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  • Attracting Women to the CS Major
  • Heather K. Tillberg (bio) and J. McGrath Cohoon (bio)

The growing gender divide in computer science is one of the more perplexing phenomena on college campuses today, especially considering the rising number of high school girls taking advanced science and math courses. Much of the research on this issue focuses on what deters women from entering the field of computer science. In this paper, we focus instead on what attracts students to the computer science (CS) major. We found that the most consistent themes in student reports were early experiences with computers, the match between a student's self-assessed abilities and the abilities required by computer science, and the features of computing careers. Male and female students who chose a computing major were largely attracted by the same factors, but with some differences. Knowledge of the similarities and differences in what attracts students will allow colleges and universities to develop new, proactive approaches for addressing the gender disparity in their CS programs.

Our data were collected from thirty-one focus groups with a total of 182 undergraduate computer science majors. The focus groups were conducted by the principal investigator, J. McGrath Cohoon, or by trained and supervised graduate students. The research team visited sixteen moderate- to large-sized computer science departments1 across the United States during the spring of 2001. Sites were selected purposely for variation in geographic location, institutional type, highest degree granted, prestige, and gender composition. Geographic location included urban and nonurban institutions. Ten of the institutions were public and six were private. At eleven of the universities, the highest degree granted was a PhD. At three institutions, a master of science was the highest degree granted, and at two institutions, a bachelor's degree was the highest degree granted. Finally, the institutions had varying levels of prestige according to their 1993 NRC rankings.

The focus groups were divided in all but one case into exclusively male or exclusively female groups of students. The average number of participants in a focus group was six, but the group sizes ranged from one, in which case a semi-structured [End Page 126] interview was conducted, to eighteen. In every case, the moderator followed a scripted set of questions to ensure that all discussions covered the same set of issues, but moderator discretion determined the extent of probing and follow-up on any particular comment. The transcribed data from the interviews were coded and analyzed for dominant themes. The question relevant to this content analysis was, "What attracted you to the computer science major?" However, we also considered information that participants offered in response to other questions, such as a request for any additions or modifications to the moderator's summary of the discussion. From the content analysis, we identified the most common influences male and female students noted for their choice of major.

Participants were recruited by an on-site contact person and cannot be considered a random sample. Overall, 43 percent of the participants in our focus groups were women, which was much higher than women's representation in their departments. In the study departments, females averaged 24 percent of enrolled students, although female representation ranged from 7 percent to 45 percent across the departments. The average participant was 23years old and a junior in college. The average male participant was twenty-three years old, and the average female was twenty-four years old. The youngest participant was eighteen, and the oldest was fifty. The students with whom we spoke were doing well academically—their mean grade point average was 3.3 overall and 3.5 in their major. The women had a slightly higher overall GPA (3.4) than the men (3.3) and a slightly lower major GPA (3.4) than the men (3.5). Asian, black, and white students participated in the focus groups, with white students in the majority. However, analyses could only be conducted on a group level, not an individual level, so no distinction can be made based on a student's individual demographic characteristics.

Prior research into choice of major or career generally has focused on personality factors that lead to a particular career...