Computer Science Department
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
The Critical Role of Culture and Environment
This thesis proposes the need for, and illustrates, a new approach to how we think about, and act on, issues relating to women's participation, or lack of participation, in computer science (CS). This approach is based on a cultural perspective arguing that many of the reasons for women entering –or not entering–CS programs have little to do with gender and a lot to do with environment and culture. Evidence for this approach comes primarily from a qualitative, research study, which shows the effects of changes in the micro-culture on CS undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon, and from studies of other cultural contexts that illustrate a "Women-CS fit". We also discuss the interventions that have been crucial to the evolution of this specific micro-culture.
Our argument goes against the grain of many gender and CS studies which conclude that the reasons for women's low participation in CS are based in gender – and particularly in gender differences in how men and women relate to the field. Such studies tend to focus on gender differences and recommend accommodating (what are perceived to be) women's different ways of relating to CS. This is often interpreted as contextualizing the curriculum to make it "female-friendly".
The CS curriculum at Carnegie Mellon was not contextualized to be "female-friendly". Nevertheless, over the past few years, the school has attracted and graduated well above the US national average for women in undergraduate CS programs. We argue that this is due in large part to changes in the culture and environment of the department. As the environment has shifted from an unbalanced to a more balanced environment (balanced in terms of gender, breadth of student personalities, and professional support for women) the way has been opened for a range of students, including a significant number of women, to participate, and be successful, in the CS major. Our research shows that as men and women inhabit, and participate in, a more balanced environment, perceived gender differences start to dissolve and we see men and women displaying many gender similarities in how they relate to CS.