Girls and science: Are we unconsciously sticking to outdated stereotypes?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  March 26, 2010 12:52 PM

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My 10-year-old niece just got accepted to a competitive magnet middle school with a science and pre-engineering focus. She's excited about the projects, field trips, and lab time, and her interest in science has always been supported by her parents and teachers. It's tempting to take that kind of encouragement for granted, but a new study shows that when it comes to kids and science education, parents and teachers may be unconsciously clinging to stereotypes -- contributing to way women continue to lag behind men in science and technological fields.

In an AAUW report called "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," researchers found that environmental and social barriers -- including stereotypes, gender bias, and the attitudes and environment women face in college science and engineering departments -- limit women's advancement in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

According to a AAUW panel discussion about the report (you can listen in here), one factor is that girls, especially in middle and high school, tend to try to hew to stereotypes of femininity -- ones that still consider science and math to be male domains. Those stereotypes "can lower girls' aspirations for science and engineering careers over time," the report, which was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, said.

The stereotypes stay in place as the children grow, and in adulthood women are hit with a double whammy: Not only are math, science, engineering, and technology fields associated with men, women who succeed in so-called masculine fields are seen in a negative light. It's a familiar Catch 22 for many working women: If you're nice, you're incompetent, but if you're clearly successful in your work, you're "less likeable."

We now know that girls are as capable in math as boys are -- according to data from the US Department of Education, girls are taking high school math courses at the same rate as boys (and earning slightly higher grades). Simply reminding students that both boys and girls can do well seems to have an impact in their test scores, the AAUW study shows, "illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls' achievement in math."

Parents, what do you think? Are we unconsciously pushing our girls to avoid "male" subjects like math and science? If so, how to explain the fact that women are becoming more prominent in other traditionally male fields, like medicine and law?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

 

 

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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5 comments so far...
  1. Personally, I'm not, but I'm an engineer, as are several of my friends, so my daughter has some great role models in that department. However, I know SO many women (who are otherwise intelligent and thoughtful) who throw out comments like "oh, I cant' do math" or "I always hated science class", so even if their daughters *were* interested, they get negative role models. It's sad.

    Posted by akmom March 26, 10 07:37 PM
  1. Here's a quote from a recent issue of Dartmouth Medicine Magazine: "A word of advice for applicants to the DMS Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine (PEMM): When Alan Eastman asks about your hobbies, don't talk about your love of travel or the latest addition to your stamp collection. "Your answer is supposed to be research," says Eastman, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology. "If your research is not your hobby, you'll only work 9:00 to 5:00. You cannot do research working 9:00 to 5:00." This is why I dropped out of science. I was always encouraged by my family and teachers but once into a Ph.D. program, I looked at the lives of the women scientists around me and balked. I found it completely incompatible with the type of life I wanted to lead and how I wanted to parent. While the men scientists generally had wives who either worked for them in their labs or were stay at home moms, it was rare to see a female prof with her own lab who also had children. Those few who did either had au pairs or parents living with them. I could understand putting in the required hours (similar to what doctors and lawyers do) if the financial reward was there but for me, it was too big a sacrifice for too little (and uncertain grant dependent) money. I still work in a science related field, but am no longer a scientist.

    Posted by glassceiling March 28, 10 09:22 AM
  1. I'm an engineer also. I don't have children but have some real experience in this area. Back in the day neither my parents nor the school system wanted me to use the science and math talent in college. Eventually I put myself through school when I was older.

    I think families and school systems have to actively counter the negatives for female students who want to explore science and math.

    As far as being considered less likeable, as far as I can tell there are a million reasons for being called less likeable in public schools. Your child may as well be less likable, if that is in fact true, for a good reason and she will have opportunities to make friends with other like-minded kids, both boys and girls.

    Finally, I can tell you that almost all the women who went to engineering school with me became happily married to men. There were two who were not interested in dating or marriage. I don't have any facts but my experience is that women engineers get married, and stay married, at rates way above the national average across all women.

    Posted by Green-Mountain-Views March 28, 10 10:33 AM
  1. The barrier is not in elementary or secondary school, not in most undergraduate programs, it starts in graduate school. After 30 years of experience I am moving to a more people-centered career because of the institutional old-boy trash still in place.

    The previous commenter pointed out that research is not a 9-to-5 job. Very true. It requires the experience to stop working when you know you have done an honest job, NOT when your supervisor says that all the work has been done. I have seen many people burn out in their 30's because they didn't know how to do this.

    Women in science face many barriers at the career level. There appears to be an unconscious mindset from some male lab chiefs that women are there to work like labrats. Other male lab chiefs are smarter and value their female staff for their hard work and persistence at the more boring aspects of the work.

