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Unlocking the Clubhouse III: college - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2004-01-17 15:36
Unlocking the Clubhouse III: college
Public
contemplativecontemplative
computers, deconstruction, feminism, politics
This is, at last, the final installment of my notes on Unlocking the Clubhouse. My other posts on this are here and here. This post is much more of a mish-mash of information, summarizing chapters three through six, than the other two, which summarized one chapter apiece. Ah well, better late than never. Feel free to point out inconsistencies in my summary and I'll elucidate if I can.


In college computer science, most men are interested in computing (programming, tinkering, gaming, etc.) for its own sake, while many women are more interested in computing's effects on and applications in other fields and how it can be useful to society. The focus in many introductory CS classes on technical details makes some women disillusioned, and they drop out of CS, not realizing that it's not just about silly technical details.

Many men have wanted to study computer science since before they could remember, and think of it as a "no-brainer" to be a CS major; most women decided to study computer science in high school or college, and the choice was much more rational. Their reasons for choosing CS are much more broad than "enjoyment of computing," most men's primary reason.

Men are more likely to like programming for its own sake, and are more likely than women to spend endless hours programming outside of classes. When asked about their ideal computer, teenage boys described machines that give them super powers; teenage girls described machines that helped in tasks or offered companionship. One researcher notes that "the feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself." Many high-school and college kids erroneously see computer science as "number-crunching" and computer games as one of the main applications of computer science (when they have any conception at all of what computer science is); many high-school and college curricula support this misconception by focusing on banalities of programming languages and pointless programming exercises, especially in lower-division classes. (My experience with programming contest problems support this, perhaps explaining the dearth of women in such contests.)


Students in top-ranked programs like Carnegie Mellon's are very aware of the intense geek culture in such programs - of the expectation that they spend all their time in front of the computer, for work and play. (This is backed by some practices in industry such as providing bunk beds at work.) A well-rounded set of interests is undervalued and sometimes actively shunned in this culture. Women on average are more disturbed at this ideal, and how badly they fit it, than men. They are more likely to decide such an intense culture is not for them, and they drop out at a rate three or more times that of men.

Top-ranked programs are also so overzealous, in general, that novices, especially minorities, feel hopelessly behind. Between male "posturing" and lack of programming experience in high school and before, women feel that everyone catches on more quickly than they do and that they can never catch up, even though performance between women and men, in terms of grades, is nearly identical. Many also assume that such passion for computers is required to be a computer scientist, and if they don't have it, they should quit. They're also more likely to keep confusion to themselves because of comments like "what's your major, again?," or the threat of them.

(Some interesting trends in attrition: American women and women from wealthy families are more likely to drop out of CS, the former because many Americans credit intelligence to innate ability and not to hard work, and the latter because these women aren't as worried about having a good-paying job to support themselves or their families.)

Women also have to deal with "you're only here because you're female" talk that men never have to face. Expectations that women will not do as well may have a huge effect of performance, as shown by Claude Steele's experiments at Stanford (repeated elsewhere) that showed that an expectation of a gender difference on performance on a math test resulted in one, while an expectation of no gender difference resulted in near-equal scores. (There are similar results for race if participants are asked to note their race on the test.)

Admissions policies that value previous programming experience or high math SAT scores are biased against women. CMU found that prior programming experience does not affect success in the program, and others have found that math SATs "systematically underpredict" women's college performance (though it was the opposite for me, at least according to my GPA :~)).
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-17 16:01 (UTC)
(no subject)
In college computer science, most men are interested in computing (programming, tinkering, gaming, etc.) for its own sake, while many women are more interested in computing's effects on and applications in other fields and how it can be useful to society. The focus in many introductory CS classes on technical details makes some women disillusioned, and they drop out of CS, not realizing that it's not just about silly technical details.

