Chapter 1 - Encouraging Girls in Mathematics and Science

This web book is about using the Internet as a way to encourage girls' involvement with mathematics, science, computers and technology. The Internet can be a wonderful tool for girls - a way to connect girls with mentors, peers, and interesting web sites that can encourage and inspire them to pursue an interest in math or science, or at least to see how computers and technology can play an important part in their lives. Originally written in 1996, when the Internet first was becoming popular, this was my attempt to help encourage girls and young women in using the Internet. Today, in 2004, the information is a bit dated, and there may even be some broken links that should be updated.

Girls and young women today are pretty familiar with computers and the Internet, and it may seem they don't need encouragement anymore. But, to keep girls interested in science and mathematics, as well as believing they have something to contribute to areas like technology, hardware and software development, scientific research, and many other areas of technology is still an important task. So I'm updating the site as much as possible right now. It will still seem a bit behind the times in places for a while, but as time permits, I'll get to it.

Teachers can find examples for using the Internet in their classrooms in Chapter2, Teaching and the Internet: Girls and Computers in the Classroom. Parents can find out how other parents are making use of the Internet in Chapter3, Parenting and the Internet: Girls and Computers at Home. Girls themselves can find some fun things to do and new friends to meet in Chapter 6, Girls Just Want to Have Fun. (Remember these people may be quite a bit older now! But that makes them mentors.) I've removed some of their link pages and personal info, but the stories are pretty much the same as they were in 1996. There are also two other chapters, Chapter 4 on Internet Mentoring and Peer programs, and Chapter 5 on Worldwide organizations that are promoting technology programs to encourage girls in math and science.

"I think that the Internet is one of the best things to happen to computing for girls' sake; they're far more likely at first to spend time working with computers for the sake of the information and common interests they can find over the Internet than for the games that take so much of the boys' time."

Linda Kovacs

Before you can use the Internet for any project, it's important to know what you are looking for. So I want to address some of the areas that parents and teachers need to be aware of when they are working to encourage girls' interests in math, science or technology. There have been a number of studies done in this area, and I won't present them all here. These are the highlights to be aware of and look out for. They may not affect all girls, and a girl with enough self-confidence isn't going to let anything stop her anyway. But these are the issues that seem to turn up over and over again when researchers look at why there is such an imbalance in the percentage of women who maintain enough interest in mathematics and science to pursue a career in these fields.

When I was going through my computer science education, I wanted to be valued for who I was as a person and for the work that I accomplished -- not treated specially because I was female, but without having to continuously prove that I was good enough to be there. I believe that is how most girls and women feel. I enjoyed the challenges of the technology I was working with and the projects I was doing. I still love the thrill of learning something new and seeing what I can do with it.

But girls are often socialized to not be self-promoting, and not to push their way ahead -- which can leave them steps away from the computer as boys aggressively charge in. Parents and teachers need to be aware of both differences in temperament -- between all individuals, not just generalized between boys and girls -- and differences in circumstances. Not everyone has a computer at home and is skilled at using them, and not everyone has grown up playing videogames and getting used to controlling the action on a monitor. Having enough equipment for everyone to use their own machine is one solution, as is having a sign-up sheet for computer time rather than just making it first-come first-served.

This isn't just my own personal concern, or the concern of individual parents and teachers. The United States Government has recognized the importance of training girls in mathematics and science as a matter of national economic competitiveness.

"It is the policy of the United States to encourage men and women, equally, of all ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds to acquire skills in science, engineering and mathematics, to have equal opportunity in education, training, and employment in scientific and engineering fields, and thereby to promote scientific and engineering literacy and the full use of the human resources of the Nation in science and engineering." -- The Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act, Section 32(b) passed in December 1980.

Attitudes are Important

Providing opportunities is important, but women can only benefit from these opportunities if they have the confidence and attitude they need to pursue these opportunities and take advantage of the educational and professional openings that are available to them. Too often, girls are not encouraged to develop the confidence they need to continue in higher level math and science courses in high school, and in some cases are even actively discouraged from taking advanced courses so their "grades will be better". This puts them a step behind when they get to college, though, and makes it more difficult to move ahead at the college level.

When I was in high school, I went back and forth between my interests in music and theater and my interests in science and mathematics. It took a long time for me to realize that the two were not mutually exclusive, and to be able to enjoy both the emotional excitement of theater and music and the intellectual stimulation of math and science without feeling as if I had to choose between one or the other.