    Engineers seem to have escaped this to some extent. They are expected to work smart from the beginning, and so they escape some of the dead ends that women scientists are still facing.

    My personal experience in 2004-2006 was that my lab work was handed to male staff for them to develop and publish. The exclusion factors there were that I did not have a doctoral degree in physics and that I did not speak Mandarin.

    This is one example of other barriers in the workplace that women must know how to deal with--no I don't mean that we learn Mandarin, I mean that we engage with grant funding agencies to stop this kind of trash. They have the power of the purse that HR officers cannot refuse to consider.

    So at the same time that girls are learning their science and math, they need to be taking part in political activities to learn how to navigate power systems to their advantage.

    Posted by Irene March 29, 10 10:24 AM
  1. Not in our home where my husband went to MIT and both of us would love nothing more than to see E go to MIT as well.

    Our standard is also that our children have completed Bio, Chem and Physics and Calculus before graduating high school.

    Posted by c March 29, 10 04:06 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Personally, I'm not, but I'm an engineer, as are several of my friends, so my daughter has some great role models in that department. However, I know SO many women (who are otherwise intelligent and thoughtful) who throw out comments like "oh, I cant' do math" or "I always hated science class", so even if their daughters *were* interested, they get negative role models. It's sad.

    Posted by akmom March 26, 10 07:37 PM
  1. Here's a quote from a recent issue of Dartmouth Medicine Magazine: "A word of advice for applicants to the DMS Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine (PEMM): When Alan Eastman asks about your hobbies, don't talk about your love of travel or the latest addition to your stamp collection. "Your answer is supposed to be research," says Eastman, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology. "If your research is not your hobby, you'll only work 9:00 to 5:00. You cannot do research working 9:00 to 5:00." This is why I dropped out of science. I was always encouraged by my family and teachers but once into a Ph.D. program, I looked at the lives of the women scientists around me and balked. I found it completely incompatible with the type of life I wanted to lead and how I wanted to parent. While the men scientists generally had wives who either worked for them in their labs or were stay at home moms, it was rare to see a female prof with her own lab who also had children. Those few who did either had au pairs or parents living with them. I could understand putting in the required hours (similar to what doctors and lawyers do) if the financial reward was there but for me, it was too big a sacrifice for too little (and uncertain grant dependent) money. I still work in a science related field, but am no longer a scientist.

    Posted by glassceiling March 28, 10 09:22 AM
  1. I'm an engineer also. I don't have children but have some real experience in this area. Back in the day neither my parents nor the school system wanted me to use the science and math talent in college. Eventually I put myself through school when I was older.

    I think families and school systems have to actively counter the negatives for female students who want to explore science and math.

    As far as being considered less likeable, as far as I can tell there are a million reasons for being called less likeable in public schools. Your child may as well be less likable, if that is in fact true, for a good reason and she will have opportunities to make friends with other like-minded kids, both boys and girls.

    Finally, I can tell you that almost all the women who went to engineering school with me became happily married to men. There were two who were not interested in dating or marriage. I don't have any facts but my experience is that women engineers get married, and stay married, at rates way above the national average across all women.

    Posted by Green-Mountain-Views March 28, 10 10:33 AM
  1. The barrier is not in elementary or secondary school, not in most undergraduate programs, it starts in graduate school. After 30 years of experience I am moving to a more people-centered career because of the institutional old-boy trash still in place.

    The previous commenter pointed out that research is not a 9-to-5 job. Very true. It requires the experience to stop working when you know you have done an honest job, NOT when your supervisor says that all the work has been done. I have seen many people burn out in their 30's because they didn't know how to do this.

    Women in science face many barriers at the career level. There appears to be an unconscious mindset from some male lab chiefs that women are there to work like labrats. Other male lab chiefs are smarter and value their female staff for their hard work and persistence at the more boring aspects of the work.

    Engineers seem to have escaped this to some extent. They are expected to work smart from the beginning, and so they escape some of the dead ends that women scientists are still facing.

    My personal experience in 2004-2006 was that my lab work was handed to male staff for them to develop and publish. The exclusion factors there were that I did not have a doctoral degree in physics and that I did not speak Mandarin.

    This is one example of other barriers in the workplace that women must know how to deal with--no I don't mean that we learn Mandarin, I mean that we engage with grant funding agencies to stop this kind of trash. They have the power of the purse that HR officers cannot refuse to consider.

    So at the same time that girls are learning their science and math, they need to be taking part in political activities to learn how to navigate power systems to their advantage.

    Posted by Irene March 29, 10 10:24 AM
  1. Not in our home where my husband went to MIT and both of us would love nothing more than to see E go to MIT as well.

    Our standard is also that our children have completed Bio, Chem and Physics and Calculus before graduating high school.

    Posted by c March 29, 10 04:06 PM
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