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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 13 2013: It can't hurt, but the real problem with both genders in STEM is that they don't really see a path to a stimulating, lucrative career. If you grow up in area like southern WV, you might pursue STEM from mining, natural gas, or chemical engineering
    point of view. You probably won't look deep into physics as a career. If you grow up in Silicon Valley, RTP, or Oak Ridge, TN you will think of STEM in a much different opinion and see different career paths.

    The problem for the US is that we can't seem to get some of our brightest to chose the STEM career path that we need. In every community we see the DR., lawyer, or banker that has a great lucrative career, but we don't see the scientist who is carving out the American Dream. You might see them in a town with a research university, but still the highest paid person on campus is the football coach.
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      Apr 13 2013: Hey Spencer! Thanks for commenting!
      This is a fascinating point, in general, but especially considering the question of getting girls into STEM fields since med school and law school gender ratios have been about equal in recent years.

      Ivana Gadjanski made a really interesting point below that there's also pressure for women to start families which may be at fault for the lack of hands-on role models. Do you think that this pressure might also be at fault here? As in, since the status quo is for women to stay home with children, they must be making more than their male partners in order for them to justify their return to work, so women are more inclined to study more lucrative fields in advance degrees?
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        Apr 14 2013: When you say that it is the status quo for women to stay home with children, I think that over the last fofty years two-earner families have become quite normal. When I was getting out of school, many women were staying home perhaps six months rather than indefinitely. And careers like law and medicine also require a woman entering them to think strategically about when to have children. What do you think makes this more challenging in STEM fields?
      • Apr 15 2013: It seems to me that bright women tend marry people in their field, especially in the 30 to 50 age group. Pressure to have children is something people cave into. The reason people do not go into STEM is because they do not see the path of a future in that area. Plus there is a risk/reward of advanced degrees necessary to do well in STEM . No one wants average wages if you have a PhD with the extra college debt.

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