Gas station without pumps

2014 June 20

Male- and female-dominated fields

In Percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012), Randal S. Olson posted the following image:

History of gender balance in different fields in college.

History of gender balance in different fields in college.

He makes the point that there is no “STEM” gender gap. Indeed, the sciences and math are doing fine on gender balance. There are, however, large gender gaps in the engineering and computer science on one side and health professions, public administration, education, and psychology on the other. The post with this graph talks mainly about the computer science and engineering gender imbalance, which is somewhat larger than the gender imbalance on the other side (particularly if you take into account that about 60% of bachelor’s degrees now go to women).  He talks about the other side of the gender imbalance in The double-edged sword of gender equality, though without shedding much more light on the subject.

Computer science is a particularly strange case, as it has seen more fluctuation both in raw numbers of students (data not shown here) and gender balance than any other field. Other fields have seen large shifts in gender balance, but they have generally been gradual and nearly monotonic—not reversing course in the early 1980s.  It seems to me that the biggest drops in the ratio of women in CS came at times when the overall number of students in CS was dropping (like after the dot-com bubble burst in the 2000).  When CS grew, the number of women grew faster than the number of men.  When CS shrunk, the number of women shrunk faster than the men.  Perhaps if CS education had had a steady growth, rather than the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued it since the late 1970s, it would not have had such a mysterious rise and fall in proportion of women in the field. The boom-and-bust cycles are not driven by the real need for CS degrees, but by media hype about relatively small shortages or excesses of personnel.  I believe that the demand for CS degrees has been stabler than the supply (unlike most other fields, where the supply has been steady even as demand has fluctuated).  Sorry, I don’t have statistics handy for that, and I’m too lazy to spend hours going through the government databases trying to match up labor market information with degree information.

Fixing the gender gaps so that most fields can draw from the full population will be difficult. Getting more men into the health professions and education could probably be solved fairly easily by paying more—and there is no societal need for more psych and public administration majors than are currently being produced. But, because CS is already a high-paying field for which there is more demand than supply, the difficulty of getting more women to choose and complete the major is a societal problem that seems difficult to address.

Some people have suggested that eliminating H1B visas for importing temporary CS workers (who are predominantly male) might help.  I don’t think that the number of H1B visas is large enough to make that big a difference, though I support replacing the H1B visas with green cards.  If there aren’t enough American workers in a field, we should import the workers on a permanent basis, not with a temporary indentured-servitude system that just serves to export the technical expertise when the workers are sent home.

Some people have suggested that a big part of the problem is the disrespect women are treated with in some workplaces—which would help explain the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, but not why female high-school and college students are not entering the field. Student choices in high school and college are shaped much more by peer pressure and mass media than by anything about the future workplaces—so the problem is one of changing the culture in high schools and colleges—a difficult task.  There has been some success at some smaller schools (like Harvey Mudd), but a large part of that has come from aggressive admissions policies that aim for gender balance in the field at admissions time—a route not open to public schools, who can’t apply large differences in admissions based on gender.

I’m currently in charge of a bioengineering program, whose graduating class was about 36% female (13/36), and a bioinformatics program that is so small that statistics are pretty meaningless (only 2 graduates a year, both male this year). I would like to see the number of women in majors increase, particularly in the concentrations that lead to higher paying jobs (the concentrations that are further from MCD biology).  We get a few students switching to the bioengineering from MCD biology, but not many, as those students don’t take the rigorous math and physics needed for the bioengineering degree—we really have to get our students in the first year.  I’m still trying to find ways to reach those students who would be good engineers, but don’t realize it until too late.


2013 May 16

Storytelling to close the gender gap?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:19
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In Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields With Stories, Bethany Johnsen wrote an

Making science classes more “like that” is also the suggestion of a recent Scientific American blog post, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science. Its authors, teachers at a STEM-focused high school, argue that the reason for the gender gap in the STEM fields is not a shortage of girls with ability, but the failure of our science curriculum to engage their interest and kindle their passion. The remedy they propose—telling the stories of science—could lend the STEM fields some of the allure traditionally left to the humanities.

While I agree that the shortage of women in STEM fields is not due to a shortage of girls with ability (the dominance of girls at middle school and high school science fairs is clear), I’m not convinced that a story-based approach is going to work. History of science is not science, and stories about scientists are not science. Replacing science instruction in middle and high school with stories and history would leave students less prepared to study and do real science, and more likely to choose a humanities field in college.

Note that there isn’t a gender gap in biology (at least not through grad school—there is still some gender gap in paid jobs), so the problem isn’t with “STEM” as a whole, but more specifically with the math and computation-based STEM fields.  Even among those fields, there are wide disparities, with math itself coming much closer to parity than physics or computer science.  Why?  Is it something about the field, about the way the field is taught, about the culture of the practitioners, or about the culture of the students currently majoring in those fields?

Making the science instruction more interesting is a good goal, but the suggestion of the SciAm blog post “How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in their syllabi?” seems to me to miss the point.  Replacing science and engineering with fiction reading will not result in more students studying engineering and science—it will result in students studying literature and thinking that they are studying science.

The basic idea—to use a more story-telling approach to teaching STEM—is a good one, but I think that the stories have to be intrinsic to the science and math, like Dan Meyer’s The Three Acts Of A Mathematical Story, not stories about science, which seems to be what both blogs are advocating.

I don’t know how successful approaches like “Storytelling Alice” have been—it is no longer available though the web page claims it was successful:

A study comparing middle school girls’ experiences with learning to program in Storytelling Alice and in a version of Alice without storytelling features (Generic Alice) showed that:

  • Users of Storytelling Alice spent 42% more time programming than users of Generic Alice.
  • Users of Storytelling Alice were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice (51% of Storytelling Alice users vs. 16% of Generic Alice users snuck extra time to program).
  • Despite the focus on making programming more fun, users of Storytelling Alice were just as successful at learning basic programming concepts as users of Generic Alice.

Of course, Alice is not the most fun programming environment for middle schoolers (I think that Scratch beats it hands down), so the storytelling component may just have made it a bit better.  Has anyone ever attempted a Storytelling Scratch class? (I wasn’t able to find any equivalent to Storytelling Alice using Scratch in a very brief web search.)

The newest version of Scratch (2.0) runs as a Flash program in the browser, and has some new media-related features (like being able to interact with the video from the computer’s camera).  My son has played with it a bit, but I’ve not had time to explore the new features.  The Flash-based Scratch means that no installation is necessary to run programs, but that Scratch will not run on iOS devices (like iPads), which could be a limitation at many schools.  I understand that an iPAD app or HTML5 implementation of Scratch is planned, now that Scratch 2.0 has been released.

A better approach than stories about science may be to have more hands-on science and engineering, where students learn the science and engineering in order to accomplish something, not just to pass a course and get into college.  So far, most attempts along those lines have favored stereotypically “boy” goals (robot sports, for example, and video games), and so have not served to shrink the gender gap.

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