Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

My book notes on Unlocking the Clubhouse

I first read Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing in January 2014. It's greatly influenced my thinking about how to broaden participation in computing and inspired me to learn more about this topic.

Here are the notes I took when reading this book. They're rough and unedited, so I make no guarantees about accuracy, nuance, or quality. But I decided to upload them here so that I can hopefully get more people interested in this very important book.


Primary methodology: 263 in-depth interviews with 127 CMU (mostly) computer science undergraduate students over a 4-year time span in the late 1990s, following these students over several years of their college careers. Careful qualitative data analysis.

Chapter 1 - The Magnetic Attraction

  • male CS students often developed an obsession for computers early in childhood
  • for female CS students, computing was more often one childhood interest amongst many, and they would often watch a male family member (father or older brother) obsess over computers
    • girls saw that their fathers were usually the ones obsessed with computers, and their mothers confessed to being computer illiterate or scared of computers ... early gender conditioning
    • computers are usually physically located in boys' rooms, and are often put there because boys showed more of an initial affinity for it, thus leading to a self-fulfilling "prophecy"
    • fathers are more hands-on in introducing young boys to computing, but not young girls. some encourage girls to study computing in school, though, but not as a hobby
      • some fathers (and mothers) would actively discourage their daughters from using computers since it wasn't a womanly thing to do
  • the disparities between boys vs. girls toys is well-researched and partly caused by innate personality but has a ton of social conditioning associated with it

Chapter 2 - Middle and High School: A Room of His Own

  • boys often formed friendships around computers and taught one another informally
  • boys also hogged the communal computers at school, so therefore more girls just opted out and didn't go on the computer as much, pursuing other hobbies instead
  • nerdy middle/high school boys claimed computer lab space during lunchtimes as a refuge from the predominant jock-driven high school popularity culture, and developed a strong sense of geek pride in the computer lab
    • these spaces weren't super welcoming to outsiders, not due to any outright hostility, but just because the (predominantly white) boys were nerdy and into doing their own things in front of the computer
  • advanced computing and programming classes in high schools are mostly male-dominated, with teachers using male-oriented sports examples for programming assignments and implicitly allowing for immature boy-jokes injected into games, like modifying a Concentration game to add a prostitute into it.
    • computing was never put into context of societally meaningful things
  • gaming culture is FAR MORE prevalent amongst boys and is a key entry point into computing obsession
  • a good high school CS course can turn women on to majoring in CS in college, but for many male CS majors, that factor doesn't matter as much since their interest was sparked much earlier in childhood
    • often there is an influential teacher who pushes a girl to take a programming course, even though she might feel like she's not up for it. it's during that course that the girl starts liking programming

Chapter 3 - Computing with a Purpose

  • in their sample of CS majors at CMU they interviewed, pretty much all the women were self-described "girl geeks" and very much "math and science" people. even despite that fact, they had much different motivations for studying CS than the male students
    • women value the versatility and broader/practical purpose of majoring in CS beyond just intrinsically liking computers
    • in contrast, men value the intrinsic study of the computer itself -- how to make the computer faster, more powerful, and more expressive
  • introductory CS curricula focus so much on programming, programming, programming without context or broader implications. thus, it implicitly weeds out and discourages women, who are more likely motivated by applications and broader implications beyond CS itself
  • recommendation: introductory CS curricula should define different paths to excellence beyond just pure, hardcore systems hacking or mastery of programming for its own intrinsic sake. real-world applications need to be valued as much as systems/theory.

Chapter 4 - Geek Mythology

  • in intro courses at CMU, there's lots of aggressive macho geek posturing by professors about what technologies are hardcore (C++ is better than Java, command-line is better than GUIs), playful hacker taunts to students to hack into professors' computers, showing of animations of simulated car crashes and slapstick 3D animations that appeal more to boys ... showing self-driving cars that can go FAST and robotics careers that can lead to lots of money, money, $$$
    • many male students feel right at home with the hacker ideal archetype, living and breathing computers 24/7, myopically obsessed; for them, CMU's School of CS is nirvana
      • they can finally find a place where all they talk about is computers, and that's alright; they're not derided for it like they might have been back at home when they were in the geek minority in K-12 schools
    • though not all men self-identify with this hacker stereotype, more often women feel like they don't belong in CS because they lack such focused intensity ... whereas men more often fare just fine being CS majors, even if they aren't self-identified uber-hacker types
      • women often don't seem to LOVE computing as much as their male counterparts do, and therefore question whether they belong
      • they also don't seem as willing to make the sacrifices in their social lives to succumb to the all-encompassing grasp of hacking 24/7
    • female CS majors want computers to be a part of their lives, but not the singular focus, and not the DOMINANT part of their lives
      • so women feel like guests in a culture that's singularly focused on specialization, tunnel vision
    • even though women might REALLY be in love with CS as a major, that love is often not manifest in non-stop, stay-up-all-night work sessions. women often want more balance in their lives, so just because they don't stay up all night grinding doesn't mean that they're not sufficiently dedicated to the craft.
  • the norm in CS majors is singular obsession with programming for its own sake -- a very narrow orientation. so women who don't fit that mold will inevitably feel like outsiders.

