Home > math education, women in math > On the making of a girl nerd

On the making of a girl nerd

April 8, 2012

Today I want to discuss the process by which girls become math and cs nerds.

I could be tempted to talk primarily about my own story, since I’m a huge nerd. And I will talk about my story, but my focus is going to be on the girls of my generation who could have become nerds but didn’t. I’m hoping we can learn some lessons so that future generations will have more nerd girls.

Both my parents are nerds. My mother has a Ph.D. in applied math and my father has a Ph.D. in pure math. Moreover, I was on the math team in high school, found out about a math camp, and went to it for two summers, with the full support of my family.

I want to go over these details again, because I want to point out that they gave me an enormous advantage to becoming a successful nerd.

First, my parents being nerds: I have found an amazing correlation between women with math Ph.D.’s and women whose fathers are mathematicians. I don’t think this is random- indeed I think it means two things. First, that girls with mathematician dads have an easy time imagining themselves as mathematicians (and an even easier time if their mom is too). Second, that girls without mathematician dads don’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to explain the statistics I have.

Second, the math camp experience. I went to math camp in spite of it being an extremely uncool summer endeavor, according to my classmates at school. Yet I didn’t care, and went anyway, mostly because I was already a complete outsider, a fat girl on the math team (but a mathbabe when I got there!).

Two things about this. First, most smart girls around me in Lexington High School, and there were a lot of them, would not have been willing to go to math camp and ruin their reputations. Most of them were relatively popular, and wanted to keep it that way. I had nothing to lose in that aspect and knew it. This kind of thinking may seem silly to us as grownups but seemed like life or death choices then.

Second, the advantage having been to math camp gave me when I got to college was phenomenal. I knew how to prove things by induction, by contradiction, and using the pigeon-hole principle. I knew basic group theory, graph theory, and real analysis. This gave me a jump-start in all of my undergrad math major classes. I was an elite, and what I could do seemed like magic to the kids who were math majors who didn’t know that stuff.

The thing about math is that people get into this mindset about being good at it: they think that you either have it or you don’t (see this post for more on the mindset). So the experience for the other kids, boys and girls, going to an algebra class and sitting next to me and a few other kids from math camp backgrounds was understandably intimidating and made them think they couldn’t compete. But I believe that, considering the social constructs and the kind of confidence girls and boys are trained to have (or not have), it was particularly daunting for other girls to see their competition in a small group of elite nerds who already knew all the answers.

I’m not advocating closing math camps. In fact, I am going back to teach at my high school math camp in July for three weeks (woohoo!). What I am advocating is thinking seriously about the selection process for young nerds and how much it weeds out girls. We can do better.

For example, Harvey Mudd is doing better by careful thought and attention to the issue. Namely, they are changing the introduction to programming class to be more appealing for non-math-or-cs-camp nerds. From the New York Times article:

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science.

This sounds like a brilliant idea, and one that we should all consider (and python rocks!). It is reminiscent of the “Introduction to Proofs” class which I started with Karen Edwards and Sara Robinson in 1993 at UC Berkeley as an undergrad and which is still going, as well as the class I started at in 2006 at Barnard College, which is also still going. The dual goals of such a class are to teach basic proof techniques to people interested in the major (who probably didn’t go to math camp) and to show people that being able to prove things isn’t magic, it just takes practice and knowing techniques.

Let’s get more campuses across the country to think about all the math and cs nerds they are missing out on by teaching the same old math (or cs) major classes every year. This is a curriculum change that is easy, fun to teach, and completely worthwhile.

  1. Tara Holm
    April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am

    It’s funny, I neither have a mathematician parent (though one of my uncles is a math prof), nor math camp experience. I sometimes wonder how I became a mathematician! I did experience a lot of feeling daunted in math classes at Dartmouth, but not as much as I probably would have at Harvard, say. I was lucky to have one professor who was particularly encouraging. It seems very serendipitous to have worked out, with so many moments when it could have all gone wrong.


    • April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am

      You’re awesome! And yes, you’re lucky you didn’t go to Harvard, as am I.


  2. majordomo
    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Cathy, when offering up possible reasons for the seemingly non-random tendency you observed of women with Math PhD’s having fathers with Math PhD’s, you forgot to mention perhaps the most important reason: Genetics.


    • April 8, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Possibly, but I don’t think that even 1% of people who are capable of becoming mathematicians actually do, so that’s certainly not the only thing going on.


