- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

Just as high school mathematics teacher Cathy Furlong encourages her female students in the subject, she needed some encouragement herself before deciding to expand her studies into statistics, she says.

Ms. Furlong, 48, was working on a doctorate in sociology at American University in Northwest when the professor of a required statistics class encouraged her to earn a master’s degree in statistics. She dropped out of the doctoral program and, now, with three years to her retirement from teaching, she plans to pursue statistical analysis as a second career.

“It let me know I was capable of doing it. … I needed someone I respected to encourage me to go into it and take the challenge,” says the Vienna resident, who teaches at Annandale High School. “Women, I believe, need to be encouraged to go into math and sciences, to believe they can do it.”

Women are not studying mathematics and computer science at colleges and universities to the same extent as their male peers, according to metro-area professors and education association members. The result is fewer women entering careers in those fields.

“What there has been is a shortage of female role models in these fields. … In the industries, those ratios are lower for women,” says Jill M. Landsman, public relations manager for the Technology Student Association (TSA), a nonprofit education association in Reston that offers competitions and programs for middle- and high-school students. “The stereotypes are the issue here. … There is the nerd and geek issue that girls don’t gravitate to. In TSA, we don’t see gender, we don’t see bias, and we don’t see disparities.

Metro-area colleges are making an effort to provide female role models at the instructional level to remove that disparity. For example, the science, engineering and mathematics department at Montgomery College, an open-access college in Rockville, has a staff of 30, 18 of whom are women, says Sanjay Rai, dean of the department. He holds a doctorate in mathematics.

“We don’t see a problem in attracting students because we created the right circumstances where women students can come to our program and succeed,” Mr. Rai says. “[Students] see women who have succeeded and done well in the profession. That gives them confidence.”

Likewise, American University (AU) hires female faculty members to help boost enrollment of female students in the mathematics department, says Mary Gray, professor of mathematics and statistics at AU. She holds a doctorate in mathematics.

“We probably have more women students in the mathematics department than men, but that’s not true everywhere,” Ms. Gray says, estimating that two-thirds of the students in the department are women, while nationwide, the figure is 48 percent.

At the doctoral level nationally, 28 percent of those receiving advanced degrees in mathematics are women, while at AU, 80 percent of the doctorates go to women, Ms. Gray says. Alternatively, in computer science, nationally 27 percent of students receiving bachelor’s degrees are female, about the same as AU, and 22 percent of doctorates go to females, she says. AU does not have a doctoral program in computer science.

“We’ve made a strong effort to make women feel welcome,” Ms. Gray says. “Women are successful … word spreads and more women come to our program.”

American University’s mathematics department encourages students to meet with other students or with faculty members through events such as luncheons, colloquium discussions and conferences.

“What women often express is that they do feel alone. They look around and don’t see people who look like them,” says Telle Whitney, chief executive officer of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, an organization in Palo Alto, Calif., that offers programs and support for women in technology.

Women are more likely to join a department’s faculty or apply as a student if they see women professors and students there, Ms. Whitney says.

“When there’s no women around, it’s hard to go there,” she says.

At the secondary level, girls may not be encouraged to take advanced mathematics and computer science classes, says Mimi Lufkin, executive director of the National Alliance for Partnership in Equity Inc., a consortium of states and agencies in Cochranville, Pa., focused on issues related to equity and work-force development.

A factor in the lack of encouragement may be the perception that girls do not perform as well as boys in science and math. But National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores and scores for the 2002 Advanced Placement calculus and science exams show only a narrow gap between boys’ and girls’ scores.

The teaching methods may not be conducive to girls’ learning styles for the subjects, Ms. Lufkin says. Computer science classes often are taught in an individually competitive environment relying heavily on theory as opposed to hands-on and in groups, which girls prefer, she says.

Girls may take the classes but not translate the interest into a career choice, Ms. Lufkin says.

“It’s subliminal messages that come from the media, parental knowledge, too, about careers and what they mean,” she says.

Women have perceptions of computer science and those working in the field that may not be entirely accurate. For one, computer scientists are stereotyped as geeks, says Jim Purtilo, associate professor and associate chairman of the computer science department at the University of Maryland at College Park. He holds a doctorate in computer science.

“The damage is already done well before we get our hands on potential students,” he says.

Girls taking computer science classes may get the perception that careers in computer science involve sitting in front of a computer doing programming, says Mary Jean Harrold, professor of computing for the Advance program of the National Science Foundation, an Arlington organization focused on increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.

“Girls are more interested in jobs helping others,” says Ms. Harrold, professor in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Once colleges attract women to computer science and mathematics, retention is another issue.

Metro-area schools and associations have implemented programs to recruit high school students and retain college students. Examples include mentoring programs for college students new to a discipline, exploratory programs for high school girls, summer camps with computer science and mathematics instruction, and women’s membership organizations and student clubs in the field.

“It’s just women find themselves to be a minority in computing. It’s hard for them to find someone, so you need to set it up,” Ms. Harrold says.

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