broadsideblog

Women Shut Out Of STEM Jobs (Science, Technology, Math and Engineering) — While This Year's Intel Winner Is A Girl

In education, science, Technology, women on March 27, 2010 at 8:24 am
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The report released this week, “Why So Few?” says it all — women remain under-represented in the STEM fields, filled — no coincidence — with growing opportunities and good salaries.

Reported The New York Times:

The report found ample evidence of continuing cultural bias. One study of postdoctoral applicants, for example, found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals, or 20 more in less-known publications, to be judged as productive as male applicants.

Making judgments about an individual’s abilities based on his or her sex is a classic form of discrimination, said Nancy Hopkins, an M.I.T. biology professor who created an academic stir in the 1990s by documenting pervasive, but largely unintentional, discrimination against women at the university.

Even if male math geniuses outnumbered female geniuses 3 to 1, Dr. Hopkins said, it would be reasonable to expect one female math professor for every three male professors at places like Harvard and M.I.T. “But in fact, Harvard just tenured its first female, after 375 years,” said Dr. Hopkins.

Tom Friedman attended the banquet celebrating this year’s 40 Intel science contest winners.

The contest identifies and honors the top math and science high school students in America.

Wrote Friedman:

Seriously, ESPN or MTV should broadcast the Intel finals live. All of the 40 finalists are introduced, with little stories about their lives and aspirations. Then the winners of the nine best projects are announced. And finally, with great drama, the overall winner of the $100,000 award for the best project of the 40 is identified. This year it was Erika Alden DeBenedictis of New Mexico for developing a software navigation system that would enable spacecraft to more efficiently “travel through the solar system.” After her name was called, she was swarmed by her fellow competitor-geeks.

Gotta say, it was the most inspiring evening I’ve had in D.C. in 20 years.

Erika, 18, from Albuquerque, already has her own homepage. Here’s the Intel description of her work.

I loved the video on Intel’s site, in which the female competitors enthuse about their work: “It’s just a completely different way of thinking about the contribution I can make to the world”; “I fell in love with science when I realized how many unanswered questions have yet to be answered”; “I like being on the edge of things.”

If you’re not encouraged — by books, films, mentors, parents, friends, teachers, neighbors, let alone the culture at large — how can we succeed? In my recent post about sexism in journalism, a young college student studying computer science commented on the hostile and sexist climate she faces in the classroom from male students. Even the smartest, toughest, most creative and determined among us can shrivel in the face of such glacial, threatened behavior.

Teachers and professors, take note!

I adored biology and wanted to study it in university and my teacher in senior year discouraged me. I would only have taken one class, from the pure love of it, but he warned me it would be too hard. I regret not doing it and I regret listening to him.

My youngest half-brother won such a prestigious prize in high school — in 1999 — for his work on MRSA. The international reception he received was quite extraordinary: a world-famous scientist took him under her wing; he was flown all over the U.S. to lecture and speak, a major Toronto hospital wanted to patent his work. Doors swung wide open, fast, to some of the most powerful and accomplished contacts imaginable. He had not even started college.

He doesn’t work in science, and left it behind to focus on peace and conflict studies.

Talented, hardworking girls and women in STEM fields need — and deserve — this sort of welcome and encouragement.

I’m in awe of women studying, and working, in STEM. They’re our future.

  1. We in the muddle-headed male community stand with our brilliant sisters in solidarity against the technical professions that discriminate against us both.

  2. Tell me more about this. How have you felt the discrimination?

    Or…because I missed your irony (sorry!) last time…are you kidding?

    • Oh, yeah, sorry. I was kidding, not to make light of the issue but to make light of myself. Far from discrimination, the fact that I never made it as a rocket scientist deserves credit that life as we know it continues on this continent.

  3. Check this old TED talk out.

    If you like smart women and biology, Bonnie Brassler will make you swoon: http://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html

  4. John, thanks. Have you ever attended TED? I haven’t.

  5. There is more at work here than just discrimination. Girls opt out of many science and math programs starting in high school. This, despite all the efforts to encourage girls to fields such as math and science.

