Apr 3, 2011

Women in Science: Negative Results!

The topic of gender representation in scientific disciplines is usually an extremely complicated one. Women tend to be underrepresented inside scientific disciplines as a whole, particularly in mature roles, but the difference might be actually much more remarkable, or in some other instances vanish entirely, after we narrow the target to specific domains.

Over the past half-century, initiatives to recruit and promote women to go after professions in the sciences have been completely effective, but they have not been distributed. Around 1966, for instance, most women made just a 1 fourth of the undergraduate biology diplomas awarded inside the U.S. By the year 2007, women out numbered men, obtaining sixty percent of such identical degrees. In physics, although, these figures have scarcely budged, with the percentage of undergraduate qualifications received by women growing from fourteen percent to simply twenty one percent on the identical time frame. The particular issue, obviously, is "why?"

Most recently released research indicates really small difference in physics-related expertise between genders-not sufficient to describe the huge participation gaps.[1] Hence what exactly is trying to keep girls away from physics? Is it as Dr. Tilghman proposes, that women only do not pick out to put their particular efforts into physics mainly because they think they can make a better contribution in another place? Or perhaps, maybe women aren't attracted due to the fact they usually do not see how research fits with their desire to work with persons, as was recently contended by Claire Cupples, the Dean of Science at Simon Fraser University.

These could possibly seem like comforting explanations-no splendour, no stereotyping, merely choice-but they really are also too basic.

What influences students’ decisions to go after physics?

As early as the eighth grade, the interest that students show in science is among the preferred approaches to predict no matter if they are going to go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in science, a link which is even additional necessary than their mathematics achievement at the very same age.

Individual interest isn’t, still, the only factor. Students’ belief in their own abilities is particularly necessary. Students with high self-efficacy, confidence in their capacity to succeed at particular tasks, tend to comprehend physics far better and accomplish better grades. This makes a great deal of sense-if students don’t think they have the capability to master new ideas and issues, it is quick to see why they might not persevere in trying to understanding hard concepts. This relationship is accurate for both male and female students, but female students tend to think in themselves much less, contributing to the difficulties they can encounter in physics.

Parents, teachers and peers also have strong influences on students’ perceptions of their own abilities, affecting students' career and degree options. In one study, students were followed from age 12 to age 24. Researchers asked the students and their parents about the student's math and science interests, abilities and career aspirations. They discovered that the a lot more mothers believed in their children’s science and math abilities in grade 7, the far more likely those students had been to pursue careers in science at age 24. Peers can have a comparable impact, supporting or eroding students’ belief in their own abilities. In a different study, rural girls who were recognized as talented in science had been strongly influenced by the recognition and support they received from their peers. These social influences can be troubling because parents, teachers and even peers commonly have stereotypical views of interest and capacity in science, views that tend to favor male students.

Together, studies like these illustrate how challenging it truly is to pinpoint a single cause for the underrepresentation of females in physics. There are actually elements of interest and self-confidence, but also complicated social pressures. With these challenges in mind, what is necessary just isn't acquiescence but continued looking for solutions. We still have to have to know what may be done to support and encourage students, and girls in specific, to pursue careers and graduate studies in physics.

Typically, the techniques that come to mind for encouraging female students contain supplying positive female science role models, developing opportunities for collaborative group work, and discussing the lives of female scientists. We were really surprised, though, that none of these usual solutions had an effect on the physics identities of the students in our study. Female students who skilled them had been no far more likely than others to have strong or weak identities in physics.

There was only one classroom experience that had a uniquely strong impact on female students: the explicit discussion of underrepresentation of girls in science. This isn’t just highlighting females scientists like Marie Curie but instead talking directly about the fact that you can find few females in physics. Female students who had experienced these discussions in their high school classes had considerably stronger physics identities. And further, these discussions had no impact on male students. In other words, for students who experienced explicit discussion of female underrepresentation in physics the possible physics career gap was decreased.Social influences are still very vital for determining if students will pursue a career in physics. Student's opinions are far from fixed, and great science teachers can have an very important effect on their students' physics identities. Most importantly, teachers who did some thing as simple as acknowledging the gender imbalance in physics might be enough to support encourage female students toward a physics career.