I think Computer Science is 'those silly technical details' — although I suppose that depends on your definition of technical details. I usually consider Computer Science to be math (a theory-centric point of view, quoting dijkstra as necessary: "Computer Science has as much to do with computers as Astronomy does with telescopes."), but even computer engineering (systems, etc) is strictly oriented towards silly technical details. My own view would lump 'how it can be useful to society' with sociology, and catagorize 'applications in other fields' as 'computational X' - e.g. 'Computational Physics' or 'Computational Economics'. While it might be harmful to describe CS as just those 'technical details,' but I think it might be equally harmful to think of, say, social ramifications of computer technology, to be a 'division of computer science popular with women'. On the other hand, I think it's true that experience with gaming and with upgrading computer hardware for the 'ultimate gaming experience' does attract a lot of guys to C.S. One of my friends was in such a position and quickly failed out of UC Berkeley, later successfully petitioning for readmission as an English major.

many high-school and college curricula support this misconception by focusing on banalities of programming languages and pointless programming exercises

so true!

(My experience with programming contest problems support this, perhaps explaining the dearth of women in such contests.)

I disagree entirely with the assertion that programming contest problems are pointless or banal — programming contest problems most often require an elegant, clever algorithmic solution. What's pointless about that? Personally I'm very attached to the programming contest and I think it's an excellent institution. (-: I also enjoyed Hilfinger's course very much.

Claude Steele's experiments at Stanford (repeated elsewhere) that showed that an expectation of a gender difference on performance on a math test resulted in one, while an expectation of no gender difference resulted in near-equal scores. (There are similar results for race if participants are asked to note their race on the test.)

Wow, that's a pretty powerful result. Oddly it seems to support efforts like the Racial Privacy Initiative... which sorts of puts me in a conflict of opinion. I do feel like a lot of the emphasis put on the underachievment of minority groups does often lead to a sort of self-victimization, but, on the other hand, we do need to address the issues. Anyway, interesting study.
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janviere
2004-01-17 16:56 (UTC)
(no subject)
On the subject of programming contests, I guess I'll express my femininity here and say that it's not so much the kind of problems that I wouldn't like, it's the idea of ego-fluffing competition. I adore getting cute little algorithm problems to think about, but a contest is all about stress and time pressure and an immediate ranking of your ability and intelligence. It's not my style, which probably has to do a lot with the feminine failing of connecting a grade to one's worth as an individual.
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Kris
anemone
2004-01-17 17:39 (UTC)
(no subject)
I think Computer Science is 'those silly technical details' — although I suppose that depends on your definition of technical details. I usually consider Computer Science to be math (a theory-centric point of view, quoting dijkstra as necessary: "Computer Science has as much to do with computers as Astronomy does with telescopes."), but even computer engineering (systems, etc) is strictly oriented towards silly technical details.

I can see why you might say that, but I don't think it's true. Or, rather, it's hard to judge the truth of that statement if you've been looking at it from the technical details perspective.

A lot of people (not just women--in fact, two men recently expressed this to me) have a hard time working on a problem if they don't see the purpose. My husband, an engineer, is still a bit bitter about his programming class because he claims he didn't learn anything useful.

I don't think CS is about those technical details, though it's often taught as if it is. It's as much about defining the problem as seeing the solution, about asking the right question as finding the answer. Even in theory (especially in theory?) framing the problem is crutial, and that's not really a technical details questions. ('Course, my area is algorithms. Maybe I'd say something different if I did complexity.)
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-01-17 17:53 (UTC)
(no subject)
I disagree entirely with the assertion that programming contest problems are pointless or banal — programming contest problems most often require an elegant, clever algorithmic solution.

That's true - and that elegance is why I enjoyed the programming problems course. But what I mean by "pointless" is that the subject matter of programming contest problems is so arbitrary, contrived, and disconnected from real-world applications.

I think Computer Science is 'those silly technical details' ... My own view would lump 'how it can be useful to society' with sociology, and catagorize 'applications in other fields' as 'computational X' - e.g. 'Computational Physics' or 'Computational Economics'.

