Harvard College’s Math 55a is known for being difficult and time-consuming. Its students must be talented, capable, and willing to put in endless hours per week to complete fiendishly difficult problem sets. This year, they share another trait: they are all male. This is just one sign of a gender balance problem that has long plagued Harvard’s math, computer science, and physics departments.
While these fields have seen a gradual increase in female concentrators, women still only comprise around 25 percent of concentrators. More importantly, the Harvard Undergraduate Math Survey indicates that 54 percent of females in the math department are uncomfortable with this imbalance. There are two major causes of the gender gap at Harvard: cultural factors originating outside of Harvard and structural issues exacerbated by Harvard academics. However, there are solutions that may be implemented without compromising the quality of education in these fields.
Cultural Factors and Possible Solutions
The cultural factors that propagate the gender gap outside of Harvard are well documented. From a very young age, cultural suggestions, such as a lack of female-oriented LEGO sets and other toys associated with early interest in STEM fields, encourage girls to choose non-technical fields. These effects intensify throughout middle and high school and culminate in a significant gender gap among STEM-interested Harvard students. It is difficult for Harvard to undo the damage done by such cultural factors because they are largely caused by entities outside its influence.
However, the university can take steps to make the culture of its technical fields friendlier to women. For example, the current lack of female tenured professors often leads to women feeling alienated from their department. The Math Survey notes that 45 percent of female concentrators feel uninvolved with the Mathematics department, as opposed to 12 percent of male concentrators. To address this issue, Harvard Physics department chair Howard Georgi told the HPR that “hiring women faculty was the biggest thing” in making the department more friendly to female undergraduates. Similar steps by all technical departments would provide females with better role models in their departments. Unfortunately, this is a catch-22, because more tenured women can only be hired when a greater number of women concentrate in and become experts in technical fields.
Beyond hiring more female professors, Harvard could work to create a stronger community for women in technical fields. Ramya Rangan ’16, president of Harvard’s Women in Computer Science (WiCS), notes that the organization focuses primarily on running community events to help create a computer science support network. Additionally, Meena Boppana ’16, former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Math Association (HUMA) and an author of the Math Survey, noted, “Any sort of initiative to get women to come together is really great.” However, the HUMA events for women in math and physics usually have an attendance of around 20 people. At this size, a society of women in math and physics at Harvard may not be large enough to have a significant impact. Thus, this possible solution also faces a dilemma: organizations like WiCS can only create a community if there is a larger number of female concentrators.
Technical fields might also attract more female concentrators through targeted recruiting. For example, Harvey Mudd College used recruiting to increase the number of computer science concentrators from under 10 percent to around 40 percent over the past few years. At the end of every computer science course, women are encouraged by faculty to either take another course or pursue another activity related to computer science. These activities, which include open research or field trips to the Grace Hopper conference, encourage enthusiasm about computer science. By the end of freshman year, many women feel more confident about majoring in computer science. Harvey Mudd’s model is an example of effective recruiting; similar recruiting at Harvard could influence females to continue with technical disciplines beyond foundational courses.
The gender gap in middle and high school creates the difference in STEM background between boys and girls entering Harvard. Results from the Math Survey indicate that while a comparable number of boys and girls take math through AP Calculus BC, significantly fewer girls continue beyond that level while in high school. Similarly, Rangan noted that fewer girls receive exposure to computer science in high school than boys. Obviously, it is harder to concentrate in a technical field without the appropriate background, and Harvard should not lower its requirements. But departments make subtle errors in introductory classes that disproportionately affect students with weaker technical backgrounds.
The Mathematics department’s tendency to advise students to take low-level math courses freshman year prevents many with weaker STEM backgrounds from concentrating in technical fields. Math advising strongly encourages freshmen to choose easy math courses in a variety of ways. For example, the official math department guidelines overestimate the amount of time required for advanced math courses, as compared with the Q guide, the university-wide course evaluation system . Boppana noted that this problem is compounded with girls, who “tend to underestimate how prepared they are.” This has significant long-term effects: the Math Survey indicates that a student’s choice of freshman year math courses significantly affects whether students concentrate in technical fields. There are two potential solutions to this problem: either professors can advise students to try harder courses with the option of dropping down later, or they can encourage students in Harvard’s introductory math tracks to continue taking math courses, just as Harvey Mudd does in its Computer Science department.
In contrast, the Computer Science and Physics departments provide virtually no choice in freshman year courses. However, Harvard’s introductory course Computer Science 50 (CS 50) could be made more conducive to beginners. Specifically, Harvey Mudd found increased success in recruiting females to the field after splitting its introductory course into one class for beginners and one for non-beginners. Extensive recruiting and the course’s focus on application encouraged the beginners to continue with computer science. Similar changes can be implemented at Harvard to encourage women to take more computer science courses.
The style of instruction in these introductory classes also turns away students with weaker backgrounds. Traditional instruction in technical fields consists of lecture classes followed by problem sets for which students are given little guidance. Georgi identified this as an issue in his introductory physics courses and thus created Physics Night, a weekly night-long session where students can work together to complete the problem set with the aid of TFs and professors. This system proved successful in attracting students with weaker backgrounds, as it encouraged study groups and greater collaboration between students on problem sets, without compromising the difficulty of the course. Math 55 does not have course-sponsored study sessions, but many students form study groups, and extensive support from the professor is available. But, many courses don’t have strong support networks, which discourages the enrollment of students who might struggle with the material due to their weaker technical backgrounds.
It is easy for Harvard administrators, professors, and students to attribute the gender gap in technical fields to factors out of Harvard’s control, and in many ways this is largely true. However, there are simple steps Harvard can take to help reduce this gap, and it is Harvard’s responsibility to take these steps.
This article has been updated from an earlier version (2/24/15).
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