Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit

August 24, 2016 at 7:06 am 9 comments

When you read this paper, consider Nathan Ensmenger’s assertion that (a) mathematics has been show to predict success in CS classes but not in computing careers and (b) increasing mathematics requirements in undergraduate CS may have been a factor in the decline in female participation in computing.

Our analyses show that, while controlling for academic preparedness, career intentions, and instruction, the odds of a woman being dissuaded from continuing in calculus is 1.5 times greater than that for a man. Furthermore, women report they do not understand the course material well enough to continue significantly more often than men. When comparing women and men with above-average mathematical abilities and preparedness, we find women start and end the term with significantly lower mathematical confidence than men. This suggests a lack of mathematical confidence, rather than a lack of mathematically ability, may be responsible for the high departure rate of women. While it would be ideal to increase interest and participation of women in STEM at all stages of their careers, our findings indicate that if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%.

Source: PLOS ONE: Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  August 24, 2016 at 8:01 am

    I would really like to know more detail. At the age of 12 or so, girls are a bit better than boys in math kinds of things (as they are verbally and general use of language). Our experience at Parc in the 70s was that they were a bit better than the boys at programming also.

    I was “good at math” and eventually got a pure math degree in college. In the first calculus course I took, I was quite disturbed that I didn’t really understand why it worked. Nonetheless, I did the best I could, but it shook my confidence.

    A few years later in “Advanced Calculus” we were introduced to “the real deal” and I got extremely angry. The way the first course was taught was not aimed at understanding., but at doing problems, and to some extent for the Physics course the following year. The better the math mind one had, the more one realized that something was wrong — and it is quite natural to assign blame to oneself under these circumstances.

    It’s possible the girls/women are detecting what’s wrong and being more honest with themselves. In parallel, I tend to think that the flight of females from CS is partly from having more taste about what is terrible and stupid about the current processes, and quite likely partly because the courses are generally not at all aimed at real understanding.

    What do you think?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 24, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Hi Alan,
      It’s possible, but I don’t really think it has anything to do with curriculum or what we teach. I think it’s entirely about attitudes, confidence (e.g., issues like impostor syndrome), and socialization, as Alisha describes.

      An example related to Alisha’s point — Betsy DiSalvo’s Glitch students actually decreased in confidence and self-efficacy pre-to-post in her project. Betsy doesn’t really believe that they decreased in their perception of their own ability. Rather, the teen males in her study came in with lots of bravado. “Oh yeah, I’m great at computers. I can do this!” At the end, they were accurate. They knew something about computing, and they trusted Betsy, so they gave an honest answer.

      I don’t think mathematical thinking is necessary for learning or doing computing, but I don’t think it hurts. I think that Ensmenger is right that the mathematization of the CS curriculum did have a negative influence on women’s participation, but not because of the math curriculum or concepts. It was because the mathematization was done to “masculinize” the field — to develop the culture of CS being men’s work, where women didn’t belong.

      Allow me, please, to engage in story-telling for just a minute. A young lady whom I know very well:

      • Took AP Computer Science (in Java) in high school and did very well — A in the class, and passed the AP exam. That already puts her in rare company.
      • Took Engineering Computer Science (in MATLAB) and got the top score in her section. She was recruited to be an undergraduate teaching assistant.
      • Decided to try the CS major. She took the second semester CS course (in Java) and had a horrible time. Nothing that the instructor did was gender-specific abuse — he was just not a good teacher. He disrespected the students. He’d come in late to most lectures and play loud music while he got ready, because he liked that as a prep (in front of 150 students). He told students that if they had taken Python, they better forget everything they knew or they’d never pass. He told them how badly they were doing, but going to the teaching assistants wouldn’t help them because the TA’s didn’t understand either.

        She got a zero on each of the first two assignments, because she ran afoul of their required style rules about where curly braces needed to go. She had the right preparation and clearly had computer science ability. But she felt that, if this was CS, she didn’t want to have anything to do with it. She dropped CS.

      • I think that story is more typical. It’s not the content. It’s the culture, the attitude, the just plain meanness.