It is for this reason that human-computer interaction, arguably the most important part of computer science (what good is a powerful system if nobody can use it?), is often marginalized by so-called "mainstream" computer science. (John Canny, a veteran of graphics, AI, and robotics, says that he now studies HCI because it's the most difficult problem left in computer science.)

But aside from that, I think the argument they're making is that many computer science courses focus on, say, the nitty-gritty details of the GNU C compiler, rather than on, say, how to read and critique others' code, how to write understandable and reusable code, or how to make usable interfaces, which is what programming is all about in the "real world." If a theoretical finding in computer science doesn't have a practical application such as a faster program, a better-organized microprocessor, or a more intuitive interface, what good is it?

Wow, that's a pretty powerful result. Oddly it seems to support efforts like the Racial Privacy Initiative... which sorts of puts me in a conflict of opinion.

I think that one of the biggest problems with the Racial Privacy Initiative is that it doesn't really address cultural assumptions and prejudices; in fact, it could just cover up facts that could lead to an investigation of how the assumptions are propagated. In a truly race-blind society, it would be a better idea, but we definitely do not live in a race-blind society. :~)
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-17 18:59 (UTC)
(no subject)
It is for this reason that human-computer interaction, arguably the most important part of computer science (what good is a powerful system if nobody can use it?), is often marginalized by so-called "mainstream" computer science.

I don't think HCI is Computer Science, but I do think that it's important, is a legitimate scientific/engineering field, and has to do with computers. I guess I'm just overly narrow in my idea of what Computer Science is. Hmm. I also think that HCI is dreadfully boring, so maybe that contributes to my bias. (-:

I think the argument they're making is that many computer science courses focus on, say, the nitty-gritty details of the GNU C compiler

That argument fails here at Berkeley — we don't teach the details of the GNU Compiler ( afaik), and nobody (as far as undergrads go) learns them. I think Berkeley is much better than most schools in this department, as here there is generally an emphasis on principles rather than details of a specific implementation.

programming is all about in the "real world." If a theoretical finding in computer science doesn't have a practical application such as a faster program, a better-organized microprocessor, or a more intuitive interface, what good is it?

Well, I disagree — science should not be driven by an immediate need in the "real world." Whether science is justified by some ultimate real world application, unforseen beforehand, I don't know. It is unlikely, for example, that current work in high energy particle physics will have any practical applications. Does that mean it's not worth doing? (Well, not entirely true: high energy physics pushes the state-of-the-art in superconducting magnets, semiconductor technology, distributed data processing, etc, so it does have some spin-offs. But I don't think spin-offs justify a program anyway -- is the space program valuable because it gave us Tang?) While computer science definitely does drive a very application-oriented field, I think it still makes sense to classify it as a pure science (like, say, mathematics). When the 'real world' enters the picture, I suddenly think 'engineering' and not 'science', though there may not be much real difference.

I suppose my view could be largely summed up by my belief that 'applications programming' and 'computer science' are entirely different animals — maybe just because I strongly dislike routine software engineering ("we need a friendly user interface / database for X") yet generally that's what employers have in mind when they're looking for people with CS degrees.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-01-18 00:22 (UTC)
(no subject)
I'm curious how you'd define computer science. From your mention of math, does it align with computer science theory? I guess we just have very different conceptions of what CS is. :~)

Basic research is certainly important, though some say that the glorification of it is overrated. My contention is not how basic or applied research is, but toward what undergraduate computer science cirricula are geared. Since many of the students go on to programming jobs, it seems like it would be good to give students an overview of what they might be doing in such jobs, and skills for them.
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Steven desJardins
stevendj
2004-01-17 20:01 (UTC)
(no subject)
I think Computer Science is 'those silly technical details' — although I suppose that depends on your definition of technical details. I usually consider Computer Science to be math (a theory-centric point of view, quoting dijkstra as necessary: "Computer Science has as much to do with computers as Astronomy does with telescopes."), but even computer engineering (systems, etc) is strictly oriented towards silly technical details. My own view would lump 'how it can be useful to society' with sociology, and catagorize 'applications in other fields' as 'computational X' - e.g. 'Computational Physics' or 'Computational Economics'.


