We asked all of out interviewees what their original motivation was for pursuing Computer Science as a course of study. We received a wide variety of answers, but the trend among our interviewees was that many of the men knew they were interested in computers before college, while more of the women developed an interest in CS later in life or through other subjects.
When asked why they were interested in CS, most of our male interviewees answered something along the lines of I like programming. One professor said: Im a nerd! I designed computers in high school, and that was back in 1971. Many of our male interviewees were able to point to an interest in computers and technology dating back to high school or childhood. I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became interested in computers, mentioned one male undergraduate, I remember back in the late 80s, our house computer was acting up
. This technician from my dads office came over to fix it, and I just happened to be walking by when he took the cover off of the computer. I was instantly curious about all these cool electronic looking things inside, and this guy had the patience to let me sit there and ask him all these questions about everything. Pretty much since that day, Ive been into computers.
The women we interviewed, on the other had, often had some rather unlikely-sounding stories as to how they started doing CS. One lecturer told us: I got involved in CS through my husband who has a BS in CS. When we first got married I was a performer and music teacher in NYC. He started out after graduating as a consultant
. I taught myself how to program and began helping him with his projects. Eventually I took on more. We started getting bigger and bigger contracts which was really cool, but I felt overwhelmed at times. I just did not have the technical skills I needed. So I went back to school and got a masters and PhD in CS. Typically, the female interviewee discovered their interest in Computer Science through other areas of study, such as Symbolic Systems, Math, or even Music. They mostly became interested in college, but not before, (though some had been interested in math and science their whole lives) and some received their undergraduate degree in a different area, not realizing until near or even after the end of their undergraduate career that they were interested in CS.
According to a report by the ACM Committee on The Status of Women in Computer Science, experience in computer use, and a resulting comfort with and affinity for computing, have a strong effect on the study of computer science in the university. It mentions the culture of a hacker elite, which may alienate many students who do not have much prior experience with computers. The situation is likely to be more pronounced for females, who, because of the differences in early experience with computers, are less likely to be a part of the elite.
Another motivation for pursuing CS, which may apply equally to men and women, is simply that it is a marketable field. One male PhD student felt that that particular motivation was not gender neutral: People in CS are there either because they love the field or because they want a marketable degree. The second concern is likely to hit males harder than females, due to historical inertia - our culture demands that men have careers, and it's only recently that it's even suggested that women have them. He actually seemed optimistic about this fact, stating I think that a higher percentage of women than men in CS are there because they love the field.
Several interviewees, typically the undergraduates, mentioned that they were motivated purely by curiosity. This may be because, more so than when most of Stanfords faculty was in college, Computer Science has become a very visible field in the last few years, particularly in Silicon Valley. One female undergraduate said, It was part of the culture here, so I was curious. The Stanford 106A program takes advantage of this curiosity by being structured to appealing to a wide variety of students: designing a program that is more attractive to all students has a positive effect on the number of women enrolling in the program.
Interest in theoretical Computer Science, programming, and design, is not necessarily the same as interest in computers themselves, as gadgets. Most of the men we spoke with who were interested in CS became interested early on because they were fascinated by the computers themselves. They tended to have more experience working with computers before coming to college, and at home in a hacker culture. Women, in contrast, often accidentally discovered an interest in Computer Science later in their academic careers than their male counterparts. On the one hand it could be potentially alienating to enter a field in which many people, most of them men, have much more experience than yourself. On the other hand, it has been suggested that some social expectations may actually work to a womans advantage, making her more able or more likely to freely pursue CS out of interest and love of the topic, rather than being pushed into it for the sake of making money. As Computer Science becomes more visible as a field, more male and female students are likely to try studying it out of curiosity. A well-designed introductory course could be a valuable recruiting tool for potential majors in general and women in particular.