    I don’t know why this is. There is something deeply cultural and maybe even biological going on here. I say this knowing that I have two daughters who are interested in what their daddy does. I want them to do well at whatever they choose in life. This worries me.

  6. Jake, it’s said — if you read Friedman’s NYT column about the Intel winners that a lot of parental support and encouragement is key to getting young girls interested in science and math and technology. I wonder if teachers also have a powerful influence as well, whether actively discouraging bright girls and/or not calling on them in class, sending a signal they are less competent. I noticed that the Intel winner attended what sounded like a private school and I think a single-sex education might make a difference as boys could not dominate those classes and teachers and role models would be mostly female.

    I wonder how much girls dread the social isolation of being a “geek” or “nerd”, tough enough labels for guys…?

    • Just from my own experience being a nerd in high school, it was very difficult. I had to isolate myself from most of the other kids to pursue what I wanted. Most of my classmates had no idea what I was doing and after a while I realized that I might as well have been trying to teach my cat what this stuff was all about.

      Many others I know in science and technology backgrounds will relate similar stories.

      If this is cultural, it might explain a great deal. Such isolation may be even more difficult for girls than it is for boys. Single sex education may help, though I still wonder if such isolation is the same for girls as it is for boys.

      On a positive side, there are increasing numbers of girls who seem to find nerdliness fashionable –even to the point where there are nerd wannabees. Maybe the tide is turning.

    • I guess I was lucky, since both of my parents (and several of my extended family) are engineers. I’m going to marry an engineer, and I hope to have engineer babies years down the line.

      My dad used to say, when I was a pre-knee gummer, that the best way to keep me focused and not getting into things was to sit with a set of colored balls. These were the magic counting balls, that I would count, add and subtract at his whim. And then try to eat them and throw them at his sister’s dog, y’know kid stuff.

      I had a teacher, whom I will never forget, my 3rd grade teacher, who got mad that I already knew how to work with numbers. I finished the workbooks months ahead because I was bored to death. She called my mother mad because she had nothing else to teach me and it was obviously my fault because I was making her look bad. My mother came to the school with some pre-algebra workbooks and said, “let her beat her head against the walls with this.” Any surprise that my favorite subjects are language study and calculus? (Now I need to dig out some of my textbooks, I’m going into partial derivative withdrawals)

      As to the labeling, I was in marching band in high school, I don’t think there was any question that I was a geek. Hence, I wear my screen-name with pride.

  7. Jake, thanks. The larger question is why the culture – whether in grade and high school – is so stupidly anti-intellectual…?! It seems that acceptance to MIT or CalTech or Carnegie Mellon are very considerable and enviable accomplishments and STEM jobs appear both plentiful and well-paid. I’ve often thought engineering or computer science really need ( only sort of kidding) some pop culture street cred to become better known and cool — Has there ever been a film or TV show (ie cool aspirational characters) where the star is an engineer or CS expert or a scientist? No; cops, dr’s, lawyers….zzzzz.

    If we were scientifically literate, which we are woefully not, maybe this might change. I do feel very sure, having attended all-girl private school Grades 4 to 9 that being smart is the best choice in that world, as it is not when boys and social and sexual competition enter the picture. As you may know, Smith College started an engineering program designed for women.

    Sarah, you’re so lucky to have had so ferocious and demanding a Mom! If excellence isn’t expected, we’re toast. I think engineering is such an interesting field and am in awe of anyone comfy with math. Some people think
    writng ( which it is) is difficult — but I often envy those of you with aptitude for and love of STEM subjects.

    • Have you ever watched the show Numb3rs? It was on CBS for a while (not sure if it still is). It was about a math prodigy who helps his FBI brother pinpoint perps using math. That show was my crack while I was in high school.

