are women really less interested in computers?

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In Chapter 5 of Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher take on the idea that women simply don't find computing as interesting as men do.

Back in January, I quoted a New York Times article on women and computing. In it, a female math teacher draws a parallel between this common assertion and the conventional wisdom surrounding women and math back when I was a kid:

''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?'

Margolis and Fisher echo my story about my high school math experience, saying:

Many once-enthusiastic female students find themselves in a descending spiral of eroding interest through the corrosive effects of lack of confidence, negative comparisons to peers, poor pedagogy, and biased environments.

Research has already shown that prior experience in programming is not a good predictor of success in a college CS program. However, the feeling that many women have of "being behind" because they don't seem to know as much as their male colleagues, is in and of itself a major factor in their erosion of confidence. Women's loss of self-confidence in scientific and technical fields has been documented by researchers in a number of academic disciplines. And because women's confidence in their technical abilities may already be weak, they are far more at risk in classrooms with poor pedagogical practice.

Some things really jump out at me here in terms of small things that we as faculty can do differently to change the climate for the women in our classes. At the very least, those of us teaching in intro classes should tell the students that prior experience is not necessarily a predictor of success in class. They need to hear that from us to believe it. (And it's certainly true in my classes--quite often the students who come in believing they know everything about making web sites are writing embarassingly bad code and implementing pages with no sense of basic design concepts. Those who come in tabula rasa are in much better shape by the end of the quarter, because they have no bad habits to unlearn.)

Margolis & Fisher note the importance of relationship-building between faculty and students. This is always a challenge in our department, where intro classes have 35 or more students, and the 11-week quarter system leaves faculty with barely enough time to learn their students' names, let along develop lasting relationships with them that make them feel valued. Nonetheless, it's the building of those relationships that makes teaching a rewarding profession, and it's something we all need to do on some level to stay sane.

Our freshman seminar classes are one place where students can form a bond with faculty members. Unfortunately, many sections of freshman seminar in our department are taught by professional staff. While these are student support staff members, who do a fabulous job in the class and who are wonderful resources for the students, it is still a lost opportunity for freshman to develop a mentoring relationship with a faculty member.

The clear message in this chapter is that the burden is on the institution to find a way to bolster and reinforce the confidence--and through that, the interest and commitment--of female students. Later in the book they detail specifics on how those kinds of changes can be implemented.

(This is one in a series of entries from mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the "unlocking the clubhouse" category page.)

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When I see information like this (very interesting and thanks for sharing :-) I wonder what research has been done into the tremendous change in the number of women in vet schools and practicing as veterinarians over the last 30 years or so. And if there has been research (as I'm sure there has), I wonder if there's anything in that research that would be enlightening in looking at computer science and IT and other arenas that haven't changed so much.

You can say (as someone is likely to) well, girls love animals, but veterinary medicine is science intensive and women in the fifties were about 2% of the graduating classes. Now the ratio is around 60 or 70% (and much of that change came--I think--in the 70s and 80s).

The bibliography to _Unlocking the Clubhouse_ contains a reference to a book? paper? dealing with precisely this phenomenon, but in human doctoring rather than veterinary medicine.

One important issue is that women/girls consistently self-assess their tech use abilities lower than men/boys. There's a ton of research on this. The next question then is whether this is because women/girls are actually lesser-skilled than men/boys or if it's solely a perception issue. Some work I'm doing right now (a paper I'm writing up right now to be precise) suggests that at least with respect to Internet use skill women's lower-level self-assessment is NOT a reflection of lower-level actual skills. So probably for various cultural reasons - and these really need to be researched more, I think - women/girls have lower self-perceived skills, which can easily influence what they end up pursuing both recreationally and for a career.

I don't think girls are "lesser" skilled. They are brought up to question their work constantly - boys rarely do this. It is rather puzzling!
Often, men assume that they have a "right of way" - that their personal achievement is the golden prize. Women check in with the surroundings more often and make room for others to accomplish the same, being at the same level, or helping them get to the same level. Maybe we learn to understand success differently. Hilde has a lot on this issue - her dissertation is about gender and computer use.

When it comes to math - I have vivid memories of being a curious 7 year old in the first grade, really wanting to know more and understand it. I wasn't scared of it at all. But when I began school, I quickly learned that all my friends "hated" math - adults would ask what our favorite subjects were and then chuckle if we said we hated math. It became "popular" to hate math. If you said you enjoyed it, you were too different. Quite soon, it became an anti social act to enjoy math - it meant you were a certain type that would not fit in with others. In the end - I never did my math because I wanted to "fit" in. Not doing my Math, I fell behind. The teachers said it was "natural" - girls just didn't do so well in this subject, traditionally! Only boys were allowed to do well and still not fall outside the social groups that had formed in the class room, it was a safe subject for them. You were full of sympathy for the poor boy who couldn't understand it - he was certainly less of a man!

If we want understand how and why children learn, we have to look at what is going on in their social circles. There is so much that is influenced by the environment no matter what our talents are!

Eszter states "I think - women/girls have lower self-perceived skills". I have to agree with this, and if we think about the social construction of skill - skill is something that changes historically and culturally. Historically, women were considered better with their hands (because they were smaller) and therefore better at things like sewing because of the precision work. However, if we consider the hand skills needed by Doctors/surgeons (who were at one point were mostly men)that 'skills' are similar. Sonya Rose's "Limited Livelihoods" also talks about historical perceptions of technological skill and how men were seen to naturally possess this. She also discusses the changes in these perceptions when women went to work in factories.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on August 4, 2003 3:03 PM.

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