Bad Reporting About Women in STEM

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.

(emphasis added)

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.

11 thoughts on “Bad Reporting About Women in STEM

  1. In line with what you said, I have a general problem with any news report on something that was done in a small, unique environment. It is always suggested that THIS IS WHAT EVERYONE IN THE HIGHER ED SHOULD DO1!!11!!! Um, no. There are often lessons to learn, but most of higher ed is not Harvey Mudd. Most of higher ed isn’t even U. Colorado Boulder.

  2. 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

    My anecdotal impression is that big state universities like CU will often ask entering freshmen to declare a major as early as when they apply to the school. (I applied to UC Berkeley undergraduate, and they asked me to declare a major on the application.) Private universities (at least the ones I have been associated with) may ask applicants to state a preference but often do not require students to declare majors before the end of the freshman year, if then. In theory it’s possible to change majors, but there is always some bureaucratic hurdle to overcome in doing so. So people who don’t go in expecting to major in a STEM field frequently never take a STEM class that is aimed at majors.

    Actually, it’s worse than that. Harvey Mudd is known primarily for its science and engineering programs, so just by applying to that school one is expressing an interest in STEM fields.

    So yes, you need to get them in middle school. Because if they don’t take biology, chemistry, and physics (plus calculus, where it’s offered) in high school, their chances of majoring in a STEM field are somewhere between slim and none.

  3. Some big state schools require you to declare a major, but I think it depends upon both the school and the major. I know some majors at the nearby big state U here are competitive to get into after you have been in the university a year or two; computer science is one of them.

    My daughter is doing the college search now and is likely to major in a STEM area, but she’s shying away from schools that require you to declare a major at the beginning. She also had a negative reaction to Harvey Mudd from a college fair we went to; she wants STEM, but she doesn’t want only STEM.

  4. The most important factor about Harvey Mudd that is missing from this discussion is that its student body is 35% female. Almost important is the fact that everyone takes amost exactly the same set of freshman classes, regardless of their planned major. It is a wide open marketplace for freshmen to modify their career goals as they learn more about the relevant subjects.

    I suspect the results at UC Boulder would be different if those freshman intro classes had more than twice as many women in them.

  5. Bullpockey. EVERY college student should be taking some kind of STEM intro classes. And EVERY required STEM intro class should be revamped to be interesting to humans.

    Also, even with respect to computer science- having every student take computer science makes more sense to me than having every student take a foreign language, or physics, or even (if I’m honest) biology. Being technologically literate and having an appreciation for what programming can accomplish (and what it cannot) seems pretty vital to me.

    Also, you do realize that women being pushed out of STEM at 2X the rate of men is a problem independent of how many women you can get into the field, right??

  6. Sherri @3:

    There are a lot of differences in detail between different universities (I look at a lot of them because all of my students are transferring somewhere), but generally speaking you are not actually *in* a major until you are a junior or 2nd semester sophomore, having met specific requirements for the program. (As you note, this may or may not be a competitive process at that point.)

    What matters is not whether you “declare” a major but rather how well you get advised at the beginning and the sort of flexibility you have to explore related areas.

    Most STEM majors have a lot of courses in common, so what your daughter really needs to watch out for are schools where there are different calculus or physics classes for specific majors. I know one university where physics and engineering majors take different physics classes, which makes it very hard to jump from engineering into applied physics. It is even more common to have a bio-majors physics class, putting up a roadblock if you wanted to move from biology to bio-engineering or computational biology.

    These issues exist whether you enter with a declared major or work with a general STEM advisor as a freshman.

  7. All these initiatives to get more women into STEM rest on assumption that it would be beneficial for them. But is there any hard evidence to actually back this assumption? And I don’t mean beneficial financially, I mean in overall happiness.

    What if those women who don’t pick STEM actually make the right decision based on their preferences and would be happier in alternative professions? After all who if not they themselves knows best what they want to do in their lives? The job of educators should be to provide as accurate information to them as possible and not to try and influence their decisions one way or another because they think they know better what the women should chose.

    The description of the course from the article that made computer science “absolutely fascinating and fun and creative,” makes me especially uncomfortable as it sounds like it has very little to do with what IT people actually do in real world. I work as a programmer myself and while the work is creative from time to time it is hardly ever fun let alone “absolutely fascinating.”

    To put it another way, I like STEM and strongly dislike law, but lets imagine for the sake of the argument that there was some hypothetical initiative to get more people like me into law schools. So I took some specially prepared introductory course designed to make law appealing to me and let’s suppose that it worked and I became a lawyer. Would I be better off as a result? I don’t think so, even if it got me a better paying job in all probability I would still be happier in STEM simply because I much prefer solving engineering problems to interacting with people.

  8. You have to start early. Anyone going into STEM needs to be on track with math, and math is cumulative. I’ve seen more kids drop out of STEM because they never mastered something in math and the school just raced on without them, and I’ve seen a number of kids who grokked math catch up with all sorts of subjects in the sciences and humanities. You can read Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton just fine without having read Mark Twain or Jane Austen, but you need arithmetic to do algebra and algebra to do calculus.

  9. Well, it’s not really about making them happy. It’s about tricking them into a field where they can still be useful to society by the age of 70 or so and thus saving us all from Mad Max style apocalyptica.

  10. Kaleberg- you have a point, but women are earning nearly half of the mathematics bachelor’s degrees, and taking equivalent maths courses in high school. So I think it’s fair to speculate that there could be an interest gap, or a confidence gap, but there is not the same preparation gap that there used to be.
    In fact, it’s possible that a girl hearing a comment such as yours would be more likely to focus on her weaknesses in previous classes, whereas a boy would not. I’ve got no evidence for that one though, but to use your standard of evidence…I’ve seen more girls drop out of STEM because they had difficulty with one topic and that lead them to think they were “bad” at math than because their actual preparation was inferior to their peers.

    Paul- I share your reservations about misrepresenting what STEM is to get more women majoring in it. That said, “what STEM fields are like” needs to change, and not because there is too much problem solving for women to be interested!

    If I hadn’t seen so many examples of men in engineering being jackhats to women, I’d take men’s claims that “maybe women just aren’t interested!” much more seriously. I know oodles of women who lost interest in STEM because of hostile climates (and on *that* issue I’ve seen some data- a reasonable chunk of women do leave STEM because the climates are hostile).

    That said, I do also know many men (and a few women!) who lost interest in engineering or science when they found out they HAD to work well with people- there is a lot of teamwork in some fields, and no matter how much you love problem solving, you might not be good enough at it to solve every problem all by your lonesome.

  11. EVERY college student should be taking some kind of STEM intro classes.

    In my ideal version of the world, this would be the case. Here in the so-called real world, it isn’t. It is true of the school where I earned my undergraduate degree, and it is true of Harvey Mudd. But most universities allow non-STEM students to fulfill distribution requirements with courses that are not geared toward STEM majors (Introduction to Geology a.k.a. “Rocks for Jocks” is the classic example of such a course).

    We’re getting into “innumeracy of intellectuals” territory here: the notion that it’s somehow OK to not know any math and science if you aren’t a STEM major. Distribution requirements are often lip service to the idea of a well-rounded education.

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