In your junior high science classes, how many female scientific pioneers were in your textbook? I doubt that there were more than a handful.
In freshmen geometry class, did you learn about any famous female mathematicians? Probably not. I did not know about Sally Ride until I graduated from high school and even today, I could not tell you about any legendary female mathematicians.
Pioneering women have been historically absent from all school subjects, not just science and mathematics, since the dawn of the schoolhouse.
Even these days, when more women are going to college than men in this country, there remains a lack of women entering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career fields. The reasons for the interest gap are complicated, according to Christi Corbett, senior researcher for the American Association of University of Women.
“The direction of scientific inquiry is influenced by the people doing the work,” Corbett told me over the phone. Women comprise only 20% of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science fields. One can infer that women must then only make about 20% of the decisions in, say, scientific research.
Corbett helped compile Why So Few?—a comprehensive report that tries to solve why so few women are entering STEM fields. According to the studies in the report, there are still stereotypes which discourage girls from applying themselves towards STEM careers; girls tend to assess their abilities in STEM fields lower than boys do, even when they have similar scores; and girls tend to go into ‘helping’ professions (e.g. nursing), rather than higher-paying jobs in STEM fields that do not get as much recognition for helping others (e.g. engineering).
These girls’ lack of confidence and lack of encouragement by others even contributes to the gender wage gap, because STEM careers tend to have higher salaries than careers in social sciences and humanities.
“If there aren’t any women in STEM fields then there are ideas aren’t being brought to the table,” Christi Corbett said.
So what’s being done to solve this problem? In the past year, the United States government has taken the initiative to plan new STEM projects and fund existing programs. I would have loved to have been a part of their new NASA G.I.R.L.S. program when I was younger!
AAUW is launching two of their STEM programs nationwide: Tech Savvy and Tech Trek. Tech Savvy is a conference that provides a day of workshops to sixth-to ninth-grade girls and their parents. Tech Trek takes 12-13 year old girls to college campuses, offering interactive classes and field trips with women professionals, offering real-life role-models to girls interested in the STEM fields.
It seems that though the shift to more female scientists and engineers may be slower than other fields women have infiltrated, it is improving.
“It’s nice to see that things are changing,” Corbett commented. “Women have infiltrated in all the majors and now they are finally beginning to see STEM role models.”
The efforts made to ensure that more girls enter these fields should be heavily supported, because an increase in high-paying STEM workers means a smarter nation and a wealthier nation.