    • Ctrl-Alt-Del
      April 9, 2012 at 2:10 am

      1. What about genetics?
      2. And why is it the most important reason?


  3. April 8, 2012 at 10:09 am

    It seems like your post morphs into an argument toward promoting mathematical reasoning for all people, those with enriched training and otherwise, rather than specifically toward getting and keeping women in math. At my college, this is a guiding philosophy of our department: in our gen ed courses, even humanities majors are required to read their textbooks (carefully chosen ones, of course) and answer questions that require a modicum of mathematical reasoning. What is sad is that virtually all of my really smart majors have virtually zero mathematical reasoning ability upon arrival. Such skills should not be relegated to math camps — unfortunately, standardized tests are testing the wrong stuff, so this won’t change in the near future.

    My current office is set up so my students work right outside for hours each day. I can see them interact, and it is amazing how differently some of the women students behave depending on whether there are men students present. Not all of the women change, and those that don’t are much stronger students (in fact, my strongest) than those that do. My sample size is way too small for me to assert correlation between this personality trait and mathematical ability, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I continue to see this in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. April 8, 2012 at 11:42 am

    You know, now it’s happening that most universities in America are switching their intro CS course over to Python. At least, I know that’s how it is at all the universities I’m personally associated with (Cal Poly State, UI Chicago) and the big names (MIT, Berkeley, CMU, Harvey Mudd).

    I’ve also heard that this book is really big on investigating the cultural differences between men and women, specifically to when, why and whether they’re interested in computer science. http://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Clubhouse-Computing-Jane-Margolis/dp/0262133989

    From what I understand she makes three major points: First, women love the idea of computer science because they love the huge breadth of interesting problems it can solve or give insight into. Second, men love computer science because they love tinkering with things, and so they’ll spend all day messing with the details of an xml parser written in Javascript simply because they like taking things apart and putting them back together. Third, the CS courses in undergraduate and secondary schools appeal to the latter but not the former.

    This was certainly my experience in learning programming: I was let loose to create my own ideas and explore the world of programming. I’m not saying this doesn’t work for women, I’m sure it does because there were at least two csbabes in my class. I think more women might be interested if it focused on solving tangible problems, like how to use programs to handle music, or how to use programs to tell a story on an iPad, or how to use programs to analyze gene sequences. Obviously some of these problems are too advanced, but there’s always simple enough problems for a beginner to work on that are still interesting.


  5. April 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I also had a mathematician dad, and I also went to HCSSIM math camp, so we have a lot in common! I agree with everything in your post. Being a mathematician’s daughter both meant 1) I knew a mathematician was something you COULD grow up to be and 2) I assumed it was somehow natural that I was good at it: I was my father’s daughter. But it was at math camp that I suddenly started seeing myself as a “math person”, i.e. when being good at math became part of my identity. It also was comforting that so many people at math camp seemed better at it than me- I preferred, socially, to be good enough to be in the group, but not lonely out in front. So: that social piece is huge for teenage girls (probably boys as well, but I will speak to what I know 🙂 For me, my identity as a math person didn’t come particularly gendered: I loved being a girl, I loved being a math person, but I didn’t really see the intersection of those two classes as interesting (There are track and field stars in college who like pottery, that doesn’t make then “pottery athletes” (!). I was a girl, I was a nerd, but I wasn’t invested in any way in being a “nerd girl”: it wasn’t until grad school where suddenly, externally, everyone wanted to focus on my gender, either for better or for worse, and everyone seemed to think of me as a “female mathematician” while my male friends got to be “mathematicians”, not “male mathematicians”). But notice that just because I had no problem seeing myself as a math person, didn’t mean I wasn’t a weird hyper-socially aware teenage girl who needed a social pack in math camp of fellow nerds to feel comfortable.

    Many teenage girls are hyper-aware/feel a lot of social pressure to conform to “girl” activities, and often math and computer science are not included in the list of acceptable pursuits. Having a mathematician in the family (of either gender) can make this a “family” acceptable activity and thus provide some shelter. While I personally never ever would have wanted a “computer scientist Barbie” I am so glad there now is one because it is saying that society says it’s ok for girls to like this stuff. I agree that there are many many young women out there who would love math and computer science if they were exposed, and if the culture supported these as socially cool pursuits for teenage girls. Lots more good things in this post about the college level that I’d love to comment on, but this is getting super long so I’ll stop here. I’ll just say that what Maria Klawe has done at Harvey Mudd that you talk about at the end of your post is really awesome


  6. JSE
    April 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    “It is reminiscent of the “Introduction to Proofs” class which I started with Karen Edwards and Sara Robinson in 1993 at UC Berkeley as an undergrad and which is still going, as well as the class I started at in 2006 at Barnard College, which is also still going.”

