Thursday, March 03, 2011

Girls and boys

I know at least two web media outlets (Slate and Inside Higher Ed) commented today on a study on gender issues in STEM ("Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," for those not in the know) fields recently done at the University of Massachusetts, and my Facebook posts on the article have led to great conversations with my (mostly female) friends. The study's results are unsurprising to those of us in STEM fields: female instructors in STEM courses lead to improved levels of engagement and confidence in female students.

At the risk of sounding dismissive, I offer a one-word response to this study: "duh."

I honestly don't mean to be dismissive. I highly value this study and others like it for reifying and drawing attention to the glaring disparities between the achievement of men and the achievement of women in math and math-related disciplines, at all levels. We need to get serious about addressing these disparities, from preschools to postdocs, and beyond.

Addressing the inequities in math education takes more than responding the Barbie's "math is hard" with "Barbie's full of shit," but telling Barbie off is a good start. Early on young women need to be told that they're as capable of doing math as their male counterparts, and that in doing so they do not sacrifice their femininity. They need to be given the same encouragement and opportunities young men are given.

I could write for hours on this topic, but I know how I feel (and I'm sure my regular readers, my colleagues, and my students both past and present know how I feel, too!)...I'm more interested in learning how those of you reading this feel. I know many of my readers are current and former students of both sexes. I'd really like to know what sort of experience you've had, and what you think your sex has had to do with it.

Has your sex made you feel at home or out of place? Have you been encouraged because of your sex, or discouraged because of it? Have you noticed your instructors treating you differently than classmates of the other sex? In what way? Let me know what you think, anonymously, of course, if you'd like.


Justin Reid said...

I hope the day comes, when higher education/research will focus more on talent instead of what sex the scientist or researcher has. Even last night I saw an meteorology researcher in Oklahoma who just completed her PhD and worked on the big VORTEX2 tornado project. However there can be no doubt there is a disparity and in fact I'm tired of all the guys in research and I want some bright female academics around! Maybe one day when another Marie Curie or Lady Ada comes about, this issue can be finally resolved.

Justin Reid

Anonymous said...

I've never had teachers treat me noticeably different for being a girl, but come to think of it, until I got to college all but one of my math teachers have been female. When it comes to college math classes, if anything I've always just felt simply outnumbered. As a more timid student, this doesn't encourage me to participate much in class (which could just be my own fault, I suppose). Because of this I lose out on the benefits of in-class discussions and that's what usually makes me feel alienated and in turn detracts from my confidence as a mathematician. I've never been given the impression that because of my gender my work is less valuable.

Jessica McNutt said...

This is going to be long and poorly worded….
Many academics refer to the journey from early childhood education, through high school, to undergraduate school, then graduate school, and finally post doc, academic or private science careers as the science education pipeline. Individuals are placed in the pipeline early on and if they don’t leak out somewhere along the way then they’ll come out on the other side and be a successful member of the STEM community. Through this lens we wonder why so many more women and minorities leaking out of the pipeline and what can we do about it? The suggestions you give, to encourage young girls to get interested in science early, is commonly referred to as "flooding the pipeline." The theory being that women and minorities need more encouragement and if we can get more into the pipeline early on then a higher number will come out the other side. Generally, I support encouraging youth of all races and both genders to get into science. I love science. When I started the education program two years ago, that is what I saw myself doing long term. As I have thought about and studied education, I have come to realize that “flooding the pipeline” is problematic.
I have come to believe that the problem isn’t that women and minorities are simply leaking out of the pipeline but are hitting barriers that exist for them within the pipeline. These barriers, in my opinion, discourage the population as a whole from pursuing STEM careers, but impact women more strongly than men (there is evidence to support this). Examples of these barriers include, but are nowhere limited to, the competitive nature of STEM courses, the isolation and lack of community many, if not most, women in science mathematics experience (due to their lack of numbers), the difficult decisions women face due to their role in reproduction, and so forth and so on. I mention that there is data to support the existence of these barriers. I read an excellent book about a long term study involving the tracking of thousands of women as they progressed through the pipeline from high school on. I read it several years ago (Athena Unbound) that does a much better job of describing this than I am doing and I highly, highly recommend it.
The point that I’m trying to make, and I mentioned this in my facebook comment, is that we need to do more than just encourage women at an early age. I think we need to look at how we are training our future scientists. What kind of skills do students need to be successful in science and math courses and will those skills allow them to become successful scientists? Scientists are supposed to be objective, resourceful, collaborative, creative thinkers, but science students are supposed to be competitive, independent, stubborn, linear thinkers and exceptional memorizers. How does that even make sense?
Finally, I will conclude by saying that I feel the mathematics program at UNCA is a wonderful example of what science and mathematics programs should be. You guys promote collaboration and creative thinking, you take the time to get to know the strengths and weakness of the students, you challenge students to think about the concepts in terms of a bigger picture, you challenge students to think creatively. A department that approaches mathematics education in this way is not only more female-friendly, I would argue that it creates a population of students that are more likely to be successful scientists and mathematicians. I owe a lot of my past and future successes to the training I received from the math department :)

