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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

Carnegie Mellon University is right down the street from where I live. Sometimes, when I am walking by the campus, I try to read the students' faces, searching for signs that they might be part of the select group of students impacted by a series of educational reforms aimed at addressing the lack of women within the computer science major. This perpetual search is a result of reading Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher's book, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, a study on gender and computer science based at Carnegie Mellon. This book is an interesting read, especially in light of the many recent publications providing snapshots of gender and online communication, tracking the complexities of equitably integrating computing into social life.

A more recent snapshot, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, provides a useful point of comparison: "Women are catching up to men in most measures of online life. Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes" [1]. The report strikes an optimistic chord about how women are now using email more robustly although they are less "tech-savvy" than their male counterparts. The nuances of these more recent findings map on nicely to the conclusions drawn by the Margolis and Fisher study. They acknowledge that increasing numbers of women use the internet for daily tasks and constitute the majority of internet consumers. However, their research problematizes the gender disparities related to who pursues university degrees in computer science. In other words, if women are becoming so savvy with the internet, why aren't they drawn to university-level programs and jobs that involving programming, designing, and fixing computers?

At the time of their collaboration, Margolis was a visiting research scientist with an interest in gender education, while Fisher was the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon is an ideal place for the study to take place, as its School of Computer Science is consistently rated among the top programs in the country. The book is centered on a longitudinal qualitative study culminating in over 230 interviews with 100 male and female computer science students at Carnegie Mellon from 1995 to 1999. The interviews, which followed students from their first year to their graduation or decision to exit the major, are weaved throughout the book's chapters.

This narrative touch adds depth to the otherwise bleak statistics that dominate studies of gender and computing. As Margolis and Fisher point out, a longitudinal research method is necessary because a one-time view of these students would not adequately represent the rollercoaster of emotions that computer science majors face at such a challenging program. The interview process tracks the ebb and flow of confidence levels as the students move through the major. Surprises pop up along the way, such as the number of female students who initially were very optimistic about the computer science program but then abruptly changed majors.

Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the different socialization processes that men and women face growing up as they become interested in computers. Margolis and Fisher show how seemingly small choices, such as the decision to have a computer in the "boy's room" in the house, can have significant consequences. These perceptions solidify during adolescence and secondary schooling, where female students often are not provided with the same mentorship and encouragement towards the field of computer science. Later chapters explore the female experience with computer science at the university level. Chapter 3 relates how women in the major were often interested in computers because of their ability to help people or provide students with a stable employment option. It is here that women begin to perceive a difference in their male counterparts, who seem to have an intrinsic love of computers that enable them to, as one interviewee puts it, "dream in code." Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe the male-dominated culture of computer science and the ways in which female students find their confidence levels diminished overtime as a result. Chapters 7 and 8 are dedicated to discussing stories of educational change at both the high school and university level.

The primary audience for Unlocking the Clubhouse will be administrators and educators at the high school and university levels who are interested in recruiting, retaining, and generally enhancing the experience of women in the computer science field. Yet, this book could also be a useful resource for female students who are thinking of majoring in computer science. Not only will students gain an awareness of the difficulties they may face as female computer science students, but they also may gain strength from the common experiences and testimonials of other like-minded women. Chapter 4, on "Geek Mythology," does particularly important work to dispel the masculinist, geek stereotypes that sometimes plague computer science and alienate female students. Finally, any scholar interested in gender, communication, and education, even if it is in a field unrelated to computer science, will be able to glean some insights into gender-based curricular reform. Margolis and Fisher pepper wider studies of gender and technology throughout the book to complement their original data and interviews. All readers can appreciate the short book's accessible writing style and straight-forward recommendations for curricular reform.

