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February 28, 2007

Math Basics -- step 1: express dislike...

Do you like math? It certainly isn't popular to say you do, and I know a number of people who do enjoy doing math but who never would come out and say so in mixed company. No one, after all, is likely to say they work out multivariate calculus intervals to relax in the evening the way we say we read a few chapters of our favorite book.

In fact, while people who can't read will go to great lengths to hide that fact, people take pride in not being able to do math, even simple math that they need on a daily basis.

Say, for example, you're a knitter. One of the things a knitter needs to do when planning a new project is knit a test swatch -- a square of fabric that he knits using the same yarn and needles he plans to use for his project. Then he can count the stitches per inch and use that to figure out how many stitches he needs to have a sweater be the right size. This requires very simple algebra. No big deal, right?

Well, I have a friend who knits nearly constantly, and yet takes great pride in not being able to do math. How does that work? Well, let's just say I have a lot of scarves. On the rare occasion when he wants to do something where proportions matter, I have been known to do the math for him.

But what's this about? He would never be so unconcerned about not being able to read a recipe. There is social approval in not liking and not being good at math. Despite the fact that it's one of the "three Rs" (reading, writing, 'rithmetic), few people treat math as a fundamental in daily life. People wear dislike of an inability to do math like a badge. As someone who likes math and finds it useful and, yes, even fun, I find this bizarre and confusing. I use it less than reading and writing, but I still use math every day.

And I sure am glad I don't have to ask anyone to help me figure out how to double my chocolate chip cookie recipe or fill out my bank deposit forms.

February 25, 2007

It's A Girl: Part II

Ok I promise to kick this Part II thing soon but I really do have another cool "It's A Girl" thing.

Frances E. Allen just became the first women to receive one of the most prestigious prizes in computing, the Association of Computing Machineries' Turing Award. Her work, at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, was on techniques for optimizing the performance of compilers.

I have several personal reasons for being very glad she won. Many years ago, as an undergraduate (hey I told you it was many years ago). I worked at Watson Research Center designing and programming CAI (computer aided instruction) physics labs using Coursewriter, a language about five people in the world remember. Sorry I digress

Anyway Ms. Allen, famous even in those days, went out of her way to meet and encourage me, a college student who was just working there for the summers. I very much appreciated it and I know she did the same thing for many, many others.

I am also grateful to her for helping to develop the computer language FORTRAN, the language I used to fulfill my PhD foreign language requirement. If I had had to use French or Spanish I would probably still be working on the degree.

Congratulations Frances Allen, and merci!

February 24, 2007

New Stuff: Part II

Had a good time last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Miscommunications, Misunderstandings, and Mistakes: Gender, Science and the Press." the presentation of FairerScience friends Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Annalee Newtiz, Abbe Herzig, Eric Jolly and Shirley Malcom was really good. We will be putting up audio-video highlights of it soon.

In the meantime the session convinced me it was time to add a new section to FairerScience: "Presentation Tools." We've started it with two power points presentations (which can also be downloaded in pds):

Women, Science and Media: Where is the FairerScience? provides a general introduction to issues related to women scientists and the media and suggests some things that can be done to get more accurate portrayals.

FairerScience in an Unfair World targets some things scientists and science organizations can do to improve media coverage of gender and science.

You are, as my Aunt Rona would say, more than welcome to duplicate and use them as long as you don't make money off of them and you do credit us.

Take a look at them and let me know what you think. We will be adding more presentation tools and would love any ideas you have about what should be included.

February 21, 2007

New Stuff

Recently I've been looking at research that can help faculty, especially engineering faculty, make their classes more effective, particularly for their women students. The result of my efforts is What Can I Do? Making Engineering Classrooms More Effective for Women (and Men) Students , a short userfriendly list of eight research based things faculty can do that will improve student participation and achievement. They range from:

"Periodically stop talking and pause. Wait at least three seconds after asking a question before calling on someone to answer." (The most effective technique EVER for increasing participation)


"Work with others to provide undergraduates with more opportunities to transfer into engineering." (A lot of work but has the potential to really increase engineering enrollment especially for women).

I also searched for research on the most effective ways to work with faculty to get them to change their classroom behaviors. While I found much opinion, there wasn't much research. The result, How Can I Help?: Working with Engineering Faculty to Change Classrooms , includes eight strategies that folks have found to work for them.

