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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: Personally, I feel that the lack of Women is STEM fields is not something that exists in a vacuum, meaning, I don't think that the problem goes even deeper than young girls being outright discouraged from going into science fields (although, I will admit that is definitely a contribution), but rather are subliminally discouraged from character traits that are essential to being a good scientist (ie. good girls don't ask "but why?", and many others).

    I think a better way to get more women in science would not be to encourage young females that all the cool girls are doing science, but rather by taking the gender discussion out of it. Though ads like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g032MPrSjFA, may be coming from a desire to attract more girls to STEM, they in effect just trivialize the contribution women have (and more importantly, can) made in STEM fields and relegate the women in those fields to always be "female scientists" as opposed to just "scientists."

    You're question goes to the question of what a role model should be in general. In my opinion, when we pick our role models, they don't always share a common background with us - they are usually born in other eras, have lived different lives, often have a different religion, ethnicity or 1000 other different things than us. As such, I don't think we should limit our girls to only having female role models in science (not that that's what I think you're trying to do). I think in any field, we should start encouraging our children to look up to people they admire because of a character trait such as perseverance or creativity instead of a commonality such as gender (I think this xkcd sums it up fairly well, especially the last part: http://xkcd.com/896/).

    I think the most important thing we can do is show young girls (and boys) how amazing science is, give them all the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. If we truly accomplished this, I don't believe this gender gap would exist anymore.
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      Apr 11 2013: hi Pnina

      Thanks for your comment. There is a very interesting book linked to your xkcd comic, called "The Marie Curie Complex", which you may enjoy - it focuses on many different women in science and how the "Be the best" mentality of trying to pick out role models often polarises things. There are many men in science, and so by definition there are many 'good but not Noble laureate' men in science too. Sometimes focusing on the Nobel laureate women can create a huge gap, since there are fewer 'good but not Nobel laureate' women in history.
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      Apr 11 2013: Hey Pnina! Thanks so much for commenting! :)

      I'm SO glad you brought up the "Science: it's a girl thing) video (I was going to include it in my original post, but my question turned into a 5 page essay and I had to cut it down).

      I completely agree that it's a ridiculous production that completely misses the point of women in science, and falls into the realm of condescending. However, this video is a snappy-catchphrase version of an important issue. This video fails, not because it's trying to make science "a girl's thing," but because it uses an association with vapid "feminine interests" (like makeup and sunglasses (?), not to mention a male scientist checking them out) to prove that science can be a girl thing. It's the dumbing down of an important idea, and it is the dumbing down that is so particularly offensive.

      But I think there are ways to prove that science is just as much as girl thing as it is a boy's thing, in that it's actually gender-less. Obviously in an ideal world, we wouldn't have to prove that it can relate to either gender, and just let the science stand for itself (which it often does!). Unfortunately, there's currently a HUGE discrepancy in the amount of boys and girls that do go into science, and I believe that there are ways to remedy that without dumbing down the material.
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        Apr 11 2013: I definitely acknowledge that right now, the numbers are extremely uneven, and of course these are due to social pressures, and this must be remedied. However, I think we need to be careful in the paths we chose to remedy this discrepancy. If we try to present science as a "girl thing" instead of addressing what qualities and character traits we are holding back from our girls when we present them with the current idea of what it means to be "feminine," we're not doing them any favors. I hope that makes sense, let me know if I can explain it further :)

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