Phi Beta Cons

Reader Mail re: Women in Science

Carol and/or Robert–When I was in physics grad school (MS in 1984), there were perhaps five female graduate students among the 100 grad students in the program at the university, and I suspect that 25 years later the numbers have hardly changed. Looking farther down the pipeline, there were very few female physics undergraduates. And even if the female/male ratio in high school AP Physics classes is close to 1, it’s because the many of those girls are intent on entering medical school or the life sciences, not physics, engineering, or computer science. Clearly, the vast majority of girls are already well on their ways in their intellectual development away from the hard sciences.
I see this as our culture’s fault–parents, especially mothers, push their girls towards traditional “girly” interests like fashion and celebrity, since they didn’t enjoy math or science in school themselves, and the cycle repeats. There are relatively few “nerdy” role models for girls, beyond “Amita Ramanujan” from the TV show Numb3rs and the female forensic investigators from the various CSI franchises. Otherwise, our culture presents very different messages to girls and boys. But if parents don’t encourage their girls to take apart a toaster oven to figure out how it works, to peer through a telescope at the night sky, or wonder how the software behind “Webkins” makes that imaginary world work, is it any wonder that more girls leak out of the science amd technology pipeline than boys? Our education system offers girls equal opportunities as boys, and perhaps even more encouragement, but still this difference in outcomes persists. Sadly, this will not be addressed by federally-mandated tenure quotas or more daycare.

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