Girls and Science: Pursuing a Dream

With dreams of majoring in biomedical engineering and a transcript including AP Biology and AP Physics, senior Emma Yanakiev is prepared for a future in science. As the general trend in history has shown men tend to be the dominant gender in the field. Women interested in pursuing the sciences were not always encouraged to do so.

“I find that people are more encouraging and enthusiastic when they find out that I’m interested in pursuing science as a girl,” Yanakiev said. “I think a lot more emphasis has been placed on diversifying the field in the past few years.”

According to the National Science Foundation’s recently published statistics, women’s participation in engineering and computer science remains below 30%. Men are earning a higher proportion of degrees in many science and engineering fields, yet more women than men graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree.

Statistics such as these, along with simple observations of the science field have prompted the question and the title of a recent New York Times article, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?”

According to Seaholm science teacher Renee Moore, this doesn’t even seem to be a question.

“I would like to think the times have changed and the stereotypes are not as extensive as they used to be,” Moore said. “In high school the percentage of females in advanced science courses was very low. As an educator I do not see that to be the norm anymore.”

As a woman in the field, Moore never felt singled out.

“In the area of Geology and in courses requiring fieldwork, I was one of the only females in the classes,” Moore said. “But the ratio of women to men in the life sciences was more balanced. Never did I feel any discrimination during any of my education.”

Seaholm science teacher Holly Minoletti had similar views on potential gender discrimination.

“It was equal or slightly more women in most of my classes,” Minoletti said. “It was either equal or more women, and then in medical school I think there were about 52% women.”

“I don’t feel like we have less opportunity in the field,” Minoletti said. “I think there might be specific sciences where there may be more women.”

John Ross, current graduate student in environmental engineering at Marquette University has witnessed the effects of the gender gap.

“There are about 10 graduate students in the environmental engineering program at Marquette and all are male,” Ross said. “I have heard that about 25% of Undergraduate Civil Engineering students are women and I feel like that is pretty accurate to what I encountered as an undergrad.”

Women are evidently capable of success in the science field, so what accounts for the stereotypical gender discrimination?

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s October 2012 article, “Why STEM Fields Still Don’t Draw More Women” included the testimonies of professors and directors of admission from well known science-based universities.

Matt McGann, director of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was in search of answers to similar questions.

“I am often saddened and occasionally infuriated by the experiences of these extraordinary women, who have faced obstacles, subtle and overt, in their pursuit of science and math education,” McGann stated in the recent article.

However, McGann stated he was hopeful for the future, as he helped enroll a student body in which 45% of undergraduates are women, along with 44% of the school’s STEM students being female.

Also in the Chronicle’s article, Jan Cuny, program director of the National Science Foundation’s Computing Education for the 21st Century, weighed in on the topic with a focus on the paucity of women in computer science.

“The gender gap in computer science is partly rooted in long-held popular misconceptions: that computing is too hard for girls, that it’s geeky, that it requires a single-minded 24/7 focus, and—maybe worst of all—that computer science equals programming and so provides little benefit to society,” Cuny said. “Why would this picture be attractive to girls—especially to girls who want to be creative, to make a difference, to change the world?”

Cuny believes that “girls rarely get the encouragement they may need to overcome their hesitancies and try computing, and when they do find themselves in a computing course, they are often uncomfortable in the male-dominated climate they encounter.”

Although the percentage of women intending to major in computer science is .3%, Cuny believes there are many possibilities for the future.

“We can change all of this, but the fixes won’t be quick or easy,” Cuny said. “There have been successes. Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, and Harvey Mudd College, to name a few, have changed the cultural climate and had remarkable success in recruiting and retaining female computer-science students.”

The stereotypes of women being incapable of scientific endeavors are assumed to be buried in the past, yet this isn’t the reality.

“I have heard stories from some of my female friends who said they were discouraged from entering the sciences by crusty, grumpy old male professors,” Ross said. “This to me is just outrageous.”

Seaholm senior, Melissa Shiner, believes females are a dominant force in the science field and intends to further pursue a career as a Pediatric Oncologist.

“In my AP Biology class, the students who earned a majority of the highest grades were girls,” Shiner said. “I have observed first hand that girls tend to be better at science and math.”

All in all, it seems to be true that those who work hard to achieve their goals, regardless of gender, are the ones who succeed in the field.

“I am in science education and many of my female friends are in the sciences also,” Moore said. “We have not seen a lack of opportunities, as we set our goal and worked toward it.”

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