  8. I never saw it…sounds fun. I think in Freaks and Geeks (a great cancelled show), the Mathletes were the cool kids.

    The day young women, or any women, are celebrated for their brains instead of their other anatomical features seems so very, very, very far away, off in some distant galaxy — which maybe some female astronomer will discover.

  9. I don’t see why doing STEM subjects is the only measure of intellect in a girl. I am and have been a whiz at math, took all three sciences through high school but decided to take English Lit as a major. Not because I could not do medical science or engineering if I wanted (got a 93% overall) but because I have a passion for writing, for social justice and a bunch of humanitarian causes. I plan to do a law degree after I graduate and work on glaringly obvious issues (like gender equality) that our society needs to resolve. Is this not “success” too?

  10. Areej, I think success is as you choose to define it. I mean no disrespect to English majors — I was one — or anyone passionate about non-STEM work.

    But it’s BS when smart, skilled women are, for a variety of reasons, either shut out or self-selecting away from fields where they can use their skills, engage their passion, do good work. You’re fortunate indeed to be talented in all these fields and face an embarrassment of riches when it’s time to choose a career — or your first one, anway.

  11. Thanks for the post.

    About a year ago I saw a video on the internet of a panel discussion about science education. Towards the end of it, they took questions from the audience. One person stood up and snidely asked about, “the Summers question.” Neil de Grasse Tyson asked to be allowed to answer it and gave a brilliant answer. Starting with, “I’ve never been a woman, but I’ve been black my whole life,” he went on to detail the million little ways, both subtle and not so subtle, in which people push children towards goals seen to me more in keeping with society’s expectations.

    After a couple of decades I’m still angry about having been discouraged from going into engineering when I was young. I was equally good at traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine pursuits, so it wasn’t a difficult push at the time.

    I recall one of my high school math teachers told me on the first day of class, “Girls like you can’t do math.” I got a “D” in that class, but I went on to take three subsequent math classes, two at the college level, and got an “A” in all of them. I’m tempted to conclude that, at least in my case, learning environment plays a tremendous role.

    My closest female friend in college was a physics major and later went on to get her Ph.D. While she was in grad school she would regularly call me on the phone, sometimes in tears, because she said that it was like going to school in a locker room.

    My sister went to an all-girls college and there may be something to be said for that. We need to realize that we’re not simply asking female STEM students to be good at their fields, but we’re asking them to be emotionally secure, stable and mature. Frankly, I am not at all thick skinned. I would have crumbled under the discomfort my friend experienced. I suppose that it’s some consolation that I could be a support for her.

    In my experience, most men are not bad at all and it’s a minority who are the source of the problem. If I could make a plea to the men who do not feel uncomfortable studying and working with women, when some one in your midst says something sexist, speak up. Your silence in the face of sexist behavior will be mistaken as approval.

    I’m disappointed that Jake, who surely means well, is so quick to resort to the “biological” argument. Perhaps it’s easier to hide one’s eye’s, but I will tell you in my case, I did not choose a feminine career eagerly. I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to choose a masculine one.

    Lastly, I was listening to some old podcasts including one of a science news magazine from December 2008. They mentioned that the number of women studying in STEM fields in Canada, the country from which the podcast originates, had declined 15% since 2000. During the same time, men’s enrollment had declined very slightly in the pure sciences and increased slightly in engineering.

    Sorry to be so wordy.

  12. Thanks for your story…How true! And why exactly is it acceptable for any teacher or professor to discourage a girl or young woman as you were?! Let alone the issue your friend faced — the locker room. I also lay blame for this squarely at the feet of every professor who doesn’t bother making sure women feel 100 percent welcome in their classrooms and in discussion and argument. Women must fight hard for their right to be well-educated and feeling so excluded is totally distracting and demoralizing.

    I agree that succeeding can be, sadly ( what a waste of your talent and passion) as much being so bloody-minded and Teflon-coating your psyche as innate skill, hard work or aptitude. I may be perversely lucky I was so bullied verbally by guys in high school — when it happened in the workplace I saw it and called it or stood up to it.

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