In the end, vocation won out over avocation -- I realized that it was far easier to make a living in the high-tech world of engineering and computers than in the highly competitive and very subjective world of the arts. But I've always tried to find a place for art in my life as well as computer science. Attitude makes all the difference -- the attitude that you can be an intelligent, thoughtful person and still have a life full of other interests and good friendships, and the attitude that you can be confident of your abilites and interested in math and science, and still be as feminine as you want to be, as have just as much fun as you want to. Science and math don't have to be "boring" -- they can be interesting and even entertaining.

SIDEBAR: Science Explained

Computers and the Internet aren't boring either -- and they are very entertaining -- there are web sites on almost any subject you can imagine out there, from movies and popular entertainment to books to horseback riding and ice skating.

"Just keep going until they kick you out"

Even when girls can get beyond the "math is boring" syndrome, it isn't always easy to continue in math or science. It can take a lot of effort to keep going in spite of feeling as if you don't belong sometimes. It's a subject that is discussed in Internet forums such as bionet.women-in-bio, where women sometimes share advice on how to deal with these kind of feelings and attitudes. Here's an exchange from a newsgroups for women in biology:
From Jennifer Potter
Motivating girls to do science

Anne Carpenter wrote:
> One of the major things I have had to overcome as a college woman
> choosing biology as a career is the lack of self-confidence
> about my academic ability (particularly in science).

I agree with you, Anne. In my early years as a grad student I often felt very overwhelmed by it all. The best advice I got was from a friend who often was on the receiving end of all this insecurity. He said to me,

"Just keep going until they kick you out."

I actually ended up repeating this to myself during difficult times, and guess what? I'm nearing completion of the degree and have much more confidence in myself. I do think that women are more likely to be underachievers, not in the sense that we don't achieve, but in that we choose things in which we are assured success (or, at least aren't all that risky). I think that girls can be motivated by seeing their success, seeing that they CAN do it and that problem solving can be intellectually stimulating and FUN. As more and more women are successful in science, we need to make sure to show precollege and college women our show that the good work being done is not only by men.

We also need to burn all those Barbie dolls that say "Math is hard."

-- Jennifer Potter

Well, I found this discussion pretty interesting, so I e-mailed Anne and Jennifer to get a little more information from them. Anne responded with a lengthy e-mail message about her reasons for getting involved in science.

From: Anne Carpenter To: Donna Woodka Subject: Re: Women & science

"In response to your question about what keeps me going and motivates me to stick with science despite feeling intimidated, I would have to say that the foundation was laid by the strong support of my parents. They supported all of us in whatever we wanted to pursue. So, I think that the strong support of parents, not limiting kids to certain career paths, is very important. If a girl feels pressured to go into science or engineering and does not decide on her own, she will probably encounter a lot of frustration and feelings of inadequacy. I think that perhaps women are more prone to be pushed into certain careers, and more often are pushed to avoid science rather than to pursue it.

A second major influence in my personal experience was a 2nd-5th grade "Gifted & Talented" program at the public school I attended. One day a week a few students from each school in the community met as a class under the direction of a gifted teacher. The program didn't really stress teaching us things sooner or in more detail, but rather in teaching creative thinking and "fun" stuff. The emphasis was not on science , but it taught scientific thinking and fostered an intense desire to know more - it made us excited about learning more.

I didn't actually decide on a career in science until about halfway through my freshman year in college, and I think one factor that made me more comfortable with choosing science is the high percentage of females in my class going into science , especiaally biology. I think more than half of bio majors nowadays (from my limited experience at two schools) are female, which really helps shape perceptions and encourages women to pursue biology.

In regards to the Internet: I am so glad I stumbled across women-in-bio. It has been thrilling for me to hear from other women who have dealt with the same worries about science, and it is especially good to hear from women at all rungs of the ladder: from those trying to decide if science is for them, to those working in grad school, to those in industry and academia at high levels. Who better to learn from than someone who has been there? And the experience of telling someone your experiences can be extremely valuable psychologically; it helps you to work out why you did what you did and to assess your values and ideas. So, I have been so grateful for the women on the newsgroup - they seem to be really down to earth and I have heard from some of the most caring and compassionate people there.

