Getting it wrong, offensively so. The scales ARE biassed.


Mark Guzdial has put out some excellent posts recently on Barbara Ericson’s ongoing work on analysing AP CS exam attempts and results across the US. Unsurprisingly, to those of us who see the classrooms on a day-to-day basis, women are grossly underrepresented. In this interview, Barbara is quoted:

Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at Georgia Tech, has made a startling claim. She said not one female student in three states – Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming — took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science last year.

Ericson appeared on Weekend Express to discuss the gender gap and explains why more women aren’t interested in computer science.

Now, I’m not going to rehash all of these posts but I did want to pick on one blogger who took the AP data and then, as far as I’m concerned, not only got it wrong by making some fundamental interpretational errors  but managed to do so in a way that so heavily reeked of privilege that I’m going to call it out.

I hesitate to link to the article on the Huffington Post but it’s only fair that you should read it to see what you think, even though it will generate traffic. The article is called “Memo to Chicken Little: Female Scientists Do Roam Among Us, and Gasp! Some Even Wear Lipstick”. So before we’ve even started, we’ve got one good stereotype going in the title.

Look, I’m not planning to drag apart the whole article but I will pick on one point that the author makes because it really irritates me. Here’s the paragraph:

As a woman who likes science as a bystander but chose not to pursue it professionally, I’ve got a couple of problems with all this handwringing. Mostly, well-intentioned as it is, it implies that women need “help” choosing a field of study. High school girls are exposed to exactly the same science and math courses they need to graduate as boys are, but in the eyes of the handwringers, girls are either too shallow or simple to choose for themselves, or need to be socially engineered into the correct balance of male vs. female, regardless of their choices. I appreciate your concern, but frankly, it’s pretty demeaning.

Frankly, I’ve never seen a more disingenuous interpretation of attempts to undo and reverse the systematic anti-female bias that is built into our culture. I’ve never seen anyone who is trying to address this problem directly or indirectly label girls as shallow or too simple to choose – this is a very unpleasant strawman, constructed to make those of us who are trying to address a bias look like we’re the ones with the attitude problem. We don’t need to socially engineer girls into the correct balance, we need to engineer society to restore the balance and articles like this, which make it appear that women are deliberately choosing to avoid STEM, are unwelcome, unnecessary and unfair to the many young women who are being told that the way that our society works is the way that it should work.

Need I remind people of stereotype threat? The PNAS study that shows that women are as automatically likely to harshly judge women and lessen their rewards as their male colleagues? Looking at the AP attendance and performance doesn’t show equality, it shows the outcome of a systematically biased system.

To say that “High school girls are exposed to exactly the same science and math courses they need to graduate as boys are” is a difficult statement. Yes, women rack up roughly the same number of course credits but on the critical measurement of whether they choose to go on and pursue a profession? No, something breaks here. The AP test is a great measure because it is an Advanced Placement exam and your intention is to use this to go further.  Is there clear evidence of far fewer women, as a percentage, going on from high school to college in STEM despite scoring the same kinds of grades? Yes. Is there evidence that some of these problems (anxiety about maths, for example) can start with perceptions of teachers in primary school? Yes. Is there a problem?


And the question is always, if your previous exposure has not been fair, then is it reasonable to pick an arbitrary level of course that would be fair to people who haven’t been discriminated against? For years, racism was justified by culturally-based testing that could not be performed at the same level by people outside the culture – which was then used to restrict their access to the culture.

To me, that statement about exposure summarises everything that is wrong with glib arguments about constructing equal opportunity. If we’re going for a big job and there’s a corporate ‘interview dinner’ for 20 people, then we’ll all be on our best behaviour at dinner. For someone to lose the job because nobody showed them how to use a finger bowl or because their family uses a knife in the ‘other’ way, is to provide an equal exposure in the present that is blatantly unfair because it doesn’t take into account the redress of previous bias to bring people up to the point where it is really equal opportunity.

I think history supports me in the statement that we have been proved wrong every other time we’ve tried to segregate human ability and talent based on fixed physical abilities that were assigned at birth. Isn’t it about time we started investing all of our effort into producing truly equal opportunity for everyone?

One Comment on “Getting it wrong, offensively so. The scales ARE biassed.”

  1. […] is certainly not going to end bias overnight (there are so many other issues to address) but it’s a great […]


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