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This is, at last, the final installment of my notes on Unlocking the Clubhouse. My other posts on this are here and here. This post is much more of a mish-mash of information, summarizing chapters three through six, than the other two, which summarized one chapter apiece. Ah well, better late than never. Feel free to point out inconsistencies in my summary and I'll elucidate if I can.

In college computer science, most men are interested in computing (programming, tinkering, gaming, etc.) for its own sake, while many women are more interested in computing's effects on and applications in other fields and how it can be useful to society. The focus in many introductory CS classes on technical details makes some women disillusioned, and they drop out of CS, not realizing that it's not just about silly technical details.

Many men have wanted to study computer science since before they could remember, and think of it as a "no-brainer" to be a CS major; most women decided to study computer science in high school or college, and the choice was much more rational. Their reasons for choosing CS are much more broad than "enjoyment of computing," most men's primary reason.

Men are more likely to like programming for its own sake, and are more likely than women to spend endless hours programming outside of classes. When asked about their ideal computer, teenage boys described machines that give them super powers; teenage girls described machines that helped in tasks or offered companionship. One researcher notes that "the feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself." Many high-school and college kids erroneously see computer science as "number-crunching" and computer games as one of the main applications of computer science (when they have any conception at all of what computer science is); many high-school and college curricula support this misconception by focusing on banalities of programming languages and pointless programming exercises, especially in lower-division classes. (My experience with programming contest problems support this, perhaps explaining the dearth of women in such contests.)

Students in top-ranked programs like Carnegie Mellon's are very aware of the intense geek culture in such programs - of the expectation that they spend all their time in front of the computer, for work and play. (This is backed by some practices in industry such as providing bunk beds at work.) A well-rounded set of interests is undervalued and sometimes actively shunned in this culture. Women on average are more disturbed at this ideal, and how badly they fit it, than men. They are more likely to decide such an intense culture is not for them, and they drop out at a rate three or more times that of men.

Top-ranked programs are also so overzealous, in general, that novices, especially minorities, feel hopelessly behind. Between male "posturing" and lack of programming experience in high school and before, women feel that everyone catches on more quickly than they do and that they can never catch up, even though performance between women and men, in terms of grades, is nearly identical. Many also assume that such passion for computers is required to be a computer scientist, and if they don't have it, they should quit. They're also more likely to keep confusion to themselves because of comments like "what's your major, again?," or the threat of them.

(Some interesting trends in attrition: American women and women from wealthy families are more likely to drop out of CS, the former because many Americans credit intelligence to innate ability and not to hard work, and the latter because these women aren't as worried about having a good-paying job to support themselves or their families.)

Women also have to deal with "you're only here because you're female" talk that men never have to face. Expectations that women will not do as well may have a huge effect of performance, as shown by Claude Steele's experiments at Stanford (repeated elsewhere) that showed that an expectation of a gender difference on performance on a math test resulted in one, while an expectation of no gender difference resulted in near-equal scores. (There are similar results for race if participants are asked to note their race on the test.)

Admissions policies that value previous programming experience or high math SAT scores are biased against women. CMU found that prior programming experience does not affect success in the program, and others have found that math SATs "systematically underpredict" women's college performance (though it was the opposite for me, at least according to my GPA :~)).
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More from the book ...

In late junior high and high school, the computer lab becomes a place where boys who are often socially marginalized can prove their masculinity. These boys and sometimes even their teachers will ostracize or openly mock girls and minorities in computer science classes. Computer science teachers often give sports-related or mechanics-related examples or projects, rather than examples to which girls could relate. (In the book they have some particularly odious examples.) Computer science books will focus on technical detail rather than real-world metaphors or applications. Thus, many high-school girls see computer science as a "math elective," "supersmart and unemotional," and "a place for nerds" and not as a powerful field which affects many others.

Computer games are one of the primary ways these computer geek cliques "prove masculinity," explaining the prevalence of gory, destructive games. Boys also like fantasy or adventure games to prove their independence from parents and other authority. These games provide a safe, predictable, controllable surrogate for social interaction, which can be unpredictable and lead to intimacy and opportunities to be hurt or seen as weak. Many girls are bored or disgusted with gory games, games with a lousy plot, or games without connection to the real world, and they thus turn away from the junior-high and high-school computer culture. The people designing games are mostly male, and don't make games that cater to girls' interests. (At the same time, "Barbie games" that are "based on the crudest stereotype of what girls like" are also not enough!)

Teachers watch for and give special privileges to the classic "boy geeks," typically obsessed with the mechanics of computers, but don't watch for "girl geeks" who often have interests in computers that are not as mechanics-driven. Teacher influence makes a big difference: many of the girls who applied for CMU's computer science program out of high school had teachers encourage them to take computer science classes, usually in high school.
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I'm rereading Unlocking the Clubhouse and realizing how much my parents countered gender paradigms. The book cites interesting studies that find that parents give girls girl-themed toys and boys boy-themed toys, even if they set out to make their toys gender-neutral, because parents are more likely to react to boys' excitement with, say, Legos than to girls'. Additionally, parents call their daughters back more often than their sons when their kids are playing on playgrounds, resulting in girls covering less ground and being trained to more cautious. People are more likely to label a boy baby's cry as anger and a girl baby's cry as fear. Men and boys are more likely to be seen as a family's technology experts, while women and girls (especially mothers) are often seen by other family members as clueless or techno-phobic. Boys are much more likely to be labeled "computer whizzes" and given special treatment than girls with similar capabilities, at school and at home. And parents are more likely to allow boys to monopolize a computer (often even putting it in their room) than girls. Regardless of the "nature" arguments, there are definite "nurture" arguments to why few girls are in science. Most men AND women majoring in computer science have at least one parent who is technically-inclined, but most women report growing up on the "technology sidelines," not allowed or not able to explore much on a computer by themselves.

Not much of this sounds familiar to me. Sure I had dolls (though my mom forbade Barbies for a long time), but I also had my Legos and transformers and micro-machines and lots of homemade clay. My sister and I played outside all the time, and for several years our best friend was a next-door boy my sister's age, who was one of the only kids in the neighborhood. Both of my parents worked, but my dad had a much more flexible schedule and was often the one driving us to school, picking us up, tending us, or taking us with him on landscaping jobs where we'd play in the sand and sod piles; my mom would spend time with us too, but she was the "breadwinner" with the fixed schedule. Though neither of my parents are technically-inclined, my mom used computers first for her master's degree and then for her work, but my dad has never used computers much. I had no brother to hog the computer. Still, I didn't learn more than basic DOS commands, probably because I had no one to teach me. By high school, the computer classes were definitely boys' territory, and several geeky acquaintances went out of their way to make CS sound incredibly complicated (surely to make themselves look smarter :~)).


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