Blog Post

The Only Girl in the Math Tent


I read with sadness this NY Times story, "What Has Driven Women Out ofComputer Science?" The number of females going into computer sciencehas actually decreased, not increased, over the last generation in the U.S. (This is not true elsewhere, btw. Don't, please don't, drag out some hokey fake genetic explanation here.) Why?everyone is asking. Good question.


I don't have a full answer--but I have a long anecdote. When I was a kid, I won ascholarship to math camp. The days were challenging and exhilirating. We had lots of activities and then, over the course of the summer camp, we were supposed to figure out a way to calculate a slope in a story-problem they gave us. I suspect they were hoping that we would put together everything we were learning that summer in order to figure out some of the rudiments of algebra, heady experience for a girl turning nine. I loved those days.

But the nights were terrible. When it was time for all of us to go to our tents to sleep, the camp counsellor rehearsed all the rules about behavior, lights out, talking in the dark, all that. Only one problem. It didn't really apply to me. I was theonly girl in the girl's tent.


Now, in the book I happen to be writing on cognition and digitality, I am doing a lot of research on memory and I realize that my maudlin and sentimental memories of going into that dark and silent tent may not be accurate. Wasn't there some other girl, one other one? Wasn't it just that my pals were boys and I was separated from them? Isn't there some logical explanation? Maybe. But in MY memory, I was not only the only girl in the tent at math camp but no one thought that was weird, no one said any nice compensating thing about it, I went stoically into that good night, every night, and consoled myself by working on the slope word problem we were given. I filled pages and pages, and, at some point, decided that it was a trick question, that the variable unspecified in the problem was whether or not the grade was constant. I began imagining ways to calculate an uneven slope. I was obsessed with it. I imagined the boys making up silly puns and telling knock-knock jokes and having fun in their tent while I was trying to figure out if there was some way you could calculate the slope of a tangent to a curve. It was my nighttime obsession.

Fastforward a decade: I double majored in English and philosophy at my tiny liberal arts college. I had two brilliant philosophy teachers who encouraged my love of philosophy of mathematics or what was then called quantificational logic, and they worked with me a lot, sometimes in class, mostly in independent studies. They were fresh from their doctoral programs and as eager as I to be able to talk or, actually, to spend hours writing away on the blackboard, doing the dozens, your equation, my equation, your equation, my equation. I stumbled upon my undergraduate thesis some years ago and couldn't read it. It was all what we then called "chicken scratching." But even with my inability to decipher, I could sense the excitement I felt at 20 over this burgeoning field. I was obsessed with Peirce's geodisic papers (that had lain unpublished and unread for a hundred years in a basement at Harvard only to see the light of day and be considered "revolutionary" in that field). I was also obsessed with AI.


But when it came time to choosebetween majors, and decide what graduate school to go to, I opted for what was decidedly a second love and one in which I was probably less talented: I went into literature. After a summer of looking through graduate school bulletins, i decided I really didn'twant to spend my entire life as the only girl in the math tent. One of my talented young profs was also a Rhodes scholar, with stellar degrees, and she told me that she'd only been able to find this adjunct job teaching in the dept at our tiny college where her dad headed the Philosophy Dept. Her less accomplished male colleagues had found jobs at research universities but she had been looked over for positions again and again. That terrified me, this brilliant woman, her top-notch degrees. No room for her in the professional tent. I figured with a degree in English, I might have a fighting chance to find a job. It turned out to be a great choice. No regrets, no looking back. Literature became a vibrant interdisciplinary field in the 1980s and 1990s, diverse in many different ways, and intellectually exciting. And I'm reading an article today, in 2008, about why the tiny number of women in computer science is dwindling even further. Shocking, really.


So what is the lesson from my only-girl-in-the-math-tent anecdote? There's a coda to my summer math camp story and I'm sure memory has polished it in a brighter way than it actually was too. That's what memory does. But here's what I remember. When it came time to hand in our independent project, our attempt to calculate slope, it turned out the boys had been working on theirs together, but instead of challenging one another, they ended up coming up with an answer that the counsellors didn't find very exciting. They figured out how algebraic equations might work but didn't carry the exercise much farther than that. When I handed in my very thick notebook of nightly scratchings, the math counsellors dismissed it as gibberish at first, it went on and on and lots of stuff was crossed out along the way. But then one of the grad students working at the camp started asking me questions and I told him I had assumed it was a trick question, that the slope was uneven, the grade variable, and that I was trying to figure out if there were a method to make calculations for curved surfaces. "Yes, it's called calculus." That verdict, though a bit inaccurate, garnered me invitations to future math contests and camps.


It also contributed to my making the kind of compensatory rationalization for a crummy situation that I see a lot of people in singularly unpleasant situations make: that the hardship contributed something positive after all. Really? Nice try, Cat! But that's a lame trade-off. And leads to a lot of bad politics. You've all heard it many times, from any survivor in lots of different situations: You learn from adversity. That which doesn't break you makes you stronger. And then, the punitive extension of that form of pseudo-individualist thinking: if you are strong enough, you not only survive from such discriminatory and adverse situations, but flourish and become stronger as a result of them. (Unstated implication of this logic: the ones who don't survive are inferior weaklings. Appalling logic in its insidious, hidden blame-the-victim buried assumptions, even when the victim is being praised.)


Compensatory success is not a good recipe for motivating humans nor is it a solid theory on which to found a field (i.e. computer science) or many other endeavors. Besides, there's a far better counter theory: imagine what amazing things we might have all come up with together had we pooled our different ideas and perspectives?


(I better say it before someone else does: maybe that's one ancient reason for why I'm co-founder of an interdisciplinary virtual network dedicated to the benefits of cross-field, collaborative thinking and participatory learning.)


That's plenty of autobiography to go around. Next time, I might blog about why computer science, as a field, is not responsive to the digital age, and why we need better disciplinary and interdisciplinary models for our time--including some that women might find more welcoming and interesting. But today, I'm indulging the reverse nostalgia. And critique. Computer science in America has never been a "big tent" that is inclusive for women--it's been a lonely one. In Russia, 55% of those with degrees in natural science, mathematics, and computer science are female. There's a culture of scientific literacy for women there. Here, the tent is pretty darn empty.


Why do so few women today go into computer science? What do you think? Here's the article:


-----Special thanks to Flickr community member Eyesfull for posting this lovely image. Please click on the image for more of Eyesfull's photostream and full documentation





Yes, it is shocking to find it isn't getting better, but even getting worse. In one of my high schools, girls were REQUIRED to take home ec . . . oh yea, as if, that one really took! Cathy