Hope you find these helpful

PS Thanks go to my friends at the National Academy of Engineering's Engineering Equity Extension Service for their support of this effort. You should check them out.

February 14, 2007

It's A Girl

Ok perhaps that is not the most appropriate title for a post congratulating Harvard for selecting its first female president but what the heck. Not only is Drew Gilpin Faust currently the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; she was also the director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. From Larry "the reasons women don't go into science in greater numbers are genetic" Sommers to Drew Gilpin Faust who has spoken and written about the long and complicated history of women and men at Harvard University is a big step.

Congratulations to all!

PS Ok I can't resist quoting some of what she found including that in 1847, when a woman applied to Harvard's Medical School the Dean assured the governing body that she was "old and unattractive enough not to disrupt the male students' concentration, but she was still denied a place."

February 10, 2007

Miscommunications, Misunderstandings, and Mistakes

I'll be at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco next week. FairerScience friends Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Annalee Newtiz and Abbe Herzig, will be presenting on "Miscommunications, Misunderstandings, and Mistakes: Gender, Science and the Press."

And if that is not enough to get you there, Eric Jolly and Shirley Malcom will be discussants. It is Sunday from 3:30 to 5:00 at the Hilton Continental Ballroom (2).

Here is how the symposium is described:

In earlier ages, it was believed that women could not pursue mathematics and the sciences because their heads were too small, their nervous systems too delicate or their reasoning capacities insufficient. Recent comments from sources ranging from college presidents to the Financial Times indicate that these notions are still around. Gender researchers have not been effective communicators. We have not provided our results in ways that allow people to understand and evaluate the findings and to incorporate them into their personal knowledge and belief systems. There are particular challenges when one is trying to communicate gender based knowledge. Often when people talk about gender differences, they're not talking about specific empirical claims. Instead, they are drawing on and contributing to a complex mix of beliefs about the way the world is, the way the world should be, and the way we should be. This has implications for how research is reported, interpreted and understood.

In this symposium, a researcher, a linguist and a journalist, all of whom are have experience with gender and gender issues in the sciences will discuss not just ways to have better communication between researchers and the press but the particular challenges of communicating and reporting research on gender in the sciences.

Hope you can join us!

February 05, 2007

Normative categories: who's confounding what?

I was just reading this abstract for "Strategies and Methods for Research on Sex Differences in Brain and Behavior" and noticed one of my favorite annoyances:

A female’s reproductive status and ovarian cycle have to be taken into account when studying sex differences in health and disease susceptibility, in the pharmacological effects of drugs, and in the study of brain and behavior. To investigate sex differences in brain and behavior there is a logical series of questions that should be answered in a comprehensive investigation of any trait. First, it is important to determine that there is a sex difference in the trait in intact males and females, taking into consideration the reproductive cycle of the female.

Do you notice what I noticed?

It's probably old news, at this point, that researchers tend to see males as the normative, unmarked category in research, and therefore look at the variations that are brought in by females as confounding variables to be accounted for, but old news or not, it's still happening. This abstract is from Endocrinology in 2005.

There is no mention here of male hormonal variation. This is a good example of a situation where unconscious gender bias on the part of researchers may influence their findings at all stages, from the questions it occurs to them to ask to the ways they go about gathering data to answer them to how they analyze and discuss those data. When you see this in an abstract, it's a red flag to let you know to watch out for questions that aren't being asked, much less answered, and assumptions that are not being questioned.

February 01, 2007

Helping Women Helps Men

I was going to title this entry "I so wish that I had said this: Part 2" but actually it was so much better that it was said by a man. Many years ago I started explaining that I was involved in efforts to reduce sex discrimination not just to help women but to help men as well. And it is true. When women have more options so do men. And that means more women in the sciences; more men in childcare and all kinds of cool things. Take a look at what Neil Chethik has to say.

Feminism also benefited me in my relationships with women. The women I dated in college and afterward no longer looked at me as a "success object'' -- someone who would provide for them. They were strong and motivated enough to take care of themselves. They sought careers and adventure, and a man who would be an equal partner. Thus, I had the luxury of dating, and eventually marrying, a woman whose full potential was not curtailed by society's limitations.

And that he says "freed me from the expectation that I would be the primary wage-earner in my family. Where I had once considered a career based largely on how much money I would earn, now I could ask myself: What do I really want to do?"

Yes! That is what FairerScience and actually fairer everything is about.