Thursday, February 21, 2008

Girls and Math

In Computer Science we talk a lot about why girls shy away from math, computers, etc. even when they are obviously good at it. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to encourage them to pursue math and science, which includes trying to break stereotypes, talking about the many great careers that exist with computers, and giving them opportunities to try out many computer related activities. Not to mention all of the research on the topic. Still, the numbers of women in CS undergraduate programs in the USA is dropping.

I think the above comic helps illustrate some of the problems that we face. Often, girls and women are judged not as a single person, but as representative of their entire gender. As the comic shows, if a male does something wrong another male will assume it's because he is stupid; if a woman does the same thing wrong, that same male will assume it is because all women are stupid. This happens very often, which seems to not only put unnecessary pressure on women, but also gives people a skewed view of how people perform on a task.

As far as the pressure is concerned, women often feel less confident about their abilities even when they are doing just as well as (or better than) the males in their class. Especially with the low numbers of female students, they can easily feel like they don't belong, or that they are singled out and judged more than the men. Some women do not feel this way, but even one woman who feels this way is too many. With the added pressure of feeling like you represent all of your gender, this can be incredibly daunting.

So, what can we do to fix the problem? I wish I had the answer. I think the best beginning is to make people more aware of these tendencies. Maybe we if we talk about how we judge others more with younger people (college freshmen at the latest), they will be aware of it and try to fix it within themselves. It would be great to help make professors aware of this as they can (and do) make this problem worse as well. Not forcing women to represent all of woman-kind with every move they make, and just letting them be who they are themselves, would be great improvement for women in Computer Science.


Nina said...

I loved this comic. It says everything in two lines.

Megan said...

exactly! Although someone also shared it on an e-mail list I'm on, and lots of people didn't get it....which was weird.