Esraa said...

I was the only girl left in the engineering department when I graduated 2 years ago. I was never really told that math was for boys only, by my parents or teachers. It never actually hit me until I got to college. My professors and program directors actually treated me, in a way, better than they did my male colleagues. Of course, I always felt outnumbered and a bit intimidated, but it was all in my head and I enjoyed the challenge. I do remember, however, that when I went to a lawyer once for a speeding ticket and told him I was trying to get to engineering class, he said, "You don't look like an engineer!" I'm sure he meant well, but it offended me. Do engineers have to be male, or do female engineers always appear unkempt? But he was an exception. To be honest, all of the males I met throughout college and work never looked at me strangely or made me feel out of place- perhaps men in engineering and math view women differently from those in other professions! I recently switched to HR because I'm more interested in human behavior and development, not especially to avoid math or engineering.

Generally speaking- I wrote a looooooooong essay in Humanities 4 about how women oppress other women, rather than the typical view of men oppressing women. My professor at the time was a feminist activist and she loved it, so I must have written something right! I think the theory definitely applies here.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, I always viewed math as more of a "boy thing" and English as more of a "girl thing." During middle school and high school, we were all forced to take those career surveys to figure out our futures. My results always said that I should do something in the humanities. At the time, I took this as a reason to steer clear of math. Looking back, I can see that the career surveys were really just a summary of my preconceived opinions of what women should do. They were not at all a true reflection of my interests. It turns out that I love math, and I am now a math major. I really think that my false ideas of gender differences almost kept me from discovering my passion for math. Where did these false ideas come from? It could have been my parents telling their friends that their sons are so good at math while their daughter is really good at English. It could have been the boys in my fifth grade class teasing another boy for getting beaten by a girl on a math test. It could have been all the men with careers in math and science that I saw in person and on television. I don't know exactly what affected me, but I am just glad that I eventually did discover I can do math as well as any boy at my school.

DocTurtle said...

I'm really impressed by the depth and introspection of the comments so far. A fourth commenter posted but, I believe, deleted her comment. It was a very thoughtful one, and I hope she'll consider reposting.

Sara said...

I was always encouraged to do well in school. My dad pushed me the hardest (especially in math and science since he could help me the best in those subjects) and expected me to bring home A's on a regular basis. I had one professor in college that I suspect gave me "pity" points because I'm female (largely because I could have the same answer as one of the guys and get one or two more points for that answer). Every other professor treated me just like everyone else.

When I started looking for a professional internship, I was told that there aren't many women in my profession (especially in the National Weather Service). Since working for the NWS had been my dream for a while, it didn't phase me, and here I am. I'm in the minority in the weather service, but it doesn't really feel like it. I'm both respected and valued by my coworkers.

Outside of work, though, I keep running into the same thing time and again. I continually hear "When are we going to see you on TV" or "What channel are you on" from people who find out I'm a meteorologist. I'm really curious about how many of the people think that's my only career option because I'm a woman?

writelhd said...