Chapter 5 - Living among the Programming Gods: The Nexus of Confidence and Interest

  • even women with some prior CS experience get intimidated when starting at CMU amongst classmates with far more prior experience, due to super selective admissions and a deeply-ingrained hardcore CS culture
    • in particular, men are much more likely to have more recreational programming experience; whereas women's experiences are limited to purely in-class settings
  • men are also more likely to do macho geek boasting and posturing about how easy problem sets were for them, or how fast they got them done, which again puts off women
    • this contributes to the feeling amongst women that men just naturally "get it" and that CS comes so easily to them
  • women who enter college with high math/science aptitude scores and grades get their confidence diminished much more than men, especially at highly selective schools, and in male-dominated fields
  • bad teaching and inhospitable environments (e.g., huge lecture classes with tons of TAs and no professor contact time) hurts minorities and women more than those in dominant demographic groups
  • also, the disparaging perennial "you are here only because you are a girl" comments
  • a lack of confidence early on leads to disengagement and disidentification, where female students just identify less with CS and then grow less enthusiastic, and later drop out
  • in contrast, men who struggle in CS don't need to also contend with the expectations of their gender not being good at CS. i'm reminded of this xkcd cartoon: http://xkcd.com/385/
  • guys feel okay asking dumb questions, but girls often don't, since they feel like guys will look down on them for asking "stupid girl questions"
  • women want to establish more personal relationships with faculty, to feel like the faculty really care about them as people. in the words of social scientist Claude Steele, students need to feel "valued by the teacher for his or her potential and as a person."
    • faculty mentoring and social relationships are SUPREMELY key in women's persistence in CS

Chapter 6 - Persistence and Resistance: Staying in Computer Science

  • women with parents in CS are more likely to develop an interest in it and be less intimidated
  • but even those with no prior experience CAN persist if they have certain traits ...
    • usually these students are foreign-born
      • some get into the field accidentally due to, say, a scholarship for studying CS and then working in the field back in their home country
      • others NEED to persist in the major and then get a job to feed their families, and often to support their parents; they had to do it out of necessity, not necessarily intrinsic interest
        • my hypothesis is that they ALREADY feel foreign and out of place, so compounding it with being female in CS might not be much more arduous than for American-born women in CS
      • foreign-born students have more of a notion of hard work and grit (rather than relying on so-called "aptitude"), so they might be more willing to tough things out even if it sucks
        • but American-born women more often believe that there is a "computer gene" for loving computers, and that they just don't have it while the men do, so it's futile to try to catch up
      • foreign-born women don't know as much about the U.S. male hacker stereotype as a reference group, so they aren't as affected by it
  • males bond with macho showing off over nerdy topics and jokes, and women don't usually feel engaged by that as much ... again, makes them feel like outsiders
  • forming learning communities of like-minded peers of your own demographic (e.g., women, African Americans) also contributes to persistence and success.
    • for example, Asian students mostly integrated studying/academics/test-prep into their social lives, so that came very naturally for them. but African American students often had social lives that were quite separate from studying/academics/test-prep, so it was harder to integrate into their mindset
  • after getting over important humps in the curriculum, women tend to persist a lot more; usually women can point to one crucial incident that led them to persist
    • although groups are important for fostering confidence, students also need to internalize the sense that they can REALLY do it by themselves -- e.g., solve problem sets on their own without a bunch of TA help. those could be crucial incidents for building self confidence and self sufficiency.

