mamamusings: January 14, 2003

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Tuesday, 14 January 2003

girls and computers

Dave Winer pointed to a NY Times article from Sunday entitled "Where the Girls Aren't," and chose the opening line as his quote:

Anyone who has ever tried to pry a girl offline knows that girls like computers. They just don't understand how they work.

Ack! Okay, I'm as aware as anyone of the shortage of women in the profession, especially after years of fewer than 10% women in my classes, and writing a grant proposal this year to try to understand and address the problem. But still--that quote sticks in my craw.

So I read the rest of the article, and felt better. For example, they talked to a woman who's been teaching math in high schools for 30 years:

''When I started in 1972,'' she said, ''there were three girls in calculus out of a senior class of about 50. Now there are three sections of Advanced Placement calculus, in a class about the same size -- in other words, about 75 percent of the senior class. This would not have happened if we had bought into the reigning mantra of the time, which was, 'Boys are naturally interested in mathematics; let them do it. Girls are more talented in literature and history; why ask them to change?' ''

I remember taking AP Calculus in 1979. I had been in advanced math classes every year in high school, and since at the time the school systems wouldn't let you take calculus 'til senior year, during junior year I took the two half-year courses offered to advanced students--Abstract Algebra in the fall, and Matrix Algebra in the spring. They were both taught by a teacher who managed to systematically weed out most of the girls in the class by the end of the year. He would humiliate girls in the class, ridicule them when they answered questions wrong, ignore them when they were right, and regularly tell us that we really weren't cut out for studying math. (Years later, I heard that same teacher was fired after his affairs with male students were discovered. No big surprise there--plenty of us had seen him taking students on "dates" to hockey games. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

I stuck it out through junior year, and enrolled in his AP Calculus class senior year. I lasted half the year. When I got my early acceptance letter from Michigan, I realized that I could live with the automatic "F" I'd get from withdrawing from the class more easily than I could live with the class. So I quit. It was only the second time my parents had to go to the school on my behalf (the first time is worth another blog entry at another time).

That wasn't really the end of it, though. The experience left me thoroughly convinced that I wasn't good at math. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy--I barely made it through the required calc class in college, and avoided anything that looked like math or science. (This from someone who in her junior year of high school was convinced she was going to be an industrial engineer.) It wasn't until after my master's program, when I started thinking about a PhD, that I finally faced up to my math fears and conquered them. Turns out I'm pretty good at math after all. But it took fifteen years to undo the damage that one teacher caused.

So how much damage is done every time we assume that "girls aren't interested" in how computers work? How much of that comes from the early conditioning, the toys we give our children, the activities we encourage them to get involved in? Cub scouts build pinewood derby cars to race, learning physics and geometry in the process. (My kids are racing theirs on Saturday.) But do Brownies? Probably not.

Uh-oh. I'm starting to rant. Time to sleep.

Posted at 11:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (1)
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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna