How Computer Sciences became a male "clubhouse"

review of Chapters 1-3 of  Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. (2002) Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002. 

The authors undertake to find out the reasons for the “gendering” of computer sciences. They use interviews with the undergraduates of Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Sciences (CS) programs to learn what made CS “magnetic” to boys and substantially excluded girls from the “clubhouse” of computing. Discussing possible genetic and social influences, the authors look at the causes of the great disparity (about 5:1) between the sexes in CS. They lay out a plan to address the imbalance, so that future school girls will not suffer the injustice of having their latent interest in using computers “extinguished” by male-dominated CS programs in schools American public schools.

Origins of the disparity start in the home, in the child’s first interactions with a “gendered world.” The typical home Margolis and Fisher’s (2002) subjects grew up in consisted of male-dominated computer use. The father was often the “keeper” of the computer, boys often got computers in their own rooms, and females, especially the mother, were “computer incompetents” needing the males to help them operate the computer. Well-meaning parents who intend to treat their male and female children equally nonetheless, in their purchases for children and the allocation of their attention send implied messages to children convey the notion that computers are a “guy thing.” The parents’ assumptions about the interests of the child can play out as a “self-fulfilling prophesy” (25) that unintentionally gender stereotype. The explicit message “do not touch” the computer was given to girls in the study. It was given to none of the boys (31).  The very few exceptions to the boys-only on the computer rule came in the instance of a subject (“Kathryn”) whose father held identitcal expectations for his daughter and his son to “participate right along with them,” and another (“Vera”) whose parents sent the message that “guy” toys like Legos were OK. But for the great majority of subjects, their very first modeling instructed them pre-school that CS was a “man’s domain.” 

By the time the children began to develop a gender consciousness–around age 5, or Kindergarten–the message that working on the computer is a “male thing” had been very well learned at home. Encouraged in their first environments to engage with computers, the boys in the study are allowed to respond fully to an inborn strong fascination, a “magnetic” [with its connotations of an irresistable natural force] attraction to developing “mastery over the machine” (17).  With girls, however, the process of becoming engaged by computers is “more moderate and gradual” (17). When girls to become engaged is much later than when boys do–usually in high school in conjunction with a programming course. In Kindergarten the child receives enforcement from his/her peers that girls do not play with computers. Reinforcing their conformity with gender stereotypes are the way the Kindergarten teachers play out the findings of Newson and Newson’s 1968 study, giving girls less of a “roaming radius” than boys. While boys assembled togther around the computers in the room, the girls are left to gather into social groups elsewhere in the room. 

The pattern of girls’ exclusion from computers is found later in middle and high school, where the values and interests of most girls are ignored or even ridiculed by teachers and students. The boy on the computer, girls helping each other pattern of the home and early schooling was further reinforced by the content of computer games (more male-oriented with violence, sex, and destruction) and the active antipathy received in classes. In one shocking passage the authors attribute to Schofield (1995) “Girls [in school] were perpetually teased about their bodies, their appearance, and their competence. The male teacher did not intervene on behalf of the girls” (35). Such exclusion is unjust in a world where computer skills  “develop higher-order critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills important for all subjects” (37).  The culture of adolescence, with its value of conformity to peer-group social expectations, militates against the girl who wants to follow her interest in computers. The drop-off of female confidence in math and science (where CS courses are offered in middle and high schools) compounds the disparity. As Carol Gilligan (1992) notes, girls “become increasingly aware of the culture that surrounds them…they hear the message that boys are smarter and that girls shouldn’t be too smart” (40). Meanwhile, over twice as many boys play computer games, which, as Steinkuehler (2007) has shown, are effective vehicles for cognitive and social growth. Since they do not experience such positive, computer-based effects, it is understandable that girls in high school are more prepared to conclude that computers are for “geeks,” something socially-conscious young women do not want to be identified with. The games themselves are biased toward the inherent interests of boys, but they also serve an important psychological function in the development of boys that is not the case with girls. Chodorw (1999) sees games as fulfilling the a boy’s innate need to individuate himself from the mother. Games provide an outlet for his “yearn[ing] for rule-based order” (41), an order that is found in the world of a game.  Games do not similarly correspond to a girl’s innate desires for “intimacy and closeness.”  Outside of computer games, a girl’s “play and comfort are located in relationships,… girls are put off by what they see as boys’ zealous fascination with objects and machines rather than people
 (42). 