Sincerely ,
Anne Carpenter
Sophomore, Purdue University

Promoting Mathematics and Science Education for Girls

The National Science Foundation has been one of the most active organizations in studying why girls fall out of the math and science pipeline, and in developing programs designed to encourage girls to stay interested in math and science and pursue careers in these fields. The NSF dedicated nearly $7 million to programs for Women and Girls during Fiscal Year 1994 -- a 200 percent increase over the previous year. Such a commitment is necessary to change the sources of gender inequity, according to Jane Stutsman, deputy assistant director for education and human resources:

"Women do have a significant but still unequal proportion of jobs in the biological and agricultural sciences, demonstrating that there are no intellectual barriers to women seeking careers in science," Stutsman testified at a congressional hearing. "To account for the very low proportion of women in the physical sciences and engineering, we must look at the barriers that result from social values, attitudes, inequitable teaching and learning, stereotypes, lack of role models, sex discrimination and sexual harassment."

Funding for NSF programs is now being directed at changing the learning environment for girls, to allow girls to see math and science as being interesting and relevant to their lives instead of remote, abstract subjects that don't enter into their daily lives. These projects are trying to find ways to create positive and permanent changes in the academic, social and scientific climates in which young women learn. This approach is unique, said NSF's Jane Daniels, who oversees the projects. "In the past, most funded projects focused on helping the female students. With this program, we intend to make a difference in the climate in which they learn, to allow the natural abilities and interests of young women to flourish."

According to Stutsman, a multi-level and sustained commitment to change is necessary to ensure the future of not just NSF, but the entire country. "The U.S. can hope to be competitive in the global economy only when the full potential of citizens of both sexes can be realized."


"The most striking differences between boys and girls are not in achievement or opportunities to learn, but in their attitudes toward science and mathematics. Even when girls have similar exposure to courses and similar achievement levels, they are less confident of their ability and less interested in science and engineering careers. These differences in attitude may be due to subtle messages females receive from their families, schools, and society... Since 1973, there has not been a gap in the mathematics proficiency scores of girls and boys at ages 9 and 13, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. A slight gap that existed from 1973 to 1986 between the scores of 17-year-old boys and girls has now virtually disappeared. In science proficiency, the 1990 scores of 9-year-old girls were virtually the same as boys'. There was a growing gap between girls' and boys' scores at age 13 and age 17, which has been persistent since the 1970's."

-- Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 1994. National Science Foundation study.

So where do the differences in boys' and girls' interests come from? Studies have shown that the abilities of boys and girls are the same - the difference is in attitudes and in opportunities. We can provide the opportunities by making sure that schools develop the infrastructure needed to expose students to new technology - but we have to work on the attitudes as well, and from the beginning.

Preschool and Elementary School - Gaining Access and Enthusiasm

"It's fairly useless to devise a curriculum that assumes you'll have one computer per two or three children when schools have nothing of the sort,"

-- Valerie Clarke, associate professor, Department of Psychology, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia.

Kids start very early in developing their sexuality and learning the difference between "boys roles" and "girls roles". Teachers and parents need to be careful to watch for and be aware of differences in how boys and girls react to computers in the classroom. Boys often rush to the computer, while girls are not as apt to push ahead of others. Teachers need to assure an equal amount of access in the classroom.

"Even in preschool, males dominate the school computers. In one preschool, the boys literally took over the computer, creating a computer club and refusing to let the girls either join the computer club or have access to the computer. When the teachers intervened and set up a time schedule for sharing computer access, the girls spent as much time on the computer as the boys." [Kiesler]

Kids who have access to computers in their elementary school years tend to use them for about the same amount of time, if given equal opportunities to access them. Getting interested in computers at this age can encourage a life-long interest in computers and technology, as the following quote from a teenage computer user shows:

"I became interested in the computer when I was in the third grade, and we started going to the computer lab once a week and using Apple IIC Computers. The reason I am still interested in computers is the excitement of having something new to explore - the technology is always changing and there is something new to learn. The only thing that sometimes discourages me is the fact that I can't access a lot of things I would like to on the system I currently have access to. In the future I plan to go to a four-year university and go directly on to graduate school to get my masters. After working for a while, I will go on to get my doctorate. In essence, I want to be rich when I grow up, and have a job that I love, which is also interesting and challenging." -- Shana

Middle School - Resisting Peer Pressure

Middle school is most often cited as the place where girls "lose interest" in math and science. The reasons for the loss of interest are complex, but seem to involve the messages girls begin to get from peer groups, parents and teachers.

