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Sci and Tech Hears Women in STEM

Rob Boisseau
Number 98 - July 27, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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On July 21, the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education put women’s participation in the sciences in the spotlight. 

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) opened the hearing saying, “Over the past decades, girls and women have made substantial gains in breaking down barriers in both education and the workforce.  However, women’s participation rates in certain STEM disciplines remain disproportionately low.  According to NSF, although women earned more than half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2006, they earned only about 20% of degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics.”

This figure is supported by numbers compiled by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, viewable here.

Lipinski went on to say that “We know that women can face unique challenges throughout the STEM pipeline,” and that “… more can be done to encourage women in these fields.”

Ranking member, Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) echoed Lipinski’s sentiment, calling math and science education “essential to the future of American economic competitiveness” and declaring that the “lack of female participation in these areas is a great hindrance that must be remedied.”  Ehlers also voiced his “dismay” that women only make up 21 percent of physics bachelor’s degrees.

Hearing witnesses included Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); Marcia Kropf, COO of Girls Incorporated; Sandra Hanson, Professor of Sociology at Catholic University; Barbara Bogue, Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics and Women in Engineering at Penn State College of Engineering; and Cherryl Thomas, President of Ardmore Associates LLC, a construction management company. 

Leshner offered an overview of AAAS’ efforts in this area, and reviewed the current state of women in the sciences, perhaps best surmised by his exclamation that, “The gap is real, the gap exists.”  Leshner explained that while “At K-12 levels the participation gaps between males and females have disappeared,” in many science and math courses “some serious challenges remain” including science and math education standards that are “way too low for all students.”  

Leshner later discussed the end of the science pipeline saying, “It’s more problematic that even when women do pursue science degrees many leave the scientific workforce because of a lack of career opportunities that enable them to do a better job balancing having a career and a life outside the laboratory.  Fortunately there have been some, but frankly too few federal programs as well as changes in culture in some institutions to change this.”

Kropf’s organization, Girls Incorporated, has received NSF funding and has served over 750,000 young women.  Kropf argued that “substantial gaps remain,” and encouraged support for the NSF’s informal education programs, federal support for teacher development in informal and gender equity teaching, and the application of Title IX, which has become shorthand for women’s athletics, but actually forbids gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Hanson discussed the status of research dealing with gender in science education which she says dismisses the “myth” that boys are innately more interested and better at science and math than girls.  Hanson contends that a shift begins as early as second grade when girls move away from a science, or math focus.  Hanson also described a study of science textbooks which found that images of male scientists outnumber women 2 to 1.

Bogue suggested that “the federal government should require meaningful assessment of funding activities aimed toward the goal of broadening participation.”  Bogue offered Title IX reviews conducted by NASA as a model.  Bogue also argued for greater research through the NSF, climate studies that could uncover stealth barriers for women in engineering like unwelcoming classrooms, or lack of accommodations.   

Thomas offered her life story as indicative of challenges facing women in engineering.  Addressing the topic of challenges attracting and retaining women in the sciences, Thomas discussed the impact of “exposure at an early age, encouragement and nurturing of ideas, the pervasive tendency to promote the sciences as career fields for boys and men, although medicine is the exception to this rule.”

During an abbreviated question and answer session, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) asked, “how do we incorporate in an informal education way, dealing with the underrepresented groups in the STEM fields, and how do we get to young women, especially African American women… and what best practices can we use?”  Respondents suggested one-on-one time with women practitioners and more resources for laboratories and field trips in schools serving underrepresented populations.

Lipinski asked why female representation in some fields like physics and computer science was so low.  Leshner suggested an “absence of highly visible role models” was partially responsible.

Ehlers drew on Lipinski’s point when he asked why female representation in the sciences in the United States lags behind other post-industrial societies.  Hanson suggested a number of factors including different school models in other countries, universal access to medicine, and a different concept of work/life balance.  Bogue interjected that, “With role models, it’s very important to understand that there are very negative role models out there too.  If you have people in science, engineering, and mathematics who are demonstrating to people that there is no life outside of those fields, or who are representing it in that way, then that really is a big discouragement factor for students.”

Rob Boisseau
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rboissea@aip.org
301-209-3094