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Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing

Author: Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: July 2006

 REVIEW 1: Carly Woods

I appreciate Carly Woods' thoughtful review of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. I would like to comment on two reservations raised in the review. First, that "class and race considerations are mentioned only briefly" in the book, and that statistics "suggest that there may be more to the computer science clubhouse than just 'no girls allowed' sign hanging outside." Woods is indeed right about this. The race gap in computer science is alarming. For instance, of students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science (AP CS) exam nationwide, only 15% are female and the combined percentage for African-American and Hispanic students accounts for only 10% of the test-takers (College Board Report, 2005). In California (where I am now doing research), while 53% of the California student population are students of color, only 1.5% of the test-takers are Latinas and a mere 0.2% are African-American females. By college, at the nation's PhD-granting departments of computer science and engineering, just 7% of the computer science degrees are awarded to African-American and Latino/as of both sexes (Taulbee Survey, 2004).

When I began the CMU gender research, I wanted to investigate issues of race as well gender, but the numbers of traditionally underrepresented students admitted and enrolled in the CMU School of Computer Science were so small that we were not able to conduct a systemic analysis beyond the experiences of a handful of students. In 1999, when I moved to Los Angeles, I applied for and received a National Science Foundation grant for a three-year study "Out of the Loop: Why Are So Few African-American, Latino/a, and Female Students Learning Computer Science At The High School Level." Conducting research in high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- the second largest and one of the most diverse districts in the country -- our research team found persistent disparities in access to computer science learning opportunities that followed race and socio-economic lines. Too frequently, especially in low-income communities, and in schools with large numbers of students of color, computer science learning opportunities do not exist, or if they do exist, teachers and students are not sufficiently prepared and/or supported (Margolis, J. et al, 2003 ). Once again, as in the CMU gender study, these research findings reveal the institutional role in the skewed demographics in the field.

The second question that Woods poses about Unlocking the Clubhouse is: "Have the cultural and technological changes of the last ten years significantly mooted their diagnostic findings?" Woods rightly points out how technology is changing so rapidly and that "a book of this sort is, in many ways, outdated at soon as it goes to press." But, is this indeed the case?

While girls and women certainly are more present in the on-line world today, and many girls now have computers in their rooms, their own web pages, blogs etc., the statistics still show that women are not becoming computer scientists and creating the technology. Today, just as in 1995 when we started this study, the numbers (gathered together by the National Center for Women in Technology and viewable here) of women participating in computer science are abysmally low:

  • 56% of AP test takers in 2005 were girls; 48% of AP Calculus takers in 2005 were girls; only 15% of AP CS test-takers in 2005 were girls.
  • 52% of Intel Science and Engineering Fair finalists in Biochemistry were female; while only 11% of 2004 ISEF finalists in CS were female.
  • 59% of 2004 undergraduate degree recipients were female; while only 15% of 2004 CS undergraduate degree recipients at major research universities were female.
  • 29% of Computer Scientists in 2003 were female; while only 4% of Computer Scientists were female and Asian; 3% of Computer Scientists were female and African-American; and 1% of Computer Scientists were female and Hispanic.
So, is Unlocking the Clubhouse a "freeze-frame" that captures the late 90s, but is no longer an accurate description? While that would require another set of research findings, I can only report that the ideas from the book live on in the writings, research, and organizations dedicated to increasing the number of women in computer science, and that women and men still write me, after reading the book for the first time, thanking us for writing the book. This then raises the question of why things have not substantially changed over the last five years?

    College Board. (2005). Advanced Placement Program California and National Summary Reports. College Entrance Examination Board.

    Margolis, J., Holme, J.J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Nao, K. & Stumme, S. (2003). The computer science pipeline in urban high schools: Access to what? For whom? Technology and Society, 22(3), 10-19.

    Taulbee Survey. (2004). See www.cra.org/statistics/home.html.

Jane Margolis


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