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Saturday, August 18, 2012

No girls in the history bee

So I was sitting on the couch looking for something to watch on tv and came upon "the history bee", on The History Channel.  Apparently it's a national competition for middle-schoolers or something.  And there were 8 kids competing, and all of them were boys.

First of all, I want to make it clear I don't actually know anything about what "the history bee" is or how it works, but that's not really relevant to this discussion.

Oh and I don't really think this is such a big deal by itself (it totally doesn't matter to me what goes down in the history bee)- but it's a symptom of a larger problem.

Image source.

So, keeping that in mind, here we go:

I was surprised that, out of the 8 kids, there were no girls.  Ironically enough, if there was 1 girl and 7 boys, I wouldn't have thought anything of it.  I'm an electrical engineering student- that's pretty much the ratio I encounter all the time.  Totally normal.

When I point out that "oh, that's odd, none of them are girls", it's not because I'm angry about it.  I'm not accusing anyone of anything.  I'm just noticing something that seems kind of strange and must have an explanation.

I'm not blaming it on the boys who were there on tv, in the competition.  I'm not like "oh you did something bad, you don't deserve to be here."  No, I'm sure they all have studied a lot and do deserve to be there.

I'm not blaming it on whoever's in charge of the competition.  I don't know how they picked their contestants, but I'm sure it's some way that makes sense, whatever it is.  I totally DON'T think they should have done something to make it easier for female students.  In fact, never ever suggest anything like that to me.  I won my share of math awards in high school, and anyone who tries to connect that with the fact that I'm a girl deserves to be punched in the face.  Or to at least have me monologue at them for a while.

No, I don't think there were no girls in the history bee because some bad person somewhere is sexist.  I think it's something about American culture.

And I think that's why we have to talk about racism and sexism and stuff.  Because people aren't doing it on purpose.  There are attitudes and assumptions perpetuated in our culture, and people don't realize them, but they are real and they are harmful.  So let's call these things out when we see them.

So let's speculate about the history bee.  Because theoretically, it would be half male and half female, varying a bit from year to year, following a normal(ish) distribution, right?  So that means something weird is going on- there must be a reason there were no girls.  If it really was a 50/50 chance, then the odds of getting all 8 boys is (1/2)^8 = 1/256.  (Odds of 7 boys, 1 girl is 8C1*(1/2)^8 = 1/32.  Let me know if you want me to calculate any other probabilities.)

Maybe girls tend to be naturally less driven and competitive and obsessed with history.  If so, then isn't it unfair to have a competition that favors students with more "male-ish" qualities?  Eh, I don't think so.  I mean, you can set up whatever contest you want- who cares?  Unless it's like "this contest will find the student who is THE BEST AT HISTORY."  But that's ridiculous- it's obvious that to win you have to know a lot of history and be good at dealing with the structure of the competition.  No one thinks the winner is by definition "the best at history."

Maybe boys are encouraged more to do this kind of thing.  By their parents, teachers, and culture in general.  So, if that's the case, then how do we address that?  Because that's totally not fair- a hypothetical male student and female student with equal ability get treated differently.

It's embedded in the culture.  It's not easy to change that.  Maybe you need to have special programs to particularly target girls and encourage them to, you know, pursue the things that they're good at.  There are a lot of things I don't like about this solution, but hey, there's no perfect solution.

So that's all I have to say about that.  I guess I have mostly questions and speculation, no answers.  Feel free to add your own speculations.

And if anyone wants to talk about the creepy alien hunter shows on The History Channel, I'm up for that too.

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