Ahh, I had a comment but google ate it. No fair.

It's okay, it was too long anyway.

What helped me:

Professors being encouraging, approachable, not disdaining of questions, and willing to go where I wanted to go to get even more challenge. Professors using "she" to describe hypothetical people doing hypothetical things in the field sometimes, even textbooks that refered to students as "she" as frequently as the other gender. That inclusive use of pronouns was an important subtle reminder: I'm here because I have something to contribute and deserve to be and by gosh this authority figure on the subject recognizes that, I'm not just a politically correct afterthought.

I read in Athena Unbound, a book on women in STEM, that women tend to do better in school with direct access to professors: they are motivated by praise, a rapport with someone seen as an intellectual mentor. This is contrary to the you're a number who must prove yourself to who exactly maybe a TA because professor is Research God With No Time for Students approach that happens in big research universities--and is why UNCA ROCKED! I don't think I would necessarily have stuck with physics if I hadn't had access to professors who offered individualized praise and encouragement. Goes back to the theory that women are more about relationships and cultivating them for whatever cultural reason that this may be true, and for myself, I would say that is true.

However, the flip side of that is that I'm not yet going to graduate school, and can't yet work up the drive to leave place and people that I love for years of uncertainty and traveling with the job. That's the choice you make, and isn't all that related to being female except that females tend to be more likely to look at these trade-offs and chose away from the high-commitment career, and perhaps some of us are not in science higher up because we aren't willing to not have kids in order to get tenure. Cause the baby clock and the tenure clock are sort of exactly the same time. That was just an example--I don't even want to think about babies but maybe I would at that point--but I do value the relationships and community that I have right now, and in general have always found moving for a job necessity very difficult to do.

Megan (Stone) Hutchins said...

I was invited to speak at Career Day at one of the local high schools in my area. This was a private, girls-only high school and I was asked to speak about my profession, and to touch on the fact that it's OKAY the be a girl and to be good in things like math and science.

I was afraid at first given the stereotype that high school students have (disrespectful, and uninterested) but these girls turned out to be extremely motivated and respectful young women.

Also, I was elated to learn 96% of their senior class had already been admitted into college, and that more than half of the girls I interacted with were planning to enter into majors that were math or science related.

It was interested to note the difference between the girls in a private, girls-only high school and girls in a regular public high school. I attended a regular public high school, and a majority of girls were uninterested in math and science, and were more interested in pleasing the boys in their classes. That usually requires "dumbing" yourself down. Because God forbid a girl is smarter than her boyfriend...

In an atmosphere that lacked boys, these girls were BRIGHT and took on the challenge of math and science. It was a very interesting experience with some interesting observations.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where I was first introduced to the idea that men were intrinsically better at math than women, but I clung steadfastly to that theory as the only explanation for my struggles with mathematics. I did very well in all of my other subjects in high school, so that had to be the reason I was a C math student at best.

It wasn't until I had already bailed once on an introductory college algebra class that I was fortunate enough to find a professor (male) who stressed understanding over memorization. Suddenly mathematics was as creative, mysterious, and intriguing as anything else I had studied.

At this point in my studies, I don't feel like my gender has any impact on my success or understanding. Do I take a different approach in a modern algebra proof than my male classmates? Sure, but no more so than I do from my female classmates. While I am aware of gender biases in the higher levels of math and science, I don't feel those constraints at the undergraduate level.

I do however believe that if there had been more positive female mathematical role models from grade school on, I would have been much less likely to blame my "faulty female wiring" for my difficulties with math. That's such a vicious circle, though. Girls grow up without role models and therefore don't see pursuing the highest levels of mathematical study as a viable option, thus leaving the next generation of girls without role models...and so it goes. My personal experience makes it even more crucial that I share my enthusiasm with girls who might fall into the same line of thinking that led me to almost write off math altogether.

Michaela Stone
(soon to be UCNA REU-er!)