"Most children at the primary level have an interest in computers, if given the opportunity, but in the middle school peer pressure tends to direct more girls away from computers."

-- Valerie Clarke, social psychologist at Deakin University, Australia

A study of seventh-graders found an interesting difference: "The difference wasn't in performance-males and females performed comparably in math and science courses-but in the fact that females consistently underestimated their abilities. Because of this lack of confidence, the females begin taking fewer math and science courses than their male schoolmates, a trend that accelerates in high school." [Astin]

From: Linnea Ista
Newsgroups: bionet.women-in-bio
Subject: Re: Motivating girls to do science...

I was thinking about the question that Anne Carpenter posed about what causes girls to doubt their abilities/start to underachieve. I remember something from my youth that perhaps we have overlooked. When I was in grade school, I hung out wiith a group of girls that was considered "intelligent". We all got good grades and were not afraid to speak out in class, etc. When we got to junior high, I noticed that some of my friends no longer spoke up in class, were much less excited when they did well on exams and in general just kind of "played dumb". I finally asked one of my friends why she said she didn't know the answer to a question posed to her in class when I knew darn well that she knew the answer because we had studied together. "I want to get dates" or something to that effect was her response. And it was true, all through Junior High and High School she got dates, I didn't. My friends (male and female) said that I intimidated the boys because I was "a brain" and didn't try to hide it. Interestingly I had boys who were friends, but no dates.

Somewhere along the way girls get the idea that smart is not feminine or attractive and (at least at my school) it is desirable to be those things. This got me thinking about how a couple of weeks ago when I was in a department store looking at wedding dresses [yes, I finally did get a date ;-)] I saw in the juniors' section a shirt that really upset me. It had a logo that looked like the "Dairy Queen " logo except that the words were changed to "Ditzy Queen". As we were going down the escalator, three teenaged girls walked up saw the shirts and said "Oh look "Ditzy Queen "! Isn't that cute." Am I being oversensitive, or is this, in light of what we have been talking about, part of the problem? I did call the retailer (Dillards) and complain, but I don't know if it did any good.

I guess what I am saying is although we can and should do our best as educators, mentors and adult friends of school aged girls to encourage them, we need to also address the prevailing culture whose message unfortunately (still) is that it is more desirable to be attractive than smart.

-- Linnea Ista

Providing Support to Middle School Girls

National studies suggest self esteem and academic achievement of girls in middle school begin to decline significantly. A study by Dianne Rothenberg indicates many factors may be responsible for this decline. In school, boys ask more questions, and get more constructive feedback. Out of school, girls' observations of women's roles may lead them to believe their role is not as important as boys' roles. Self-image problems may come from believing that they have to be pretty, kind and obedient, and never have bad thoughts or feelings.

Researchers suggest parents can support their preadolescent girls in many ways, including:

* Giving girls toys that develop pre-math and science skills, including puzzles, board games, and manipulatives like Legos and other building toys

* Finding television programs and movies that show positive role models for women, and discussing with girls the roles of women in society

* Visiting their daughter's school and asking questions about her classroom participation and academic progress

* Taking daughters into the workplace of their interest, and pointing out the value of the work and contributions of women

Teachers can provide support in the following ways:

* Being aware of their classroom presentation style and attending workshops that make them aware of girls' perceptions and attitudes

* Encouraging girls to take science and math courses, especially advanced courses for older girls, and encouraging girls to participate in class discussions and be active participants in class projects and science experiments, not observers and note takers.

* Mediate access to limited computer resources and enforce fairness

Administrators can do the following:

* Develop school policies that support girls by eliminating harassment by other students and teachers.

* Offer equal opportunities for girls to participate in extracurricular activities, especially in technology oriented groups such as science and computer clubs

In 8th grade, many students decide if they will take algebra when they are in 9th grade, an important first step to continued math involvement (although more advanced students may take algebra in 8th grade). Girls need to be encouraged to take algebra at this level to be prepared for more advanced classes later on in high school.