    And “Numbers, Equations, and Proofs,” which I started at Princeton in 2002 and which is still going as well. Though here’s an interview with a dude who was an ace math competition dude and found the course so hard as to drive him out of the math major! So maybe it’s no longer as “for everyone” as I designed it to be….



  7. April 8, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    One thing we do at Girls’ Angle is create a kind of family where girls who don’t have a mathematician relative in effect get one (actually, several). The girls work directly with mathematicians, and especially, women in mathematics, as well as meet many professional women who use math in their work. Also, we’re aware that some girls are concerned about their “reputation,” so we’re careful not to put photos of the girls on our website and when we refer to members in our magazine, we use pseudonyms.

    (Unfortunately, not posting photos probably hurts us in terms of fundraising. And, for the record, I don’t regard any of our members as having any of the undesirable qualities associated with the word “nerd.”)


  8. novembertwentyeleven
    April 9, 2012 at 2:07 am

    I learned to love science first, then math, after watching 2001: A space odyssey. I am not a mathematician but I love reading about math and figuring things out using it.


  9. majordomo
    April 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I’ve seen many situations where at least one parent is a mathematician, and the male child also becomes a mathematician, but the female child (or children) does not. What’s going on there ? Children of both genders in families like these are exposed to the same environment, yet only the males become interested in mathematics.

    I’ve also seen several situations where even when both male and female siblings of mathematical parents become mathematicians, the male sibling is usually the more successful/distinguished mathematician, with the female sibling being the less talented of the two. Again, why ?


  10. Jeffery
    April 13, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Did you go to PROMYS?


  11. Salviati
    April 13, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Having grown up in suburbia I have observed the reluctance of girls being seen as being “good at math”. Now as a teacher in an urban setting what I am finding is that this phenomena is reversed. Girls are generally the best students, are quite proud to be seen as nerds without there being any repercussions regarding their reputation.

    The problem is that these girls simply do not have access to these camps and are desperately under-prepared relative to their suburban predominantly white/asian peers.
    What do you think should be done to appeal more to girls in the urban setting.


  12. akismet-df6488415c314fc77e406d6e9c436b43
    April 13, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Well, start for not calling them “nerds”; for kids that word is uncool and is associated with “boring stuff”; call them “geeks” or something a little more appealing to the masses.


  13. Arquitecto Instruccional
    April 13, 2012 at 11:48 am

    It goes back to females selecting the fittest male traits for procreation. Females would not want to hang out with male nerds and geeks if they do not deem them worthy. By hanging out with the nerds and geeks, the female acclimates to the traits and increases her chances with the male nerd/geek for offsprings with those traits. The only proof to invalidate this is if large population of Victorian Secret models start having sex with male nerds and geeks.


    • April 13, 2012 at 11:53 am

      I’m hoping this is a joke.


      • Jeffery
        April 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm

        I think this disparaging of math and science nerds is kind of an American thing. Part of the problem is that this country has historically managed to attract some of the best scientists and engineers in the world. A disproportionate amount of science and engineering is done by immigrants in this country. This unfortunately makes science/engineering a profession associated with immigrants, who are generally low status in any country. Real Americans are like Sarah Palin 🙂


  14. April 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    More comments over at Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3836440


  15. stilishbabe
    April 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I want my future kids to be nerds! Math, chemistry ,everything scientific! I never understood these subjects and I kinda hate my brain for that! i don’t want my daughter to be the slave of the society :”be pretty and stupid!” I want an ‘i don’t give a fuck about what you’re saying,I just love my job!’ 🙂


  16. Ray
    April 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Cathy, thanks so much for writing this. My parents also both have advanced degrees in the sciences. I’m not a girl, so the same challenges I faced weren’t nearly as daunting as the ones you overcame, but I am a failed nerd, so this piece still resonated very deeply with me.