I agree that these are logical definitions. But that immediately raises the question of why students are forced to study computational applications in the computer science department, instead of studying computer science in the computational applications department, or of them being equal sub-departments. I'd argue that this is an example of power entrenching itself--the people with the clout were more interested in computer science than in the softer applications, and their power over the curriculum encourages those who share their interests to persevere and those who don't to drop out.

(Incidentally, my sister is a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.)
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janviere
2004-01-17 16:43 (UTC)
(no subject)
Random, not quite on topic: I ran across a book called Why Men Don't Listen and Why Women Can't Read Maps while wandering around a bookstore in the Toronto airport. It wasn't quite as much fun as I'd hoped. All I got out of a few pages of skimming was that the authors wanted to attribute differences between the sexes to exposure to testosterone during early development. There were some lovely bits about, say, women who could "think like guys" (for example, who could understand maps or who might want to turn the TV down while talking to someone) being more likely to be lesbian.

The point about American versus non-American women is interesting. I'm not sure if I would choose to explain it in terms of intelligence, though. Maybe more as a cultural difference when it comes to work ethic and choosing a profession: "do what your heart guides you to" vs. "unthinkable disaster will ensue if you don't get straight As and become a doctor/physicist/ceo of a major corporation/etc". Does the book say anything more on that?

From that same paragraph, how wealthy is wealthy? I would think that women from poor families would have fewer resources to learn about computers or be prepared to get accepted to a fancy school, so the ones who do manage to do so must be pretty darn passionate or persistent about it. How many women are in CS for the money? How many men? Is there a difference between schools that offer more practically-oriented "Information Science and Technology" degrees as opposed to a more theoretical CS program like the top-ranked schools?
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-01-17 17:50 (UTC)
(no subject)
There were some lovely bits about, say, women who could "think like guys" (for example, who could understand maps or who might want to turn the TV down while talking to someone) being more likely to be lesbian.

Uh oh - what does that say about my good sense of direction? :~) Interesting results - how much is backed by scientific evidence, and how much is just their speculation? I don't know much about hormonal influences on development, aside from a few random news articles I've read over the years.

But my general reaction to phrases that assume inherent gender differences, such as "women who could think like guys," is that even if there are innate differences between genders, the spread within groups is much greater than the spread between groups (making the innate differences not statistically significant), and all other differences are culturally constructed. So the slight difference at birth is greatly exacerbated by our culture, effectively polarizing people who would otherwise be very similar. (Of course, I don't know this, and I'm not sure how I'd find out. But it seems like a good assumption to work from - it seems dangerous to attribute gender inequities to "innate differences" before carefully considering cultural or institutional biases.)

The point about American versus non-American women is interesting. I'm not sure if I would choose to explain it in terms of intelligence, though.

Another point that they brought up that I forgot to mention is that non-American women are more likely to have a cultural reference and not use the "canonical hacker" as a point of comparison. They also talked about many foreign women they interviewed who felt obligated to get high-paying jobs to help support their families, and studied computer science for that reason. They didn't say much about familial pressure to get straight A's and be uber-successful, though.

... How many women are in CS for the money? How many men? Is there a difference between schools that offer more practically-oriented "Information Science and Technology" degrees as opposed to a more theoretical CS program like the top-ranked schools?

