Why Girls “Suck At” Math, Computer Science, and Engineering and What We Can Do To Help

By Tina Lu

In your head right now, picture a child who likes to build things – to take things apart and put them back together. Picture a child who is super computer savvy and even knows how to write a few lines of code. Picture a child who does math problems for fun and, quite hilariously, loves multiplication.

 

Now, be honest: did you picture a girl?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone.

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Implicit stereotypes that girls “suck at” math, engineering, and computer science pervade society and cause girls to demonstrate less interest and achievement in math-heavy fields, thus creating this really really big gender gap in math, computer science and engineering.

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REALLY REALLY BIG GENDER GAP

No, but seriously, look at this table:

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Here’s what you can gather from it:

  1. Despite claims that the gender gap in STEM has decreased in the past decade or so, it HASN’T. I might be a girl, but I know 24 is equal to 24.
  1. Female representation in computer science has actually decreased. This means that the gender gap in computer science has actually INCREASED.

Why? Implicit stereotypes, of course.

While boys are encouraged by their parents and peers to pursue mathematics, girls…are not. Despite similarities in their mathematics abilities, high-achieving girls receive more unnecessary help from their parents than high-achieving boys do. This “help” tells girls that they’re just not good at math.

Furthermore, according to Amye Bell, a professor at Virginia Tech, when girls are told boys are better at math or even reminded they are girls, they perform worse than a control group on a mathematics exam. Considering Bell’s research, it’s no surprise that twice as many males as females score a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT’s, and almost twice as many males score in the top 1%.

And if you think this two-to-one gender gap is bad, it gets worse in college. If a woman initially chooses to major in a math or engineering-related field, she is twice as likely as a man to switch from the field. As UC-Davis professors Scott Carrell, Marianne Page, and James West claimed, this increase in the gender gap can be due to professor gender, another source of implicit stereotypes. They found that the gender gap is mitigated when female students have female professors (which “contradicts” this gender stereotype), and the gender gap is propagated when female students have male professors.

So simple solution, right? Give female math, engineering, and computer science majors female professors. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Since so few female students decide to go into math or a math-related science field and even fewer actually stick with it for long enough to graduate with a graduate degree in that field, female math, engineering, and computer science professors are – to say the least – a minority. Women are outnumbered almost ten-to-one in senior faculty positions at U.S. colleges.

They’re also intensely marginalized (implicitly, of course) for being women. Nancy Andreasen, a winner of the extremely prestigious National Medal of Science, revealed that she is frequently ignored in professional settings because of her gender. Men simply do not see her. She also admitted that after she started sending out research articles under her initials N.C. Andreasen rather than her full name, Nancy Andreasen, the acceptance rate of her publications soared. Other female science professors reported being mistaken as cleaning ladies or worse. One transgender Stanford neurobiology professor, Ben Barres, was even told that his work was “much better than his sister’s”. He doesn’t have a sister. Barbara Barres was his past female self.

So not only are implicit stereotypes contributing to the current gender gap, but they’re also contributing to the future gender gap by decreasing the number of future female math, engineering, and computer science professors, thus causing a self-reinforcing gender gap. So to solve this gender gap in math problem, we should first target and mitigate these damaging implicit math-is-male stereotypes.

So, I know what you are thinking. Why does this matter? Why should I care?

Do you own a computer? Do you use the Internet? Do you have any social media account – whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or even LinkedIn?

If you answered “yes” to one or all of these questions, you should care because, as you’ve demonstrated, society is becoming more and more technology-oriented. I probably spend more time on Snapchat than I do hanging out with my friends. #truth

Well, there’s somebody – or rather, a lot of somebodies – designing and maintaining all of these technologies that we’re using – and they’re making a lot of money from it. Computer science and engineering jobs make up more than eighty percent of STEM employment, and math-related occupations account for 98.7 percent of job growth in STEM occupations.

By allowing these implicit math-is-male stereotypes to persist, we’re excluding, driving away females from the HUGE, growing fields of computer science, engineering, and math, which also happen to have the highest annual wages. How can our society achieve true gender equality then?

P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes, I am a girl, and no, I don’t “suck at” math.

 

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