    When I was in high school, I couldn’t even conceive of the idea of “math camp.” My senior year, I took an AP Calculus class where if you could multiply the exponent by the coefficient and then subtract one from exponent without making any arithmetic errors, you got an A. In the margins of my first-year math placement exam at the University of Chicago, I literally begged to be let into Math 161-2-3 (Honors Calculus); I felt like an appeal to the examiner’s emotions was my only chance, because I had no idea how to prove whatever the exam had asked me to prove. Because of all those easy As in computational classes in high school, being good at math had become part of my identity, and I was desperate to protect it from the threat of being placed into 150s.

    Unfortunately, this worked. 160s ended up being a pretty traumatizing experience for me. My high school’s math department had made some effort to teach me what a proof was, in the context of systems of parallel lines back in 9th grade geometry, but that stuff wasn’t in the same phylum as what I was being asked to do on my first problem set in 161 (“prove that the product of two negative numbers is a positive number”). On multiple occasions, I literally cried myself to sleep over homework problems that I had no idea how to being to solve. I ended up getting the “gentleman’s C-” and kissing goodbye to my ambitions of studying CS or some other physical science.

    I drifted off into a political science major and fell forward through law school, and I’ve been practicing law for a few months now, but I still spend a lot of my time wondering whether, if things had gone just a little differently, I could have been poised to learn something useful and make an actual contribution to the progress of mankind, instead of just being a transaction cost.


  17. asteroidtiger
    May 18, 2012 at 4:53 am

    I always wished I could be a girl nerd, but was conscious of not being smart enough. I read biographies of mathematicians when I was a kid. The mathematicians all seemed to have shown special talent when they were young, and I hadn’t. My parents were not very academic and I hadn’t even heard of math camps before I went to university. So the math-campers, with math olympiad medals, were extremely intimidating to me, and it is interesting to read your point of view.

    I kept majoring in math, but I was very shy around other students and the lecturers. When it came time to apply for grad school, I was too afraid to ask for recommendation letters, and so I did my PhD locally. I wonder if it might have helped to have known a mathematician personally earlier. In hindsight, I think the gap between me and better students was relatively small when I started university, but it was compounded at each step by the learning opportunities I missed because I was so intimidated. The smarter students studied in groups while I muddled along on my own. Now I realize they were learning to collaborate – I only really started trying to do this when I was a postdoc. I spent so much time when I was a postdoc reading articles, not so much to learn and get ideas, but to check that what I was working on was new, and to try and figure out if people would find it interesting. A bolder person would have just asked people and made much quicker progress.

    So I quit trying to be a mathematician after my first postdoc – I felt anxious all the time about not being good enough and not getting results quickly enough, and I found it hard moving to a new country so it was a stressful time for me. Now, even though I loved doing my PhD at the time, I regret studying mathematics for so long, when I wasn’t really good enough to make a career out of it. It’s been really hard starting over now and I wish I’d been a bit more practical.


    • May 18, 2012 at 5:57 am

      Wow, I wish there were better mentoring systems for people like you. It makes me mad there aren’t.



  18. May 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Hi Cathy,

    I just wanted to say (in case I forget to mention it at work) that I am really enjoying your blog and writing. As someone who grew up doing intensive ballet and gymnastics from the age of five to fifteen, surrounded by the “girliest” of girls, I find it always to be an interesting challenge to balance both sides of my persona and brain. Many times it can be extremely frustrating to be a girl in the field, even in young programs like hackNY, (which is not to say I am not extremely grateful to be a fellows). Worse yet, I find that often male students in CS (contrary to your positive math camp experience) can be belittling, and even downright rude to female students.

    I didn’t start doing compsci at all until last spring, and the hurdles that you mentioned are very true about the CS curriculum (esp. at Columbia). I heard they are transitioning to teaching the intro classes in Python now, though.



  19. Josie
    September 1, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    There is such thing as math camp? WHY HAVE I NOT HEARD ABOUT THIS SOONER?!??! Thank you so much for enlightening me. too bad summer is almost over. I’ll have to wait until next year.


    • Jeffery
      September 2, 2013 at 6:55 am

      There are lots of math camps. I went to PROMYS at BU for 2 summers. They have a sister program in Ohio. I’m sure there are others I haven’t heard about. I met some incredibly smart people and learned a ton. It was my first introduction to a lot of more advanced proof techniques like diagonalization. It was also my first introduction to Mathematica and using computers to do mathematical research. It played a major part in me deciding to major in math in college.


  1. April 12, 2012 at 7:10 am
  2. April 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm
  3. November 25, 2012 at 11:41 am
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: