Why so few women in science? What’s not being said.

Today, the journal, Inside Higher Ed, released a report titled “Seeking advice on women in science.”

The report summarized yesterday’s  hearing of the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. The hearing focused on that age-old question of how to find ways to attract more female science students.

The fact that women are underrepresented in a number of STEM fields shows itself in the proportions of degrees granted to each gender. In 2006, women earned 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, but only 20 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees, 21 percent of physics degrees and 20 percent of engineering degrees, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

Why should women care about this? Rep. Vern Elhers summed it up nicely:

“The jobs of the future are going to require of workers a basic understanding of the principles of math and science. If we do not persuade women to pursue these fields, they are already [risking] cutting themselves out of a great job future,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI).

What we’re talking about here are jobs in physics and engineering. Let’s not dismiss the other science areas where women outnumber men:

A recent National Science Foundation report found that women hold more than half of science and technology degrees, with women earning 77 percent of psychology degrees, 62 percent of biological sciences degrees, and 54 percent of social sciences degrees.

This should help increase our knowledge about women’s health. And, in doing the math, I’m thinking those women psychologists are counseling quite a few male engineers and physicists, no? And why aren’t the guys holding conferences to find ways to get more boys interested in psychology and social sciences?

Let’s see where this bifurcation started, shall we? The majority of boys and girls in fourth grade like science (70 percent ) but by the eighth grade, boys like science, technology, engineering and math  (STEM) TWICE as much as females. I bet TWICE as many girls in 8th grade like, say, activities closely associated to psychology (talking), social science, and biology.

Here’s where they mystery begins:

The problems with — and thus, possibly the solutions for — getting female students involved in science begin at an early age. Sandra Hanson, professor of sociology at Catholic University and a researcher on women in science, said that the culture of science is often associated with white men. When a study asked little kids to draw pictures of scientists, she said, they often drew white males. When they did draw women, the women looked “severe and unhappy.”

Were they nerdy white males, by any chance?  We’ll get to that point later. If one of the factors has to do with getting more girls into the pipeline at an early age, we should look at the data for a minute. Nearly 15 years ago, the issue of women in science was examined in detail and one point that emerged (then seemed to be buried again) is the Pipeline Myth, articulated by then Chief Scientist of NASA, France Cordova (quite a remarkable gal):

The feminist critique of science has lately focused on a popular concept that frames our dialog, and some of our actions, on increasing the number of women in science: They call this The Pipeline Myth, AKA The Myth of Steady Progress. How often have we heard that all we need to change this institution or that one is to get more women into the pipeline?

“We thought all you had to do was get more women into the pool –into graduate schools and tenure-track positions –and automatically they would move into the faculty and into industry, and so on. We were naive.” Neurobiologist Neena Schwartz

Read Cordova’s full presentation . It’s enlightening.  Back to the hearing:

Hanson, along with the other witnesses and subcommittee member Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) agreed that a link between STEM fields and athletics is beneficial. By participating in athletics, female students learn to assert themselves, act as individuals, and stand up for themselves — skills that keep girls from allowing themselves to be deterred from STEM fields.

Let’s not forget cheerleading and dancing, which is how I learned to assert myself. So it’s about getting girls into the pipeline and encouraging them to be assertive. But, this is all a bit confusing. First of all, if the Pipeline Myth is accurate, we should be careful about pushing so many girls into a dreamy pipeline that dumps them into the real world. The fact is, if you want to earn a Masters or Ph.D. something’s got to give. You might have children later, you might be in debt up to your eyeballs for years. But what about the sports and assertiveness point? I’m going to guess that those little kids who drew scientists as white men probably didn’t also draw them as strapping athletes. In other words, and I’ll just say this, scientists are almost always depicted as complete and utter whimpy nerds. Are girls intimidated by science nerds? No. Are they intimidated by the complex organizational academic, professional and societal structures that make it less complicated for men to excel in the “hard” sciences, and other areas? Probably, with good reason. But let’s just say that and not set up an unfair situation where little Johnny gets leveled so Suzie can feel empowered. Or pretend that prime reproductive years don’t compete with prime Ph.D. years. And, as Dr. Anne Petersen, once put it: “Breaking away from the traditional [female] role-model with a sense of exhilaration and authority, rather than a sense of guilt, [is] not always easy.”

During the same 1995 presentation on Women In Science, Dr. Petersen–former deputy director of the NSF and former VP of the Kellogg Foundation–addressed that elephant in the corner. (Anne and I met a few months ago in D.C. She told me she had been a cheerleader and even created a science cheer.)

Here’s what Anne had to say (read full text here):

Our society is also only beginning to appreciate the true complexity surrounding issues of family and child rearing. In a report I co-authored with Phame Camarena and Mark Stemmler, we found that young women still expect to play a larger role in family responsibilities than do young men.

If we went around the room today, we’d undoubtedly find a few hundred stories that each shed new light on this issue. I recall a friend telling me that we kid ourselves into believing that child care duties can be split 50/50. They really require 110 percent from each parent.

My husband and I were determined to do it all and not slow down after our daughter was born. We went so far as to develop an elaborate changing of the guards system of child care. Every day, we would meet at the train station — the “IC” as its known on Chicago’s South Side. One of us would carry Christy in a tummy pack, and we would hand off the pack as we passed each other at the turnstiles. I’m sure we were quite a sight.

As unique as our system was, I’ve realized that being a woman scientist is no different from being a women in any professional field. When I compare notes with friends who are in law or business, the issues are the same; they just use different terms. Instead of worrying about how having a family will affect their chances at getting tenure, they worry about how it will affect making partner. We worry about publish or perish; they worry about billable hours. We need to get our proposal in; they need to meet their sales quotas or their court deadlines.

In the end, the solution to our leadership lies within ourselves for ourselves. We who have climbed the steep slopes by clawing and hanging-on, should not demand this as initiation for those that follow. Rather, we need to provide a web of support, encouragement, and example. We must nurture, guide, and teach. We must reach down to girls and young women and show them a path paved with encouragement. And this effort will only be enhanced by the participation of our male colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more women as engineers. Toilets would be much better. There’d be no reason to lift the pretty paisley seat.  Car chassis would be about two feet higher to allow for proper exiting-while-in-a-skirt and to eradicate front-end damage due to unforeseen potholes, assuming the 360-degree bumpers didn’t prevent the minor collision that could have cost my husband, say, $1,850 in repairs (hypothetically speaking).

Cheers!