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.)