5 Ways Society Sabotages Girls’ Interest In Science And Math

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Unless you have lived under a rock with no Internet or mobile data connection, you know science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are vital career pathways of the future. However, STEM is often not the chosen pathway for minorities and girls. In a previous Forbes essay, I documented that many minorities avoid science because of cultural perceptions about what is considered a “successful” career, limited mentors, lack of exposure to the “fun” of science, and stereotypes. Dr. Nicole Joseph is an Assistant Professor of mathematics and science education at Vanderbilt University. She recently delivered a thought-provoking lecture at the University of Georgia-hosted workshop called “Navigating STEM.” Her lecture inspired me to explore five reasons girls avoid entry into STEM-related fields.

Girl Scouts at a USDA science event.

USDA

Before diving as deeply as 1400 words will allow, let’s document the problem. According to the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation (NSF) website:

The percentage of female science and engineering (S&E) workers continues to be lowest in engineering, where women constituted 15% of the workforce in 2015….Other disproportionately male S&E occupations include physical scientists (28% women) and computer and mathematical scientists (26% women). Within computer and mathematical sciences occupations, the largest component, computer and information scientists, has a smaller proportion of women (24%) compared with the mathematical scientists component, which is closer to parity (43% women).

For additional data, I consulted the National Girls Collaborative Project website:

  • Though half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, women account for only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.
  • In 2013, women held a little over half the bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences but other disciplines were much lower: computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43.1%).
  • Based on 2016 data from the NSF, women are over-represented in the social sciences-related careers (62%) as compared to the physical or natural sciences.

While not an expert on this nor a woman, I am deeply concerned because: (1) it is a societal problem based on decades of inertia, (2) exclusion of any major segment of society limits ideas or innovation, and (3) I have a 15-year old daughter interested in science.

Imagery. Here is your first assignment: Take a minute and search the Internet using “I’m too pretty to do math.” What you will find are t-shirts, memes, and other merchandise targeting girls or women. Such messaging reinforces antiquated notions of gender roles. Dr. Barb Mayes Boustead is a meteorologist and instructor with the National Weather Service. She told me by email:

Sexism is still strong in our society. You don’t have to look farther than the pink “girl” toy aisles or marketing of airplanes and science fiction to boys to see it. Children internalize from very early ages what being a girl (or boy) is “supposed” to look like. We should focus as much on preschool teachers as on college professors to help children start reinforcing early and often that a child of any gender can be interested in and succeed in anything.

In 2011, a major retail store pulled a shirt that said, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Scholars have shown that these narratives shape how college-aged girls view math and science. Sian Beilock, writing in Psychology Today, summarized a key finding from a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:

when women think about romance, they become less interested in studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. College-age men, however, can get interested in romance without any impact on their engagement with math and science.

Self-fulling prophecy.  Such imagery can have an unintended consequence of leading to self-fulfilling prophecy. As an African-American male raised by a single mother, there were all kinds of societal signals that suggested that I could only fail, do crime, play sports, or dream of being an atmospheric scientist. I attacked that narrative head on to prevent my own self-fulfilling prophecy, but they are real. It drives me nuts to hear a parent say, “I am not a math person so my kids probably will not be either.” Math is not a hereditary trait. It requires interest, aptitude and the willingness to work at it. Sadly, it is not just parents. Eileen Pollack wrote in the New York Times about teachers that said girls were not good at STEM or needed “girl” curves when grading.

Lack of Mentors. Minority scientists, including myself, have reported that having mentors that “look like them” or even just seeing examples of other minority scientists is critical for recruitment and retention. Professor Joseph cited statistics confirming that the number of women in mathematics has remained flat for decades. The numbers can partly be attributed to pipeline issues. However, retention of girls is a major impediment to progress also. Mentorship, inclusive environments, and removal of institutional barriers to success metrics (promotion processes, pay raises, and awards ) because “life norms” happen (childcare, maternity leave) are also required. I recently learned of the Women in Science organization at my university. This organization, created by two ecology doctoral candidates, is exactly the type of resource that will move the needle. Joseph also spoke of the importance of networks and community building in her lecture. Her March for Black Women and Girls in STEM (picture below) is another great example, particularly since these challenges are even more acute within communities of color.

Having to Prove Something. Did you see the movie Hidden Figures? This movie did wonders for exposing the world to three African American women in STEM fields and their contributions to the U.S. Space Program. In the movie, the women constantly had to overcome stereotypes and perceptions. Professor Joseph told me that nothing is different today:

Several factors contribute to black girls access and retention in mathematics. In the K-12 system, some teachers take up societal stereotypes about Black girls, such as them being too loud or too talkative, and view these behaviors as in appropriate for math learning. We know that black girls suffer harsher discipline in schools as a result of teachers not understanding deep black girlhood.

I have a very bright 15 year-old daughter that does well in school. She wants to be a Pharmacologist one day (for now). Joseph’s point hits home because my wife and I observed subtle examples of this over the years with our daughter because of her confidence, mature body, and willingness to share her opinions.

Joseph also added that in higher education (and probably the corporate world too) women, especially black women, are spending emotional labor proving they “belong” to men or majority groups. You might be surprised at how often women or people from a marginalized group feel their job performance, speech, or appearance reflects on their entire peer group. It shouldn’t be that way, but I can assure you this is a very real phenomenon.

Conveying the Value of STEM. My colleague Professor Kecia Thomas pointed out something that may not be obvious but is very important. Many girls, particularly those from marginalized groups, may not see the value of STEM or frankly, may have more pressing concerns. Thomas argues that more attention is needed in “personalizing” STEM value rather than hammering home STEM, STEM, and more STEM without context. Thomas, Senior Associate Dean in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychology, has thought about issues of diversity and inclusion for many years. She shared this perspective:

In short, much of STEM hasn’t communicated its value to minority populations and women of color in particular. When your ‘hygiene needs’ aren’t met, much of what we see about STEM might seem frivolous or having impacts so far down the road the outcomes and products aren’t improving one’s quality of life anytime soon. This might explain the drift to professional schools over the bench sciences.

As a climate scientist, I resonate with her point and often make a similar argument to colleagues. We cannot just inundate the public with more temperature trends, maps of changing rainfall patterns or models. We must personalize climate change impacts and link them to people’s value systems.

Thomas noted that colorblindness, micro aggressions, and unintentional actions by well-meaning dominant groups can also be challenging. For example, an accomplished scholar might actually be insulted after a lecture by this well-meaning compliment, “You are so articulate or well-spoken.” What did you expect from a person with a doctorate and years of in-depth training and presentations within her field? My former NASA colleague Lisa May is an accomplished engineer for a major aerospace company. She messaged me with this frustration, “The most alienating aspect of STEM education was the feeling that my contributions are supplementary to those of all the men who’ve already figured it all out.”

Nashville community members march from the Wyatt steps to Alumni Hall for more representation of black women in STEM, on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Nicole Joseph



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