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 12 2013: As a woman in science from a developing country I think role models come in many forms. I think it is important for us not to focus purely on science role models but also consider role models who haven't got those 'paper qualifications'. Mothers in fact are some of the biggest influences on all our lives. I have always admired scientists of both genders but never idolised. I got the strength to be anything I wanted to be from my mum. She allowed and encouraged me to be curious and live my dreams. I think kids need access to role models who are inspirational and have challenged society and moved mountains to become what they are today. They need role models in the people they meet everyday who believe in them. There are plenty of these unsung heroes in our parts of the world. It doesn't matter what field they are in because at the end of the day, kids just have to feel confident that they can do it. If you feel confident and inspired then you will pursue whatever field is of interest to you whether or not it is in the STEM fields.

    I know the whole rockstar analogy has been discussed before but I just like to also comment that the image of a rockstar is not necessarily a positive image. Maybe my thoughts on rockstars are biased by what i see in the media but they peak and crash, take drugs and party. Is that really what we want kids to associate their dreams with? and yes, just a few of them ever get any limelight. I think the people who influence kids should be people that are human. Someone accessible, someone anyone can connect with.

    If we consider female role models in science - how many scientists actually take time out to do outreach work? To BE accessible? A role model should be someone who has achieved great things but is yet able to make time to inspire. Not just a face on a poster.

    I suppose it goes back to the beginning of what I said - role models should not just be those achieving great things, they should be everyday people who are real.
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Asha! Thank you so much for commenting!

      I definitely see what you're saying about the rock star analogy. When I wrote it I had in mind people like Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson- people who are involved in popular culture and pop up on TV for being scientists.

      I definitely agree that this quest for good role models comes in two parts, the "rock star" part, where young women can see women getting media coverage for scientific endeavors, and (as my sister Nicki called it in a comment below) "Garage band" role models, teachers and mothers, as well!

      I know personally the reason I got into engineering is because in 8th grade, my math teacher took all of the girls in her honors math class to NJIT for a "Women in engineering" day, and my math teacher continued to push me in the right direction all that year. However, I feel the reason I've been able to stay in engineering is because of the "rock star" scientists like Ada Lovelace and Emilie Du Chatelet whose existence proves beyond a fraction of a doubt that my gender has absolutely nothing to do with my scientific ability.

      I think your idea about role models being accessible is the perfect best of both worlds, though! Having Nina Tandon as a professor definitely feels like that most of the time!
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    Apr 16 2013: Hi Ivana,

    I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell (and that book in particular). I do agree that the lack of gender equality in STEM fields (and the "rockstars" who break the trend) is a sort of phenomenological outcome (i.e. a result of the aforementioned "accumulative advantage"). In fact, I'm totally with you in saying that the proliferation of "rockstars" isn't the way to go in order to destroy the discouragement of women from STEM fields. I think that "rockstars" are a natural consequence of promoting a culture supporting (instead of subtly discouraging) universal engagement in STEM fields.
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    Apr 12 2013: There's a very funny Big Bang Theory episode that touches on the issue that women are in general turned off from engineering. In the episode, the characters of the show try to get the girls at "the source" while their still in middle school and show them the wonderful career of engineering for all sexes. The visit turned out to be unsuccessful, but it did highlight an important issue that women are needed in the scientific and engineering fields. Although it was unsuccessful in the show, I think the best way to convince these young girls is to "attack" them when they are young. Girls tend not to consider engineering as a professional in high school, because there are so few women in the field today. But with more conversations like this one, and more proactive approaches, awesome TED Fellows like Nina Tandon, inspiring role models, I can see women take the profession by storm soon enough!
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      Apr 12 2013: Hey Ariel!

      So funny that you should mention that episode- a friend just showed me a clip from it last night. It was really funny, but it also made me sad from its depiction of disinterested teenage girls in the face of science.

      But I definitely agree that we're on the right track, as a society, and the numbers do appear to be rising, but we need to continue that process and ideally speed it up! :)
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      Apr 16 2013: I agree with the Big Bang Theory's notion that the "source" of the problem occurs in middle school or at a very young age. Although, many people do not choose what occupations to pursue or fields to study until well into adulthood, the options must be kept open from a very young age. It is easy for a young girl to grow up with the notion that "engineering is for boys" and have the stigma subconsciously stick with her as she develops further interests in her academic future. I think it is important to emphasize at a young age, the important advantage that female engineers would have in an over saturated male engineering environment. Females inherently "think" and act in distinctively different ways from males. This alternate gender and under represented approach to real world problem solving could pave the way for miraculous advancements, that would otherwise be left untouched by the male mind.
  • Apr 12 2013: I think role models are an important piece of the missing women in STEM puzzle. Role models can play a valuable role throughout a person’s trajectory into becoming a scientist, not just getting kids interested in science in the first place. Pursuing any STEM major in college and graduate school is tough and often demanding work. It can be empowering to be able to “see” someone who looks like you doing cool and meaningful work in your field. This is true for both women and minorities as Dr. Danielle Lee explains at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/04/01/under-represented-and-underserved-why-minority-role-models-matter-in-stem/.

