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!