In order to address the “digital gender divide” in schools, the authors support equalizing access to resources for boys and girls, and adjusting computing purposes to correspond to “female” interests in relationship and problem-solving. One way to attract and keep more females in CS classes would be to make assignments that “honor” the innately “female” interests. When the purpose of a game is to solve a narrowly defined, technologically-based problem without reference to the rest of the world or curriculum, female interests are not honored. But when the assignments are repurposed to coincide with a “female” desire to “make a contribution” to society, the girls get engaged (53).  Another step toward this end would be getting the computer work students can do out of the math and science departments. CS should be incorporated into social sciences and other areas where, in “an interdisciplinary setting, [assignments could be made that would] honor the goal of ‘solving the world’s problems” (60).


As the parent of three “digital natives” (two girls, one boy), I have been able to observe up close their developing relationships with computers. And overall, I think things were better for my kids than for the students in Margolis and Fisher’s study. About ten years younger than the Carnegie Mellon students, my girls did not have the marginalizing and off-putting treatment from their schools regarding computers. I can state this with certainty because I was the “volunteer dad” whose job was to give equal time on the Kindergarten computer to boys and to girls, and I was scrupulously equitable. At home, our kids were given equal time on the home computers–a Mac II and a 486 PC–to run educational games. My boy enjoyed the Math Invaders, Legos-based games, the Legend of  Zelda,and various Mario-based educational games, and my girls were huge Sims fans and Nancy Drew players. In this way, their preference in games corresponds with what gender roles would predict. Unlike the young adults in Margolis and Fisher’s study, we encouraged their educational game playing from Pre-K, and at times they would all play together. Our expectations were that they would each become engaged by programs that interested them, and we modeled no gender exclusion, since both mom (a computer teacher) and dad (a teacher who used the computer a lot) showed the children how important the technology was.  When asked, each of them has good memories and retained knowledge from school games like Oregon Trail (which requires relational and transactional functions), and when they were older (around 12-13), each was given their own laptop and so suffered no exclusion from the “clubhouse. My son has chosen to study music, my oldest daughter is studying neuro-science in college, and my younger daughter is an accomplished artist. All of them are academically successful and seem much less worried about traditional gender roles than the students in Margolis and Fisher’s study. But that is just my anecdotal evidence. 
The authors’ description of the role the computer can play to provide the awkward non-athlete youth with a rule-based reality  is still very true. Many of the kids who enjoy games at home (MMOGs and more “mainstream” violent fare like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto”) are members of our fantasy gamers club, which meets weekly past six pm. And almost all of them are non-athletic boys. There may be one girl in ten.  And in another supervision I have, the Scholastic Bowl, I observe the gender roles  and drop-off in female engagement still perniciously present. Year after year you will find some very competent and seemingly happy female freshmen and sophomores on the team–a team that competes against conference foes from other schools in “Quiz Show” like competitions. But one notices that while the younger males are less social, the girls are there with their friends and having fun. Almost inevitably, when one of the “gal pals” decides that the competitive side of Scho-Bowl is too much, she’ll stop coming to practices, and before you know it, her friends will, too. Consequently, I have coached some excellent JV teams composed of female math-science-social science and literature rich frosh and soph. But almost inevitably, by the time their class are juniors and seniors, it an almost exclusively male affair. This is true across the conference. In nine out of ten cases, the MVP of any given varsity team is a male. But after reading from this book, I have to wonder: isn’t there something that Scho-Bowl could do to keep its competitions rigorous but make them more collaborative and cooperative and thus engaging to the young women?
The obvious question I have for our female cohorts is whether they have felt the “clubhouse exclusion” from CS or math and science described by our authors this week We have a pretty even distribution of male and females, and our instructor is a very competent female, so how valid is the description of Margolis and Fisher in 2010?
image courtesy of creativecommons.org

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