved asking students to write a program that analyzed other programs.

"This year the same assignment might involve [writing] programs for music or video compression, things that students can relate to immediately when they think of Napster," Lee said.

Tomorrow's forum, "Leading the Way: Girls, Technology and Education," will be another chance for the school to take stock of how far it has come. The program will take place from 2:30 to 6 p.m. in the University Center's McConomy Auditorium.

Experts will discuss girls' relationships to technology in education, entertainment and in the home as well as efforts to boost their profile in the field.

Speakers will include:

Maria Klawe, dean of science, University of British Columbia, whose research centers on getting more women involved in information technology.

Megan Gaiser, president, and Robert Riedl, director, product development, of Seattle-based HerInteractive, which makes video games based on the Nancy Drew mystery books that are targeted toward girls.

Allan Fisher, president and chief executive officer of Carnegie Technology Education and former associate dean for undergraduate education in Carnegie Mellon's computer science school. He and co-speaker Jane Margolis, now a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, helped initiate Carnegie Mellon's effort to attract more women by conducting research in the early 1990s on how gender differences influenced computer use.

Results of their work led to changes in how Carnegie Mellon attracts and teaches women.

Recruiters began spending more time in schools with strong math and science programs, especially those with all or mostly female enrollments. The campus made a more aggressive push to contact promising females and ensure they knew that financial aid was available.

Once those students were admitted, faculty were asked to recognize that women were likely to arrive with less confidence in their computing skills. They also redoubled efforts to show that computer science is not just about writing programs.

Debate about the influx of women has been rampant on student bulletin boards, but to senior Nathan Clark, 21, of Manassas, Va., it's no big deal.

Standing near a bank of computers in Wean Hall yesterday, Clark said some women he's worked with aren't merely proficient when it comes to computers, "they blow my socks off. I'm left in the dust."

More women has led to more dating within the program, he said.

That's not how it was his freshman year, Clark said, when he first heard jokes on campus bemoaning the lack of women on the science-heavy campus -- a typical one: "For every woman at Carnegie Mellon there is a man. And for every man at Carnegie Mellon there is another man."

The benefit of having more female graduates from his school and other computer schools is more than a matter of equity, said Lee. With increasingly powerful computers reshaping all sorts of fields from medicine and business to entertainment and the environment, it doesn't make sense that the talents and perspectives of half the population would go untapped.

"There's a basic question that one has to ask," said Lee. "Is the community of computer scientists diverse enough and open enough to take full advantage of this technological revolution?"

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