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Hindi Kornbluth

The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art

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Will making rockstars out of women in science get more girls interested in science/technology/engineering/math (i.e. STEM) fields?

This week in my bioelectricity class, my classmates and I realized that this was the first engineering class any of us had ever taken where there were more women than men enrolled. We also realized that for most of us, this class, taught by TED fellow Nina Tandon, was the first engineering class we had taken to be taught by a female professor.

Finding ways to close the gender gap in science/technology/engineering/math (i.e. STEM) fields is a hot topic, and there are many discussions out there highlighting the many forces that could be at work: gender-biasing in toys, a culture that tends to oversexualize women (see: the “40 Hottest Women in Tech” list published by Complex Magazine earlier this year), or links between a society’s gender equality and female performance in the sciences. Particularly interesting is the recent finding that 15-year-old girls around the world outperform boys in science, but not in the US, Britain, and Canada.

Thinking back to Nina’s class, I wondered if we could use this class as a microcosm and ask, might we be able to get more interested in STEM fields by providing more female role models?

The potential role models are out there: women from history, like Ada Lovelace, arguably the world’s first computer programmer, and Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the structure of DNA. There’s Lise Meitner, who helped discover nuclear fission, and Emelie Du Chatelet, who predicted the existence of infrared radiation and proved that kinetic energy was proportional to v^2. For more modern inspirations, see: http://blog.ted.com/2012/07/03/more-than-75-tedtalks-showing-women-in-science-and-tech/

In 2009, the NSF reported that than 20% of engineering students were women, out of almost 500,000 students in total. Inspiring young women to go into engineering in equal numbers to men would translate to the education of another 300,000 engineers in the United States alone. How do we make this happen?


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    Apr 11 2013: hi Hindi

    Thanks for this conversation. As a women in STEM, I agree that having visible role models does make a difference - I didn't have that many contemporary female role models when I started my career. This is better now, but there is more to do!

    As you highlighted I think one must strike a delicate balance between "making rock stars" and sexualising. We only need to look at the recent Science: It's a girl thing! video to see an example of where it goes wrong.

    I try to give lots of science talks to school children so that they get exposed to women in science early, and to discuss my path to science and research wherever I can. A fellow TED STEM woman and I, Lucianne Walkowicz also have a discussion about inclusion and equity within our university - but how might one go about increasing this, or making it happen on a larger scale?

    What "rock-star" qualities will you emphasise, and at what cost? Do you think this should happen on a 'per-person' basis or are you thinking of something collective, like STEM twitter lists etc., which may go some of the way? Do you think it is more important to see a large number of women in STEM, or concentrate on a few specific people? I'm intrigued to hear more...
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      Apr 11 2013: Hi Renee!

      Perhaps rock-star wasn't the most precise word (ah, the cost of a punchy title). I was thinking more along the lines of the way science. at its best, can been celebrated in popular culture. The mass production of posters with Albert Einstein's face on it, or more recently the way Nikola Tesla has been made into somewhat of a science idol (thanks in part to success of Matthew Inman at the Oatmeal's infographic: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla). Or how Brian Cox at CERN (an actual rock-star scientist!) hosts science television programs and has risen to fame. There really aren't any female scientists that are celebrated in this manner, despite their huge contributions to science and, in some cases, rich life stories!

      I think it's important to see a large number of women in STEM (or at least, larger than we have now), not just to get more people in general into STEM, but also because our current track record points to a conclusion that something is happening along the way to actively discourage women from going into STEM, and that needs to stop ASAP.

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