Gender leaks in the STEM pipeline

April 14, 2017 at 6:11 pm 4 comments

Or, this entry could also be called “Women just say, ‘Screw it. I don’t need this.’ ”

This morning I noticed an article posted by a friend and I stopped and read it because the basic premise interested me. Isn’t that the way all Facebook surfing goes? The article is gender-neutral in its writing, but it still made me think of the article posted by WME (Women in Mathematics Education) as part of a Call for a Collective Action study group of math ed leadership groups focused on equity and social justice issues. The report described a study that showed that one bad experience with a class or a course instructor can turn someone away from a discipline for good. The intention was to implicate poor teaching practices in early undergraduate education, but it also made me think about the March reading. In that article, the conclusion is that women undergraduates in Calculus 1 are 1.5 times more likely to leave a STEM career because they do not want to continue in calculus. Of course this decision closes an entire line of careers to those students who leave the course sequence, and as a result it exacerbates the situation where there are more men in STEM fields than than there are women.

One of the possible confounding variables that the study mentioned, but downplayed, was the quality of instruction in the Calculus 1 courses studied, but that variable lingered with me. I was a language major in college so there were few science and math courses on my schedule, but as a college-bound high schooler, I had plenty. My Geometry teacher was seemingly more interested in high school girls than in teaching them. A class wholly based on proofs, Mr. T required that you memorize HIS (or more likely the textbook’s) two-column proofs and then regurgitate them exactly on the test. I saw, and still see, no meaning or value in what we were doing in the coursework. I did well enough, but retained nothing but vague memories of the meanings of symbols and some sense of logical thinking. Let me emphasize that the logical thinking part did in no way come from Mr. T – his delivery was routine and uninspired. I was in my thirties before I rediscovered joy in geometry and in my forties before I saw value in the act of proving. What a shame! If our class had been creative and exploratory with opportunities for an ebb and a flow of learning, I might have elected a STEM career, as I do have a natural interest in STEM fields.

But more importantly, the classroom I described that might have suited my interests likely does not match a typical college Calculus 1 classroom. Have we lost students from the STEM careers because we create uninspired classroom environments? Competitive classrooms? “Weeder” classes? What makes the instructor “poor” in the Higher Ed study? Was it a mistake to overlook the impact of course instructor quality in the WME study? What is quality instruction anyway? Does everyone even agree what that is?

Finally, and probably more importantly, the Higher Ed article puts the onus on the university STEM departments to be more mindful of staffing and quality of instruction, so as not to lose students in those majors. On the other hand, the WME selected article on a similar topic puts the onus on the WOMEN to change, citing their lack of confidence as the reason for dropping out of the course sequence. “Their lack.” I know that does not actively point a finger, but it certainly implies that if women would just change, there would not be a problem at all. Call it a microaggression if you’d like. Recall again that the gender-neutral article does not call on students to change.

In the end, I took all of the advanced mathematics on my transcript after I turned 30. It was a Pre-Calc instructor at a NOVA community college who required us to learn the TI-83 who turned it all around for me. The multiple representations of functions knitted it all together and I was able to find meaning. (More on that in another post… ) Was it my fault or the high school’s fault that I dropped out of STEM fields? I don’t know. For me it’s water under the bridge because now I am focused on improving education in STEM fields and I AM TAKING NAMES!

What class (or professor) kept you in (or out) of a STEM field?

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

I was thinking…about humanity Reflecting on #MTBoS, NCTM, and NCSM

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Suzanne Alejandre  |  April 17, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Well, I’m from a generation when girls were prohibited from taking certain classes just because they were female. In my high school (Fullerton Union High School, Fullerton, CA) girls could not take Physics. And because I hadn’t taken Physics in high school, when I got to Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA) I was told that I didn’t have the pre-requisites to take Physics for physics majors but if I wanted to I could take the more basic physics class required of pre-med majors.

    Math, on the other hand, I was able to take in high school. I took Algebra I in junior high so that when I got to high school I took Geometry in 9th grade, Algebra II in 10th grade and Trig/Adv Topics in 11th grade. There were only two girls in my Trig class and one day Mr. Redfern (our Trig teacher) asked us why we were bothering to take the class because girls weren’t ever any good at math. At the end of my junior year when I asked him for the special letter to be able to take Calculus at the Junior College across the street, he begrudgingly signed it saying, “Why are you bothering to take that class?” I didn’t respond but quietly thought he was probably right. I was the only girl in that Calc class my senior year in high school and I had the best grade. Needless to say I wasn’t too popular with those boys.

    When I got to Oxy there were quite a few girls majoring in math. And I even met some girls majoring in physics! Not all high schools denied girls the opportunity to take physics in high school. It was probably starting to change at that point but hadn’t reached Fullerton yet.

    I’ve noticed that there are many more opportunities now but I wonder if some of the sentiments still exist.

    ~Suzanne

    Reply
    • 2. kmorrowleong  |  April 20, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      Suzanne, I wonder if girls still encounter these blatant obstacles routinely. Or are the barriers more subtle now?

      Reply
  • 3. margrethj  |  April 19, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    I’m going to ask a different question.

    Why do you claim you aren’t in a STEM career?

    I argue that you are very much in a STEM career….. math teaching is a STEM career as much as being an engineer or a university scientist is….

    I bring up this point in part because part of the issue is how the “pathway” is defined. Which brings up my other pet peeve… the “pipeline” metaphor. A pipeline implies a linear trajectory from a to b when the path through their education and career is much more complex for most people. And, if we are going to broaden participation we need to broaden the terrain of paths that might bring people to a STEM career in order to take advantage of the life experiences that would enrich the STEM workforce. There are plenty of ways that people engage that have been defined as “less than” so we also need to acknowledge the diverse ways that one can engage in the STEM workforce beyond what might be “traditional” definitions.

    Reply
    • 4. kmorrowleong  |  April 21, 2017 at 1:57 am

      The pipeline analogy bothers me as well. In the February article in the Call for a Collective Action, the authors question the role of STEM itself in producing its own underrepresentation. Generative justice is the idea introduced, which includes looking within the “underrepresented” communities and cultures for opportunities to explore STEM content.
      This particular piece criticizes the pipeline analogy in the context of cultural differences. I say that it extends similarly to the mathematics of topics that may more often appeal to women. For example, I am a quilter and it always amazes me how much mathematics is in the creation of my pieces. But I have belonged to quilt guilds where math-phobic members would deny ANY use of mathematics other than simple addition. The act of quilting itself requires a deep understanding of the same branch of mathematics as the Bridges of Koenigsburg problem. Interestingly, I could not interest my discrete mathematics instructor in continuous quilting strategy, and my quilt guild friends would never entertain the bridge problem. I think solving this problem is what you are addressing with your “broadening the terrain” idea.
      So, with that, I will take on the STEM mantle and see it differently.

      Reply

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