This is apparently my day to be annoyed at the reporting of pieces about gender differences in STEM, because a bunch of people are linking to this PBS NewsHour article about women in engineering, which is linked to an interview with Maria Klawe of Harvey Mudd College, who I ran across a few weeks back thanks to a New York Times profile/article. While the general thrust of the piece is very good, there are a couple of areas where the reporting really breaks down, in a way that is pretty annoying.
One of these is just the usual breakdown whenever anything remotely quantitative comes up in media reports: at one point, they talk about a gender gap in perception of ability:
And while female engineering majors grade just as well as men, they have a tendency to underrate their technical abilities, [Angela Bielefeldt of the University of Colorado Boulder] said. “Women tend to leave engineering with higher grade point averages than the men… but they perceive that their technical skills are sometimes different. And they’re not different, in reality.”
This is at least implicitly a quantitative claim, but no numbers are given. Some Googling turns up a blog article citing a study (PDF) of this, but as is often the case with these, it’s difficult to work out what to compare this to. After all, successful women having lower confidence in their abilities is a well known phenomenon that originated with studies of the business world. So, a self-confidence gap in engineering isn’t necessarily surprising– the real question is whether it’s worse there than elsewhere, and by how much. But that’s really difficult to track down, and so it’s not too surprising that the PBS report doesn’t mention it (though it bugged me enough to spend a bunch of time Googling for it).
The bigger problem is a quote from the interview which is repeated in the article (well, not really repeated, because the article went live first, but you know what I mean). After a bit of discussion of initiatives attempting to get younger girls interested in science and engineering, they write:
A note of warning from Klawe though: starting before high school leaves four long years for the students to get disinterested in the sciences. Her strategy: to capture their attention as soon as they enter college.
“You get them into an intro computer science course that is absolutely fascinating and fun and creative,” she said. “And you have them have so much fun that they just can’t believe that this is really computer science.
They’ve done just that at Harvey Mudd with a computer course designed with women in mind.
Which sounds great, and makes Klawe seem like a visionary. Which makes you wonder why other places haven’t tried this:
Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley have also redesigned computer courses to make them more appealing to women.
Still, Bielefeldt said, after years of trying different things, they still struggle to draw more women into these male-dominated sciences.
So, how is it that Harvey Mudd is so much more successful with this approach than these better-known universities? You won’t find the answer in the article, though it’s briefly alluded to in the interview. To get it, you need to go back to the Times article:
In 2005, the year before Dr. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science course, a requirement at Mudd.
The factor that makes a revamped intro course so successful at Harvey Mudd is that everybody has to take it. At places where students aren’t forced to take the intro course, well:
Angela Bielefeldt is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. The percentage of women in her classes is dismal, she said. Of the 60 to 80 students that take her freshman civil engineering class, only 10 to 12 are generally women.
Don’t get me wrong, I think what Klawe and her colleagues have done is great. But a revamped intro course only works if students take it, and when only 20% of your entering class is female, well, there’s only so much you can do to improve retention in that course.
Which is why people like Bielefeldt are working on pitching science and engineering to girls in middle school. You need students coming into college wanting to take that first course before changing it will make a big difference. If you have finite resources to dedicate to the problem, you’ll get more bang for your buck by starting early. If you double the number of women in the intro class, you’ll get a bigger improvement even if you don’t improve the retention a bit (and, realistically, you expect retention to get better if the starting numbers are better).
(Totally made-up numbers to demonstrate what I mean: Assume an entering class of 100, split 80/20 M/F. Say you keep 2/3 of the men, and 1/3 of the women. That gives you a final class of 6 women and 53 men, for a 10% female fraction.
(If you fix the retention problem, so you keep 2/3 of both genders, but don’t change the incoming numbers, you end up graduating 13 women and 53 men, for a final female fraction of 20%. If you double the number of women in the entering class (so you have a 40/60 M/F split), but don’t change the retention, you graduate 13 women and 40 men, for a female fraction of 25%, which is significantly better. Thus, early intervention is better than late.)
(If you prefer not to get the increase at the cost of graduating fewer men, increase the class size to 133, 53 women and 80 men. Then you end up with 18 women and 53 men, the same 25% (within rounding errors).)
So, given that, why does Klawe talk up changing the intro class? Because that’s the easiest thing for a college to do– change the things they have direct control over. It’s hard to make a significant dent in general attitudes toward science at the middle school level when you’re working with the faculty and resources of a single college.
And, on a more cynical level, it’s in Klawe’s interest to talk up college-level intervention because that burnishes her personal image. After all, the way she got a glowing Times profile and a soft-focus interview with Judy Woodruff in the first place was by revamping an intro class. The more important she can make that idea sound, the more important she looks.
In practical terms, though, the Mudd solution just doesn’t scale up, because the University of Colorado, Boulder isn’t going to be able to require all their entering students to take computer science or civil engineering, no matter how female-friendly they make their intro courses. So the payoff from changing those classes is just never going to be as good, not because Angela Bielefeldt is less brilliant or dedicated than Maria Klawe, but because their starting conditions are not directly comparable.
Which is why leaving out that critical bit of information is terrible, terrible reporting, and pisses me off. I’m not saying you shouldn’t revamp the intro courses to make them more friendly to women– that’s absolutely something that needs to be done, because frankly, a lot of intro science courses aren’t friendly to human beings, of either sex. But pretending that that’s all you need to do, or even the most important thing to do, is horribly disingenuous.
If you want to address the shortage of women in STEM fields, the absolute best thing you can do is to start early. The earlier the better.