Chapter 7 - A Tale of 240 Teachers

  • in 1997-1999, CMU trained 240 high school teachers to teach the new AP CS curriculum in C++ and also simultaneously trained them in gender equity awareness
  • debunked the myth that villains -- e.g., obnoxious boys, overtly sexist teachers -- were the main cause of girls avoiding CS. rather, it's the cumulative effects of gender disparities throughout childhood
  • boys tend to attribute success to their own abilities and failures to external factors, so even if they face hurdles, they maintain confidence; but the opposite is true for girls -- they attribute failure to their own abilities and success to external factors such as luck -- thus, girls are more prone to getting their confidence destroyed by setbacks
    • as a result, boys take more risks in projects and persist even when they fail whereas high-achieving girls want to maintain their high GPAs
  • high school teachers need to DELIBERATELY focus on recruiting girls; otherwise girls will rarely enroll in AP CS courses because they've been implicitly discouraged their entire lives by society and home environment. how?
    • go to honors and AP history classes to recruit, since those usually have more girls
    • also, recruit from existing friendship circles
      • girls want to be in classes with their friends
    • have girls recruit other girls rather than just teachers recruiting
      • especially a POPULAR girl such as a study government officer or athlete; that's ideal
      • also have older girls (e.g., high schoolers) go recruit younger girls (e.g., from the corresponding feeder middle school)
  • another problem is that counselors, teachers, and parents don't know what CS is -- they think it's just using computer applications (e.g., Microsoft Word or Excel)
  • some boy students inevitably object to these girl-oriented recruiting efforts, saying that it's discriminatory against boys, but that's a chance for teachers to tell boys that they have ALREADY been implicitly recruited into CS by the society and home environments they grew up in
  • to retain girls, CS curriculum must also be redesigned to be more application-driven and meaningful beyond just technical minutia
    • need to counteract boys' obsession with SPEED of execution and SPEED of writing code by instead emphasizing different aspects of software design such as flexibility, maintainability, and usability
  • collaborative learning activities are CHALLENGING to pull off well when there is a large disparity in skill/experience levels, since the more advanced students might either act condescending or just swoop in and give answers to the novices, and the novices might just feel helpless or not challenge themselves and wait to be rescued by the advanced students
    • one specific instance is that girls are put into less significant roles in team projects and are just perceived as being auxiliary, or needing to be rescued by the more advanced boys
  • also programming activities need to be made NOT to be male-centric, such as focusing on blood and guts, action scenes, things burning down or being blown up, etc.
  • even more subtly, even progressive teachers called more frequently on boys in the classroom and engaged in more discussions with boys than girls (as shown by videotape analysis studies)

Chapter 8 - Changing the University

  • as a result of the studies in this book, the authors and their collaborators implemented a series of interventions at CMU that increased the percentage of CS majors from 7% in 1995 to 42% in 2000, with greater persistence/retention as well
  • they implemented four ways to enter undergrad CS curriculum, so that students of varying prior experience levels can enter comfortably
  • they decreased the emphasis of prior programming experience in admissions
  • more of a focus on good teaching, since crappy teaching disproportionately affects women and minorities
    • put better teachers into intro courses
    • better diversity and gender equity training for TAs
  • teaching CS by placing it into the context of real-world uses
    • with application-oriented curriculum and also guest lectures to put CS into a broader context
  • the CMU teaching faculty (lecturers) were more engaged and had more contact with intro-level students. but tenure-track faculty were less engaged since they were more focused on research and teaching upper-division courses
  • since the applicant pool was now larger due to growing popularity of CS, undergrad admissions could take nonnumeric factors into account in admissions in an attempt to build a well-rounded class. e.g., economic, ethnic, and gender factors
    • they wanted to selected for future LEADERS in technology, not just programmers with high test scores, etc.
  • the main challenge for the future is to maintain these gains rather than just letting them lapse back to pre-intervention levels, which is bound to happen without continued proactive effort (i.e., things will just revert back to the old status quo)
  • a major lever that CMU has is its highly competitive applicant pool; that way, it can twiddle with admissions criteria without a noticeable loss in student quality
    • so what are recommendations for other schools, especially those that don't have the luxury of a super strong applicant pool?
      • pay ferocious attention to student environment. weed-out intro classes are very problematic
      • have multiple entry points in the curriculum for students of varying prior experience levels
      • show students the many facets of computing and its applications in the world, not just focusing on CS itself for its own sake; contextualizing the work that you're asking students to do
      • official women's student groups help form solidarity and a critical mass of women able to help one another through tough times

Epilogue: Changing the Conversation in Computer Science

  • 40 years ago, there were almost no women in med school, and now it's commonplace to have female doctors, which is great for female patients
  • what are the implications when CS gets more gender balanced?
  • hopefully parents and teachers will view computing not just as a boys thing, but as something that girls could like as well
Created: 2014-01-15
Last modified: 2015-09-18
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