"I remember my eight-grade science class as one of the best classes I ever took in school. Our book consisted mainly of lab work, and the experiments were all chemistry- or physics-based. We were allowed to work alone or with a partner, at our own pace as long as we finished a minimum number of chapters in each grading period. This sort of approach would work better with girls, I think. Also, there are so many science experiment books for kids to do at home, but most are written with boys as the audience. What sort of a science book would interest girls? Since science itself is so interesting, there must be a way to do this. " -- Sara Lipowitz

High School - Maintaining and Building Self Confidence

In high school, girls begin to buy in to the notion that math and science are for boys, or that boys aren't going to want to go out with "smart girls". They take less advanced mathematics and science classes, or even drop out of math classes after meeting the minimum requirements. Parents and teachers need to be aware of what's happening for high school girls, and encourage them to stay involved in math and science, and to take advanced classes.

Sophomore and junior years in high school are key decision points. While both girls and boys will typically take math courses until math requirements for college admission are fulfilled, girls are more likely than boys to stop after their requirements are fulfilled and take no more math. Not taking advanced courses in high school can put girls further behind in math skills when they reach college.

From: Lisa Bartel
Newsgroups: k12.ed.math

I just wanted to tell you my experience coming to college and my math experience. I was in B-lane math in high school because I was never challenged to do well. I basically was told I was an average level math mind. I have finally proved my high school wrong. I am graduating with a BS in mathematics in May. The advice you should give to students when going to college is never to let anyone tell you what to do. Trust yourself and choose realistically what you want to do. But most of all----have fun!

-- Lisa Bartel

Providing Support to High School Girls

High school girls need role models to show them what kind of careers are possible that match their interests. Without mentors or role models, girls may stop taking math and science courses or not take advanced courses, making it difficult for them to have the skills to enter a major in science or engineering before they even begin college. High school counselors and math and science teachers need to encourage capable young women to seriously think of science or engineering as a career option.

Several programs have been developed to encourage high school girls to stay in math and science courses and keep their options open. The Math/Science Network, a non-profit organization, organizes conferences under the title of "Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics" These conferences connect high school girls with local female scientists. Other local programs might include science fairs, sponsored by schools, scouting troops, or similar organizations, in which women are included among the judges. Career awareness workshops that let students meet local scientists and engineers to learn about career paths are another good option.

"Hello, my name is Allison and I am an 18 year old woman using her father's e-mail to put her two cents in. I am on my way to university in the fall, planning to major in physics.

First of all, I should probably put in that I have been scientifically inclined since primary school. I remember very vividly that nobody would (or could) answer all of my questions so my academic parents encouraged me to discover things on my own. I think that was the first of the things that motivated me into science ---- I wanted those questions answered.

Secondly, in high school I was lucky enough to be part of a pilot co-op program which aimed to place students with professional scientists and businessmen. I spent three months learning how to electropolish (a concept I had only briefly heard about in high school chemistry) samples for a research group's surface experiments. I built my own apparatus, tested any number of solutions and was allowed to use equipment I had never even heard about. I was 16, and couldn't even get a job at a fast food joint or department store, yet these people were welcoming and supportive from the beginning. I left the research group with not only a better understanding of chemistry (science in academe in general, in fact) but a renewed sense of self confidence. I believe that if more girls could experience what I did, they would be less inclined to shy away from sciences. Mentorship is important at all levels of development.

-- Allison Pomfret


How can using the Internet help?

Now that we've seen the basics issues surrounding the attitudes that need to be changed, how can the Internet help? By making math and science more fun. By providing connections to peer groups and mentors, and information on colleges and college curriculums. By opening up access to a world of really smart women who know what it's like outside of the boundaries of school. We've seen a couple of examples of that already - the responses from women I quote in this book were all obtained in response to queries I sent out to various newsgroups on the Internet. The web sites you'll find listed as resources later on were all found either through recommendations from people I "talked" with in newsgroups or by electronic mail (e-mail), or through searches using Internet search engines such as Lycos, Yahoo or Alta Vista. I'll be giving many examples of ways to connect with people and to do things like searches throughout this book. There is also an appendix covering the rules to play safely and behave yourself out there on the Internet.


Astin, Alexander W., and Helen S. Astin. 1993. Undergraduate Science Education: The Impact of Different College Environments on the Educational Pipeline in the Sciences. Los Angeles: University of California, Higher Education Research Institute.

Kiesler et al 1985 Kiesler, Sara, Lee Sproull, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles. ``Pool Halls, Chips, and War Games: Women in the Culture of Computing''. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 9 (1985) 451--462. Presents results from a study of sex-based arcade and home video game usage along with a discussion of the consequences.

Copyright © 1996-2004 Donna Woodka All Rights Reserved.