Once the reader gets past the first few chapters, the study sometimes simply confirms prevalent suspicions about the exclusionary tendencies of the high-technology world. However, readers would be doing themselves a disservice if they put the book down before Chapter 8, "Changing the University." As Margolis and Fisher put it, their goal is to implement a "cultural and curricular revolution" that modifies computer science programs to encourage more diversity, not to force women to adapt to the existing programs. This is, perhaps, the most interesting part of the study because it goes beyond listing the difficulties of women within the computer science program to detail the benefits and drawbacks of a set of curricular changes that were instituted at Carnegie Mellon in order to address these problems. These changes range from providing experience-based mini-courses smoothing the integration of new students into the program to having faculty integrate considerations of interdisciplinary connections and real world implications into their lectures.

Using their administrative ties to their advantage, Margolis and Fisher were able to make substantial moves such as altering the admissions requirements for the major, incorporating a more holistic look at the student's experience level, having senior faculty establish more contact with students early in the program, and requiring faculty and teaching assistants to participate in diversity training. These concerted efforts have had a significant effect at Carnegie Mellon: women constituted 7% of the computer science students in 1995 when the study began and had grown to 42% in 2000 (p. 6). Recognizing that disparities in secondary education were laying foundations for inequity in college, the authors also established a summer institute for 240 high school Advanced Placement computer science teachers interested in recruiting more female students into their classes. In a reflexive moment, Margolis and Fisher offer a frank discussion of their less successful interventions of direct recruiting techniques and cultivating a community for female undergraduate students. They remind those interested in similar interventions that attempts to transform the climate of any program will require sustained effort. As students and faculty graduate and move on to other universities, it is necessary to continue to usher in new participants who are dedicated to building community within the program. The challenge to educators at other universities and high schools is to attempt to implement some of the suggestions that Margolis and Fisher put forth in their book. They have laid some promising groundwork for other educators based on their experience at Carnegie Mellon, but one wonders if educators without significant administrative influence will be able to change their programs so dramatically.

Despite the numerous merits of the book, there are some shortcomings. Though the goals of the book are laudatory, feminist scholars may find some of the gender theory in the book elementary. Class and race considerations are mentioned only briefly. For example, one sample relates that of 29 males surveyed, three have transferred to other departments, and three have left Carnegie Mellon (two African Americans and one Hispanic). This is an alarming statistic that suggests that there may be more to the computer science clubhouse than just a "no girls allowed" sign hanging outside.

The other reservation about Unlocking the Clubhouse is that a book of this sort is, in many ways, outdated as soon as it goes to press. Some of the studies on gender and computing that Margolis and Fisher cite date back to the 1980s. Although the book was published three years ago, the interviews started with students in 1995. Have the cultural and technological changes of the last ten years significantly mooted their diagnostic findings? Drawing attention to the multifaceted and persistent digital divide is necessary work; at the same time, such scholarship does not stand the test of time well. Still, Margolis and Fisher undoubtedly deserve praise for their concerted effort at institutional reform, and their book represents an interesting freeze-frame of gender and computing in the late 1990s.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the lasting influence of Unlocking the Clubhouse and the impact of Margolis and Fisher’s efforts at Carnegie Mellon can be found by looking at the university's Women @ SCS page. Jane Margolis has left her visiting researcher position at Carnegie Mellon, and Allan Fisher has moved on to work with Carnegie Technology Education. However, the efforts to improve women's participation in the computer science major have been absorbed by the very capable hands of Lenore Blum, the faculty advisor to Women @ SCS, who continues to promote programs like the Big/Little Sisters mentorship program, career counseling, peer advice, and an alumnae network. The legacy of Margolis and Fisher's curricular reforms should be encouraging to those wishing to continue to address the gender disparity in the computing world, and Unlocking the Clubhouse is a great starting point from which to gain inspiration.

[1] Fallows, D. 2005 "How Women and Men Use the Internet." Pew Internet and American Life Project, Retrieved February 27, 2006 at http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/171/report_display.asp.

Carly Woods:
Carly Woods is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include gender studies, public argument, and rhetoric of science policy.  <carlywoods@gmail.com>

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