        Requiring Calculus for a CS sequence is not a bad thing. It’s just done too often as a way of saying, “You have to jump this hoop. You students are just not worthy. You have to demonstrate that you’re worthy.” That’s where women have more taste. “I don’t have to play your game. There are better options that don’t require me to take your bullshit.”

      • 3. Bonnie  |  August 26, 2016 at 9:56 am

        I went through the CS major back in the distant time when women made up about 40% of the majors (and that was certainly true at my school), and we took lots of math. In those days, it was really common for CS to be offered within a math department – it wasn’t until the 90’s that a lot of departments separated. When I went to grad school, I met lots of women who had majored in CS at other schools, and yes, they had taken a lot of math too. In fact, a common joke was that a lot of women switched from math to CS because they didn’t want to become math teachers (the only math career that women then saw as open to them). So I really disagree that math requirements have driven women out. I experienced grad school during the period of the big falloff in female enrollment. My own theory is that is was caused by the rise of PCs, heavilly graphical computing environments, and the gaming culture.

        • 4. alanone1  |  August 26, 2016 at 10:39 am

          Hi Bonnie

          Yes, and this was even more so when I started (ca 1961), there were lots of women in the field, and most of them were very good at math, etc.

          But, I’m interested in your last comments — I can see the gaming culture as a deep anti-female problem, but why “heavily graphical computing environments”? (the girls and women at Parc thrived in the ones we made).

          Do you mean “heavily graphical computing environments that shut out direct programming”? These are not at all correlates, but quite independent decisions by the purveyors. (e.g the original Smalltalk GUI offered both in abundance *and* safety.)

  • 5. Alisha Waller  |  August 24, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Another important flaw in this extrapolation is the assumption that men and women have the same standards for confidence and that they report the same. Growing up in the Deep South, I was taught to be “modest” and “not brag”, so I never rated myself on the highest scale on any self-report survey. I think we really need to consider how society forms the self-image of boys and girls from birth. There are studies that show the same baby gets different responses to crying depending on whether they are dressed in pink or in blue (“why are you so upset?” vs “What healthy lungs you have!”).

    We need more in-depth, longitudinal, qualitative studies that follow students along their pathway. We can augment such a commitment by in-depth qualitative studies focused on women who left (insert favorite STEM field) 5 to 20 years ago. Sometimes when we make a difficult decision (like leaving our major), it takes several years of perspective to really understand and be able to articulate the full decision and experience.

  • 6. Raul Miller  |  August 24, 2016 at 8:53 am

    This is… not good (obviously?).

    That said, I think Calculus becomes much more approachable when it is explicitly combined with its motivating examples (Physics, mostly). I remember one calculus class which was taught by a teacher who also taught Physics (and Chemistry, and Women’s Tennis), which was very well attended by women – who mostly did extremely well in the class. I think I learned more about calculus in that class than in three or four other classes (and what I learned there helped carry me through classes taught by people with much more “rote” teaching approach).

    The in-class examples were great, and the professor liberally borrowed examples from those other classes. (Except, I did not take Tennis, but I do remember a number of tennis balls in some of those examples).

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  August 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

      I attended a workshop at Michigan State University a few years ago on combined first year Engineering courses. Some schools have experimented with teaching (for example) Physics, Mechanical Engineering, and Calculus together. The results are outstanding — student learning is improved (they see why they need Calculus, and how Physics relates to Engineering) and retention rises dramatically. I was invited to the workshop because, if you were going to do it again, you’d probably include Computing now.

      But it never lasts. The structure of the American University does not reward interdisciplinary efforts. Tenure, promotion, raises, lab space, graduate students — they all flow from the department.

      None of the combined programs have lasted more than a dozen years, until the Champion loses interest, retires, moves, etc.

      • 8. rademi  |  August 26, 2016 at 10:30 am

        “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

        Ok, quote from fiction, yes. But there’s an element of truth here. Though whether the enemy is our own innate laziness or some foreign political actors or whatever else would be for others to decide.

        And what’s the point of fiction if we do not allow it to carry some truth? Those ideas have to come from somewhere.

  • […] to filter out everyone who would not become a great programmer. For example, that’s when calculus was added into computer science degree requirements.  Women were less interested in the increasingly competitive computer science programs, especially […]


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