Further reading and references in [1]


  1. Our values simply do not support the idea that women should pursue a career in science. I still see Victoria Secret commercials during family TV show breaks, and movies with the woman's goal of getting a man by looking beautiful. Also, look at the Royal Wedding coming up. Oh young girls, we must marry a wealthy prince! Who is going to encourage women to do research or study just for the sake of obtaining knowledge when what we are encouraged to do is to find a wealthy and/or handsome man to marry. No wonder women spend a lot of time on makeup and clothes.

  2. For another perspective on "choice" determining women's representation in science, see: http://girlwpen.com/?p=2269

  3. Another shocking revelation for me a few years ago was that women scientists are paid less than their male counterparts........may it be academia/industry/government jobs. Is there a valid argument to support this discrimination!??? I doubt it!

  4. I believe that the main reasoning behind women getting lower salaries than their male peers is that women potentially spend less time working than men due to family obligations and therefore should not be paid as much. Also, the idea that they are secondary bread winners is still prevalent despite the fact that this has changed significantly due to the recent economic downturn.

  5. @Melissa and Sane: and probably that's another reason why women decides not to choose scientific careers....sadly...

  6. Thanks for that subject. I had to also convince many that a career in science for a women would be a good future. It really has been thus far. However, not without challenges of balancing career and family. In my past years, I have had comments from some that I should be home with the kids and the sacrifice was challenging. I have managed to do both though. One of my son's is now in college!

  7. In my personal experience, I had to actively confront my mother to go and study physics! She wanted me to do more "down to earth" studies...
    Fortunately I never listened to her!

  8. As a scientist and engineer many years ago, I faced discriminatory and harrassment behavior wherever I went. I told my daughter that I wished I had gone to law school, or had at least taken some law school classes so that I would have at least known my rights. I guess after years of complaining about my career, my daughter, who had won many awards for her science projects in high school, decided to go pre-law. She is an attorney now. I think that young women who are interested in science or engineering should take a class or workshop in law as it applies to human resources

  9. In my college classes, there were plenty of women in all of my classes if not the majority. However, my experience in the science employment sector has me wondering where all those women went now that I graduated with. I think there should be a great push for more women scientist mentors to encourage and instruct new female scientist. I would have personally enjoyed being able to talk about personal issues that can arise in this field associated with having a family and also talk about how to achieve in this field. It was not until my last semester of college did I have a great professor who took the time to explain what I need to do to pursue my career goals. Besides her, I had little knowledge of how to navigate in the scientific world and it almost made me switch to a different field. I hope that more women scientist take the time to mentor and encourage so this statistic will men and women become more equal

  10. I am sorry you were subjected to that treatment, Regina. Not so long ago my then-boss attended a meeting of AMS, and the presenter included a slide of a sexually harassing nature, and she was appalled, naturally, and let the organizers know. And she is not what you might call a rabble-rouser, in fact quite traditional and conservative in many respects, but she once remarked to me how she saw sexual harassment everywhere. The institute where I subsequently worked was predominately male and I regret that I never asked any of the female researchers, what's it like to work in this environment? Another time, the executive secretary, quite a dynamic woman,brought to me from the stacks a twenty-year old edition of Who's Who In Black America and asked me if I could find a more up-to-date version. "Because I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm the only black person here." I ordered the book, but I've always regretted that I never asked her "Say more. Tell me what that's like for you."

  11. I think the recession has had a huge impact on the job environment of women, especially those in science and engineering. The competition for jobs now may have produced an envious attitude toward anyone who even has a job. In my literature review for my dissertation on online mentoring by women professionals, I read that in some cases, women don't even offer to mentor other women, because of the fear that the other women will be promoted, or worse, replace them. I am pointing this sad situation out because I think that women today in all professions need to see the current reality. There will probably be no mentors out there, male or female, and there will probably be discriminatory behavior. (I and others my age are now experiencing age discrimination, too.) Women need to see this reality and learn how to deal with it. That is why I recommend that the universities be required to teach courses in law as it relates to the workplace and hiring. These courses might give women what to do when bad situations arise. As women gain more confidence in dealing with these situations, maybe their daughters will also have more confidence in entering and staying in a male environment. Other things that I propose to keep women in the workplace are (1) more flex-time, (2) inexpensive day care, and (3) liberal maternity leave for both men and women. But again, the reality is that businesses and government will be pressed for funds during this recession, so, as women, we should be prepared to face a workplace without any help, to use common sense in bad situations, to change jobs if necessary, and to understand our rights.