Resource Review: Unlocking the Clubhouse

Unlocking the Clubhouse book cover Resource: Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing
Authors: Jane Margolis & Allan Fisher
Published by: MIT Press

The difficulty of recruiting and retaining women and minorities in science-oriented programs is well-documented, and has begun to be addressed by programs such as the COE 2010 initiative. While the study reported in this book focuses on the experiences of women in one Computer Science department, many of its insights and plans for action seem to have broad applicability to engineering departments as well.

Margolis and Fisher conducted a four-year (1995-1999) ethnographic study of the Computer Science department at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in order to better understand the experiences of students of both genders, and to study why women do not tend to enter computer science or - if they do enter - remain beyond the first few courses.

As a result of this study, CMU made several structural, pedagogical, and cultural changes to its Computer Science course sequence, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of women who initially chose computer science as their major and an increase in the number of women who graduated with a computer science major.

One aspect of this book that might be of particular interest to engineers is the discussion of the pedagogical changes that CMU made in response to the ethnographic study. For example, the department introduced a series of lectures and courses that discussed the broad impact of computer science - what CS majors might do with their skills in the real world - as well as a course that allowed students to use their skills for community outreach. (These efforts are similar to several of the 2010 projects that were begun this year, in fact!) Faculty also worked to alter the culture of the CS department, changing some of its admissions procedures in order to be fairer to women candidates, working to create spaces friendly to women students, and making professors aware of more inclusive teaching practices.

In addition, Margolis and Fisher reached out to high school teachers who were teaching either AP Computer Science or a related course, offering a summer institute to help them learn about pedagogies that are more girl-friendly and to help them develop plans for recruiting more girls into their programs.

On the whole, Unlocking the Clubhouse paints a portrait of a very successful effort to recruit and retain women in the field of Computer Science. One wonders, after reading this book, if it might be possible to conduct a similar ethnography of the experiences of other under-represented groups of students, to take the results seriously, and to eventually achieve similar successes in recruitment and retainment.

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Tags: Resource, Real World Problems