The New York Times has published a series of articles and commentaries on the relatively small number of women and girls who pursue scientific careers. This September 3, 2013 article offers an overview of the problem and some of its possible origins.
Mystery of the Missing Women in Science
Female students are catching up or surpassing male counterparts in math and science, yet the fields like engineering and computer science remain male dominated.
The article’s author, Natalie Angier, notes that whereas girls and boys are similar with respect to competence in math and science, boys express intent to pursue technical careers in greater numbers than do girls. Women are attracted to, or at least wind up in education and healthcare fields, where salaries are lower than in science and engineering. The reasons for all this are complex and not well understood. To her credit, Angier acknowledges that understanding girls’ disinterest in technical careers requires a consideration of both psychological and contextual factors. She observes,
In seeking to explain girls’ persistent aversion to science, researchers argue that standard surveys won’t reveal hidden impulses or negative thoughts. People may say they consider women the equals of men, but as Jo Handelsman and her colleagues at Yale University reported last year, simply substituting the name Jennifer for John lowered both men’s and women’s estimation of an aspiring scientist’s résumé.
Small details can have serious consequences. Women do worse on standardized math tests when asked to indicate their sex. When they are told men and women do equally well on such tests, their performance improves. Students show greater gains when they are taught that the mind, like a muscle, gets stronger with work, as opposed to being told that talents are fixed and you’re born either quick or slow.
Writing about “Women and the Maths Problem” in 2012, Helen Powell proposed that the explanation may lie not in the adverse effects of “stereotype threat,” but in the fact that girls think that mathematics is boring.
New York based author Emma Keller provided a blog post on “Gender and Science: Why the Gender Gap Persists and What to Do About It” that provides some suggestions for those who want to help their daughters develop and maintain their enthusiasm for mathematics and science.