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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Jane Margolis

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By Beth Cady and Ceal Craig

Dr. Jane Margolis' personal and research interests focus on the ways in which society produces and then reproduces inequality and why some individuals do not receive the same opportunities as others. She arrived at her life's work through a combination of personal and societal events: "I don't think I ever would have ended up on this path, which has basically shaped my whole adult life, had it not been for my work experience, but also that interest in women. It was a part of the times, so I was very active in the women's liberation movement and the civil rights movement, so it was the historical times that shaped my interest."


Inequality and biases in society


In two award-winning books, Margolis explores inequality using the field of computer science as a framework to observe differences in the experiences of women and underrepresented minorities compared with their majority male peers in computer science. Her passion for her research interest flies across the telephone wires during our interview: "When anyone doesn't have equal access to learning opportunities, I'm interested and concerned." What can be done about this perennial problem is a critical question, important to WEPAN members and to Dr. Margolis.


After graduating from University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in social sciences ("a study of society"), Margolis sought a job with the telephone company (Pacific Bell at the time) because she was interested in women's studies, particularly the intersection of unions and women. In the early 1970s, when she began this exploration path, affirmative action was the watchword. The telephone company needed female repairers/installers in what was a male dominated position at that time. Margolis took on this challenge and after being trained by the telephone company, "I realized I absolutely loved it!" In this "life-changing experience" for 10 years, she learned that being able to successfully perform a task was based on training, not gender. And that's where it all began. "It was a life experience that made me just absolutely passionate about understanding why certain fields are segregated and how that comes about and what we can do to change it." This realization led her back to graduate school, earning a doctorate in Education, and ultimately the opportunity to investigate why so few women were in Computer Science (CS) at Carnegie-Mellon University (circa 1990s). Margolis and Allan Fisher shared this pivotal research in Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (2002), which led to actions as described in the next section.


After this work, Margolis expanded her passion on inequality in CS from gender to include the biases and barriers related to race and ethnicity. "I was distressed at the low numbers of African-American and Latino/a [young people] studying computer science. So I committed to bring this same level of scrutiny and examination to the issues of race and CS." Armed with a National Science Foundation grant, Margolis led a team of researchers investigating this issue in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Exploring computer science classes in three schools that effectively represented the LAUSD, they found disturbing themes in their research. There were disparities in learning opportunities between schools that often fell along race and socioeconomic lines, and young people of color were much less likely to have the opportunities to take advanced placement computer science or have been prepared for it. Many schools with predominantly Latino or African-American students did not have CS courses to take. Computer science teachers were difficult to find and place. All in all, the institutions were failing their students of color when it came to exploring computer science as a career.


These findings were published in Stuck in the Shallow End, Education, Race, and Computing (2008). The title refers to the shallow end of a swimming pool. If one never learns to swim, he or she gets stuck in the shallow end when swimming with other children or adults. A black child is more likely to die from drowning than a white child; race, socioeconomic level, and history all contribute to this result. This pattern is repeated in computer science classes and learning in high school. "CS as a field has been historically shaped by a very narrow subset of largely white and Asian male interests" that drive stereotypes and exclusionary patterns in the field.


Research Translates into Action


At Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), Margolis partnered with Dr. Allan Fisher, then CMU's Undergraduate Dean, to explore how society and institutional biases and barriers influenced women's decisions and progress (or lack thereof) in CS. Margolis shared how "heart breaking" it was to interview young female CS majors as freshmen, "so excited and thrilled" and then talk with them a couple of years later when "the spark was out of their eyes." Young women saw themselves as deficient and lacking ability, not that society biases were hindrances to success. Margolis shared a key finding from the research: "women are not to blame, women are not deficient, and they are capable of excelling...It is the barriers...and biases" that persist and influence young women. These barriers and biases are deep within institutions and society, often unconsciously.


Margolis stated that when Fisher and she formed their partnership to study CMU computer science with a gender filter, "we committed to each other that we were going to take action [at CMU.]. Something was going to happen." She added that she doesn't "want research to just be read by academics and stuck on a shelf" but used to generate action and change. The changes implemented by Fisher and his colleagues did have an impact: the percent of females in CS was 7% when the research began. It was 40% after the research recommendations were implemented and today about 33% of graduates each year are women. One very satisfying result for her after the book's publication was the letters and comments from young women who read Unlocking the Clubhouse, sharing how they learned "they were not crazy...[they] were not the problem."


Margolis believes other institutions, universities, and colleges have made institutional changes like CMU, and experienced increases in female CS students. Changes to the way CS is taught (showing more relevance to students and connecting with larger problems), developing effective support groups, and taking other actions to combat stereotype threat all make a difference for women. Margolis believes that numerous recommendations and steps to take to recruit and retain females and underrepresented minorities are widely publicized and accessible to those who are interested, but real change needs committed, passionate insiders. Insiders within the organizations need to drive the changes: "It's the messenger...if people respect someone inside their field, then they listen."


Another specific recommendation Margolis reiterated was underrepresented students in CS can get great support from a posse, such as those formed and sent in peer groups to many institutions by The Posse Foundation. It is important to recruit groups of students of color, females, who can help each other weather the storms still out there in CS. WEPAN should link with other organization focused on diversity in CS: for example, The Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing.


Margolis continues to drive change in computer science. UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, where Margolis is a Senior Researcher, has an ongoing, NSF funded, joint K-12/university project with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD): "The mission of the UCLA Computer Science Project is to increase and enhance the computer science learning opportunities at the secondary school level, and to broaden the participation of African-American, Latino/a, and female students in learning computer science." She shared that the program has now gone nationwide, with the Chicago school system and soon to be Washington DC school system now using the curriculum developed in this Exploring Computer Science program.


Forward Vision


For society to succeed, "everyone [should be] given full and equal opportunity to become interested in CS. That means good quality classes and teachers in high schools, good curriculum." These needs are linked to "changing our educational and educational policy system."


Margolis shared some specific visionary goals for Computer Science as a profession and how women and people of color can make a difference in achieving those goals:

  • "All women of all races and all social classes must be given full and equal access in the high schools."
  • "I am currently thinking hard about what kind of social action is necessary to make real change. How many more years will we keep putting out recommendations with minimal change occurring? People in the 60s made noise and took action through demonstrations. I wonder why that has never been part of the response to this widening gap in learning opportunities?"
  • "I hope that the brilliance that is in CS will be increasingly channeled to issues such as global poverty ... advances to help for the elderly. Diverse groups of people will bring more attention to different sets of issues that are affecting people around the world. CS is changing every aspect of our life. I hope to see a broader vision of values and perspectives and how these problems will be solved."

Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holme, J. J., & Nao, K. (2008).

Margolis, J. & Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing [Digital edition]. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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