From what they say, it seems like many are there at least partly for the money. Here's a quote from the book, which will hopefully clarify:
    They [Seymour and Hewitt, in Talking About Leaving] suggest that especially among students from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds, women choose the disciplines "largely by the degree of personal satisfaction they offer" and "pay less regard to their economic viability." The result is that when the math-science tightrope becomes culturally or academically uncomfortable, women with safety nets may jump: "Reports of relatively easy release from initial commitment to a science, math, or engineering major were most common among women from economically advantaged families." On the other hand, Seymour and Hewitt found that black women, older women returning to school, and women from working-class families did not feel the same degree of freedom. We found this also to be the case with many of the international women students.
I'm not sure about how many women or men are there for the money, or how that changes in practical vs. theoretical programs.
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-17 19:02 (UTC)
partial counterexample
Well, I live in a house full of lesbians, and, as far as I know, not one of them is even vaguely interested in computer science. (-:
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-01-18 00:11 (UTC)
Re: partial counterexample
Ah, but can they read maps? :~)
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janviere
2004-01-18 03:06 (UTC)
Re: partial counterexample
Consider this possible population distribution among women:
               lesbian   non-lesbian
              ---------------------
              |         |         |
map readers   |   10%   |    7%   |
              |         |         | 
              ---------------------
non map-      |         |         |
readers       |   82%   |    1%   |
(listeners)   |         |         | 
              ---------------------



So, according to the above chart, women who "think like guys" or can "read maps" are more likely to be lesbians, while lesbian women overall seem particularly incapable of reading maps. Straight women seem to fare a bit better in the map-reading department, but any achievement they have is statistically swamped by the preponderance of lesbians when looking at women in general. It's not actually necessary for lesbians to outnumber straight women in order to demonstrate this.

(ascii chart by Kevin, who is still behind me giggling)
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janviere
2004-01-18 02:41 (UTC)
(no subject)
But my general reaction to phrases that assume inherent gender differences, such as "women who could think like guys," is that even if there are innate differences between genders, the spread within groups is much greater than the spread between groups (making the innate differences not statistically significant), and all other differences are culturally constructed.

I agree, but I think we're certainly outlying cases, so it's not too difficult for people in the hormonal or genetic camps to accuse us of being exceptional from birth.

Kevin is behind me right now insisting that thinking is a learned skill, and that one's mode of thinking can be improved or changed. At least from personal experience, I think he's right. The freshman-year physics and CS classes here were the first time I felt like I really learned to sit down and think properly about a problem. I feel massively more capable and successful in school than before. But that's just me.

I think some of the other studies that I remember you citing from earlier chapters in the book about women who have parents in a technical job being more inclined in that direction themselves (if I remember correctly) and so on might help to show the importance of environment in a girl's interest in such things.
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Kris
anemone
2004-01-17 18:15 (UTC)
(no subject)
How many women are in CS for the money? How many men?

I'll bet you almost all the men are there for the money, and many fewer women. There's a book by someone at Stanford Kidding Ourselves, and she points out some interesting things.

Even today, women grow up in a world where women are the primary caregivers of children. Even when both parents work, it tends to be the woman who does most of the childrearing tasks. As a result, the average woman doesn't have the same need for money than a man does--the women (unconsciencely, perhaps) assume that their career will be secondary, and they'll quit it for a time anyway, so needing to make money isn't as important. Meanwhile, men still expect to be the primary breadwinners. As a result, I'll bet men are, on average, more concerned with getting well-paying careers.

(Now the interesting part of this is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because women don't expect to be the breadwinners, they don't get breadwinning careers, and then when poof, they are faced with a child, the "logical" course is for the woman to take the time off work/quit/reduce hours to do childcare. This also happens because women marry men slightly older and tend to marry men more educated than they are.)
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-17 19:17 (UTC)
(no subject)
This book is the first to apply game-theoretic ideas about negotiation to women's predicament

Hmm, curious.

