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06/26/96 - 10:11 AM ET

Way of teaching math, science puts girls off

Sabina Nawaz crossed three seas, a continent and the Atlantic Ocean to study computer science in the USA.

But at a time when that degree can translate almost instantly into employment and a high-paying career, her American-born counterparts are turning away.

The number of computer science degrees awarded in the USA peaked in 1986 and by now has dropped more than 40%. The falloff is particularly steep for women: Currently, there are fewer than half as many women getting college degrees in computer science as there were in 1984.

"Whenever I talk to young women, I try to take the fear out of it," says Nawaz, who was raised in India and now is a lead program manager at Microsoft. "I'm not the next Einstein; I am very much like them. Anybody can do it, if they are interested in it. But that is the key."

Generally, women are not interested.

This aversion to computer science seems to be a high-tech extension of the decades-old "math phobia" problem that afflicts more girls than boys.

Educators and experts still argue about the root causes, but there is little disagreement that as America's economic vistas expand in high-tech directions, women collectively are turning their backs on the biggest job growth area to come along in decades.

Test scores for preteen boys and girls are roughly equal in math. According to the National Science Foundation, math scores stay about equal at age 13, but girls fall off slightly at age 17. In science, boys outscore girls at ages 13 and 17. Boys outperform girls in math on the SAT college entrance test, 503 to 463 (out of 800).

For girls, interest in math and science falls off in middle school and continues through college. Women account for only about a third of the undergraduate degrees in math and physical science and about 16% of all engineering degrees.

What's behind all those numbers?

Many educators believe there are social pressures and cues early in life that steer girls away from the profession.

"You tend to see in middle school that girls begin to say they are not interested in the computer," says Jo Thomas, a professor of education at the University of Washington.

"That results from puberty. Girls start to become sensitive to the ways men and women act in the grown-up world. They realize that computing is a man's thing," Thomas says. "If they look around, from video games to the software stores, they see males. . . . Even in the movies, if you see a high-techy thing, it is usually the men doing it."

"People pick professions that they are comfortable with," adds Christina Zahn, who teaches at Park Junior High School in Antioch, Calif. "Professions that have people like yourself."

James Garvin is former president of the National Middle School Association. "There is that myth that this is something that boys do and girls don't," he says. "It is amazing how impressionable kids that age are, and how they will buy into that."

In Japan, Garvin says, there is no such gap, because "in Japan the 'in' thing is to study and do technology."

Kathleen Sherman, who has been teaching elementary school for 28 years and was Massachusetts' 1996 teacher of the year, thinks girls also may be victims of their academic success in elementary school, where they usually outperform the boys.

As a result, she says, more girls quickly get put into advanced math classes.

"The girls get in a situation where the subject is abstract . . . and they hate it," Sherman says. "They say to themselves, what's wrong with me? I can't do this."

Subtle signals in the games people play

So the winnowing process starts early and compounds itself as girls age. Even leisure pursuits come into play.

"The typical boy tends to spend more time at computers," Thomas says. "They see them initially as toys. All that messing-around time gives them a sense of mastery over the medium, and that gives them an advantage over girls."

Learning the computer is largely an individual activity.

"Girls like to work in cooperative groups and talk about the things they are doing," says Elizabeth Fennema, author of Mathematics and Gender.

The image of the computer whiz, she says, is one of a "problem-solver who sits by himself in front of the screen. Who would want to do that?"

Boys seem more inclined to spend large amounts of time playing with computers with little or no payoff. Thus, games and software tend to cater to their interests, further distancing the computer from girls.

Girls seem more inclined toward activities where there is a perceivable goal or social payoff. "Medical school," says Fennema, "is a service-oriented profession. Your intelligent girl who likes science (and math) is drawn to that because she can see a social use for the knowledge."

And indeed, female enrollment in medical schools has grown from about 10% in 1970 to more than 40% now.

There are no differences in the brain chemistry of men and women, Fennema says. "There is no computer gene. We learn what we do."

But even the girls who continue their math and science interests into college often meet a curriculum there that's still at odds with their interests and learning styles.

There are still problems with the way math, science and engineering are taught, says Jane Daniels, director of the Women in Engineering program at Purdue University.

"The traditions are based on military applications," she says. "The programs started out in military schools and colleges. It is very competitive."

Then, on top of everything, is the fact that the course of study is demanding, even daunting, for both men and women.

"The idea of working with computers appeals to them," Daniels says. "The hard work doesn't."

Many students, even those with high-level computing skills and a keen interest, get turned off in college.

"The popular cultural expectation and the technical realities are somewhat different," says Dan Reed, head of the department of computer science at the University of Illinois. "There are lots of fun things happening in the field, but those are made possible by a lot of hard work.

"Some people opt not to pay that price."

Taking the sting out of stereotypes

Most proposed solutions to correcting the female deficit in computer science center on reversing the stereotypes early on.

Companies such as Microsoft, for instance, send female staffers out to schools and career days. They sponsor workshops, camps and scholarships.

"We have programs where scientists and engineers go out and are connected with specific middle school classes and the girls there," says Marianne Winslett, an associate professor of computer engineering who runs a mentoring program at the University of Illinois.

"You don't walk into a middle school and preach to them, but you make it implicitly obvious that girls at that age could grow up to become a scientist. That is a really important age for outreach," she says.

Jo Thomas works with middle schools to encourage girls about computer science. She says it is important to articulate all of the subliminal messages the girls are getting.

"Show them all the boys in the video arcades, all the pictures of men in the computer magazines," she says. This allows them to more directly confront the challenge. "If there is a computer club dominated by the boys, start one for girls," she says, at least until they get comfortable with the machines.

Ann Nelson, a software test engineer at Microsoft, once had a math professor who "definitely stated that women were not as good at it." She says she just "took it as a joke and a challenge" and would actively encourage girls with high-tech abilities to stick it out.

How would she get girls more interested in the subject?

"Hands-on activities" help, Nelson says. If you open a computer with a screwdriver, she says, much of its mystique begins to fall away.

She also says what's needed are teachers who encourage girls to pursue math and science. "If you can have teachers like we are starting to see today," she says, "you start solving problems."

Nawaz was the only woman in her group when she joined Microsoft. "But I certainly didn't feel any culture shock," she says.

Nor did Microsoft software test manager Jean Sheldon: "I didn't think about the (male majority) all that much. It wasn't that kind of towel-snapping stuff. They were all interested in the same things I was."

And, Nawaz says, there was a certain kinship. "There are more similarities between the male geek and the female geek than between engineers and the outside world."

By Joe Urschel, USA TODAY

Copyright 1996 USA TODAY
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