Why scientists normally aren’t women

We read two short stories from Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett this week. We met Antonia in The Behavior of the Hawkweeds, and we met Sarah Anne and Catherine in Rare Bird. We found these women to be science-minded and perhaps more intelligent than their male family members. However, all three of them were trapped in a world that did not want to hear their scientific perspectives. When I reflected on these short stories, I couldn’t help but think about society today. How are the Sarah Anne’s of our generation doing?

My older sister is a material science engineer. She recently complained to me that in her lab of fifty students, she was one of two girls. The girl to boy ratio is clearly amiss here, and unfortunately it just gets worse after graduation. As many as 20% of women who get an engineering degree choose to pursue a non-engineering career. Women have made huge strides as doctors, lawyers, and business women, but the fact is women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The American Association of University Women published a study in 2010 to address the question: Why So Few? View the report here: http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/whysofew.cfm. The findings break down the reasons for the lack of women in STEM careers into three categories.

1. Fewer girls are interested in STEM fields because of social and environmental factors.

-Girls who are told that boys are better at math than girls are more likely to underperform on math tests.

-Girls assess their math abilities lower than boys with the similar math abilities.

-Girls believe they have to be exceptional at math to succeed or even consider a STEM career.

2. The college environment does not encourage female STEM students.

-Research demonstrates that women faculty in STEM fields at universities are less satisfied with their academic workplace and much more likely to leave it early in their careers.

-There is a shortage of female mentors in STEM fields.

3. Biases, often unconscious, are an obstacle for success.

-People often perceive women scientists and engineers to be less competent than men at their  “masculine” jobs unless their success at work is very clearly demonstrated.

-People think successful women are unlikeable. Women can’t win in the face of a biased workplace!

So there you have it. A woman who wants to be a scientist still has a lot to overcome.  What can we do to mitigate the problems that stop girls from going into STEM careers? (I’m so glad you asked)

Teachers: Don’t suggest with words or gestures that boys are better at math and science than girls.

Colleges: Connect girls with female mentors. Support a healthy balance between work and family life for female faculty.

Workplaces: Raise awareness about biases. Evaluate success with transparent and objective measures.

Everyone: Encourage the women in your life who are scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Let’s even the playing field!



~ by marysciencewriting on February 10, 2012.

2 Responses to “Why scientists normally aren’t women”

  1. You provide very intriguing analysis of the lack of women in the workplace. I did notice a recurrence in Andrea Barrett’s stories: a woman protagonist who was sort of an outcast because of her affinity toward science. An important aspect of their alienation, I believe, has a lot to do with the language of the time. Take for example the term “bluestocking.” A word like this certainly attaches a stigma to women in the field of science. You bring up a similar point about how in today’s time, there are still negative associations with female scientists.

    I think the most important point you bring up; however, is the language concerning the abilities of female scientists. “People often perceive women scientists and engineers to be less competent than men at their “masculine” jobs unless their success at work is very clearly demonstrated.” Again, the core of this problem is in the language. First, Science is perceived as a “masculine” career. This implies that science is inherently meant for men. “Less competent unless their success at work is very clearly demonstrated,” implies that women have to prove themselves in order to be considered comparable to men. Overall, this means that women have to work harder to prove equality with men who have done nothing to deserve credibility.

    While this claim seems morally wrong, it is not necessarily a reason (or the main reason) to admonish the current view of women becoming scientists. I think there are practical disadvantages to this view as well. The one thing I wish you had done in your analysis is provided an argument for the increase of women in science that wasn’t based in the moral wrongs of social inequity. For example, I believe that an increase in women in the field of science would progress the field faster than it is progressing now. It’s sort of like the DNA video we watched– the more people competing, the faster things are discovered. This is really why I have a problem with the language concerning women’s abilities. I believe my basic assumption that “more is better” is not diminished by the prospects of an increase in women. If everyone accepted this principle, it would cause society to ignore gender. Thus, if society ignored gender, than the social barriers to women would no longer exist.

    I don’t think equality can be achieved by applying the “this is morally wrong” argument. Not that this isn’t a valid argument, I just think that providing a practical purpose to social equity is a more effective way of erasing social barriers–including language. If the way we think about social inequity ceases to be related to the rhetoric of gender, gender is erased as a barrier, and thus equity is achieved.

    I loved that you brought this issue up though!

  2. Thank you so much for commenting! It was great to get such thoughtful feedback. I agree, perhaps emphasis on the practical purpose for more scientists would drive a greater percentage of women into science careers. Either way, this issue definitely has a lot of variables affecting it!

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