I know that many of my female friends who were originally on math/science tracks have abandoned their plans along the way. One wanted to be a biochemist -- in high school she wrote me from tokyo about how she toured some chem lab, and everything about the place told her it was what she wanted to do. But then she got married, right out of high school. I believe her new plans are to be a high school biology teacher. Still science, but a long shot from the one-time dream. Another was on a physics track, but, three years through college at UCLA, gradually switched to Science Education, on track to be a high school physics teacher. Another long dreamed of being a vet, couldn't pass the necessary math requirements, switched to English, and is now a high school English teacher. Another was a physics student here at Berkeley, graduated in Physics and History, and is now a history grad student (with emphasis in history of science). I only know one girl from my high school who went to school in science (physics), graduated with a natural science degree, and intends to be a scientist in that field (although now she is waiting tables in our home-town). Certainly I've met a lot of successful women here at Berkeley, but I'm rather disappointed that so few of my high school friends succeeded in their original goals (although happy for them too, because most of them discovered that they liked where they ended up quite a lot). The overall effect is that, while in elementary school, for example, everyone had ambitious goals largely disjoint from gender stereotypes, ultimately the gender roles seem to have been fulfilled, with men persuing science or engineering and the women pursuing teaching. Any theories?
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janviere
2004-01-18 03:14 (UTC)
(no subject)
The same thing happened to all of my female friends at home between mid high school and the first couple years of college. A large number of the women that I know who seriously feel incapable at math have stories of horrible teachers or classes that were no help whatsoever the first time they didn't understand what was going on, and from then on all hope was lost.

I want to say that it's social, and that if people want to improve diversity they need to work with girls before they think about applying for college. My high school certainly did a terrible job of presenting any subjects other than english, history, or biology as remotely interesting, or in the case of math and physics, approachable.
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pr0lix
2004-01-18 18:53 (UTC)
Deja vu
and from then on all hope was lost

Wow. Memory rush. My sister, my cousin, my ex-gf, and my friend's gf all had this problem: they each had one bad teacher for math or science, and they all lost hope. With my sister, though, I was the obvious (though probably not the best) choice to help her overcome this obstacle.

I remember spending months with my sister, helping with her algebra homework. She was so negative for so long -- always talking about how bad she was at math and how much she hated the fact that I was good at it -- until finally something clicked again, and suddenly her homework was a breeze. She didn't need my help with her math homework ever again. I wish I could figure out what it was that made things easy again, but I don't know. Maybe she just got tired of me lecturing.

What bothered me more was that, while my sister was having problems with her homework, any reminders that I was good at math really pissed her off. Its kinda hard to hide that sort of thing when you're asked to tutor your sister. This effect (well, a slightly less extreme effect) was how I found out about the various bad experiences of the other people I listed at the top. In most cases I got the distinct impression that they thought they would have done well in the subject too, if it hadn't been for that one experience; but all of them now believed that it was too late to do anything about it. This almost makes sense with math classes, since each class builds on the previous class, but I always got the impression I was not understanding something about the whole situation; something that, if I had understood it, would have helped me get my sister back on track with much less emotional stress.
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-23 21:31 (UTC)
(no subject)
A large number of the women that I know who seriously feel incapable at math have stories of horrible teachers or classes that were no help whatsoever the first time they didn't understand what was going on, and from then on all hope was lost.

But that's not such a gender-dependent effect, unless you start with the assumption that women are less dedicated or have less self-confidence when it comes to math (as was expressed above). We all had the same teachers, after all.

It does seem highly lopsided that there's very little attempt to correct such effects until college.
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tobo
nibot
2004-01-17 19:20 (UTC)
(no subject)
I'll bet you almost all the men are there for the money

Well, I'm certainly not. I think that the College of Engineering's virtual promise of an $80,000 starting salary right after graduation did give me a sense of security about my choice, however. But, then, upon graduating, I realized that this salary would probably require that I go move to San Jose or Mountain View or somesuch place and do something dull, and concluded that grad school was the answer — hopefully in physics, maybe in EE or CS theory.
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Kris
anemone
2004-01-18 09:04 (UTC)
(no subject)
Yeah, I didn't quite mean that.

What I meant is that when choosing computer science, men are thinking "...and with this degree, I'll make good money, while if I major in History, I'll end up the manager of a bookstore."

And this sort of decision making may go way back...back into highschool, with boys (or their parents) tending to think "I need to pass this math class, because the the money-making careers need math." Boys and men, for reasons that are not always obvious set themselves up for high-earning careers because they believe it is important.

On the other hand, women don't put in as much effort in math or science courses because they don't think it's important to have a high-earning career.

This was the book's theory, anyway, which I think has some truth.
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