girls and computers

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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.

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In teaching technology in a non-tech major (communications tends to attract a higher percentage of women than men), I have noticed a significant pattern. Since the work is collaborative, and there is a almost always at least one or two male ubergeeks in the class, early on many of the women tend to turn to these guys--if they are not too intimidating, which they sometimes are--or to other men in the class for help. They seem to really have bought into the idea that computers, or at least computing, is not for them.

And then, after a couple of weeks, you can see it hit them: this stuff is an intriguing puzzle, but there isn't anything unfathomable about it. Encouraged by this discovery, some proportion of these women jump in with both feet and become the coaches and not the coachees. I recently ran into a couple of resumes from students from a few years ago and was surprised to see that they had switched directions and gone on to successful web development careers.

This makes the problem seem simpler than it really is, I suspect. But I was always shocked at how quickly they took to the tech once they knew that they were expected as part of the class to be familiar with it. And it always made me wonder how they got to be a junior or senior in college without someone treating them as capable of learning this stuff.

I can assure you, as a former Brownie, that there were no pinewood derby cars made. We, instead, made decorative comb holders out of felt and worked towards badges called things like "Thrift" and "Cooking."
I actually failed flower arranging- it was a terrible humilation at the time but I'm now rather proud of it.

And I'm crap at maths but really really wish I weren't.

Pinewood derby... I gave my twin sons their first jack knives, bought the kit, which included some wheels and a block of pine wood. We had a great time carving and assembling, and testing, and adding some paint for finishing touches. The cars looked more like the old swoop fendered 50's XK120 or XK140 Jaguars than anything else. When we got to the contest Matt and Ben's cars were totally non-conforming. They fit in terms of all the size and weight rules, they just looked too much like cars. The other kids had rigs that looked like Formula One racers that one of the dads had conjured on his table saw. These things were streamlined and looked like real go-fasters. Pleased to say that Ben won his heat and was in the finals that day, even though he was running a retro unit. But I had kind of an ill feeling that stuck with me about the dads making the cars for the boys. Where does assistance stop and cooptation begin? Somewhere between a cub scout and his jack knife and a dad with a band saw.

Frank, while my kids had the streamlined formula one racers, they were actively involved in creating the cars. Gerald talked with them about the physics of the design (weight in the back, angle of the axle, etc), and helped them operate the woodshop equipment in the basement. Lane (age 8) pushed his block through the table saw--Alex found it too loud and intimidating, so chose not to. Both sanded and painted their cars, and helped glue on the lead weights. All in all, it struck me as a quite cooperative process.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of kids whose parents do it for them, with no involvement. Defeats the purpose, I think.

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