    Do these role models need to be “rock stars”? I’m not quite sure. Not everyone wants to be a rock star. I definitely agree with Bob’s comment about how heroes do not have to be in the headlines. Especially since most rock stars wind up in the headlines for less than admirable reasons.

    On a personal note, I run a Tumblr blog, sheblindeduswithscience.tumblr.com, where I profile contemporary women scientists who I think do interesting work. And as a grad student working on her own thesis project, I do find reading about women scientists and their awesome research really motivating. (And I always love suggestions for new highlights!)
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Allyson! Thanks for commenting!

      First of all, what a fantastic tumblr! I think increased visibility is really important in this goal, and every resource helps!

      There seems to be a poor reaction to my use of the word "rock star," but what I truly meant was someone in the spotlight for their scientific work, somebody like Neil Degrasse Tyson who can go on prime time TV and discuss science in a public space and who is still seen as somebody cool (not quite the "sex, drugs, rock and roll" that has been projected). I still think that's really important. I know that not everyone wants to be a rock star, but I think it's important for women in the field to care about this cause, and to recognize that (until this huge percentage difference shrinks) we need more female scientist role models!

      Keep up the awesome work!
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    Apr 11 2013: One issue which has been on my mind recently is that of blogging. I have a blog where I discuss science, but I haven't blogged about women in science specifically. This is an important issue, but rather than only being upset about the many challenges in women in science (which are often what blogs focus on) I think making positives, (aka your "rock stars") is really good - because it focuses on changing the conversation too, rather than solely focusing on the challenges/issues we know are there.

    It might be fun to start a "Female Scientist of the Week" entry/blog space - to highlight women in different fields, and of different levels. Why not profile students all the way up the ladder, and postdocs and faculty etc.?
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      Apr 12 2013: Renee, thanks so much for your continual input! It's obviously a huge honor to be able to bounce ideas back and forth with you!

      I think the "Female Scientist of the Week" is an amazing idea! I was actually just talking to my little sister about this conversation (She's 15, in a pre-engineering high school program, and LOVING it), and I brought up this idea to her. I'm always trying to educate her about all of the awesome female scientists that came before her, since I remember being her age and how hard it was for me to have confidence in my scientific ability. Luckily her engineering teacher is a woman, so she's already got a head start, but a blog (or even just a blog feature!) like that could be an awesome resource for budding female scientists!
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      Apr 12 2013: I think the idea of showing females at different stages of their education and careers rather than particularly the "rock stars" is a good one, as this can make it easier for a girl to visualize the path she might take.

      In fact when I taught middle school math, I tried to borrow each of my daughters when I could to have them talk with the kids, because at the time one was studying chemistry and the other math and physics.

      I did notice that the girls I taught were more captivated, typically, by life science than by physical science.
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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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    Apr 17 2013: I think there have been some amazing insights discussed already. As an educator in a university setting, I think things need to start in grade school. It is so hard to encourage women once they are already adults in college. I am often the first female professor these students have ever had in two departments here (Anthropology and Biology). Many of my female students just don't believe they are that smart. They have no confidence in their abilities. I suspect this negative feedback starts in grade school or even at home. There needs to be more encouragement for all students to explore their interests from a young age. I think if female students are expected to excel at the sciences from a young age they will. When I taught graduate students in China and Mongolia there was no ingrained sex bias in science and math expectations. I also agree that once a woman does enter university she is under pressure to get married and have a family. In many countries if you pursue a higher degree you are considered not suitable for marriage. So there seems to be many barriers which need to be overcome to help women succeed in these types of careers.
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    Apr 16 2013: Hi Hindi! It's really wonderful that you've posted this question.
    Women need advocates such as you to use their engineering skills and determine specifically how to get more women in STEM fields.
    I know from speaking with older generations in my family that what motivated them to go into science included not only positive female role models, but also positive male role models who were advocates for them. I think part of the approach to increasing the female population in STEM is not just to educate women and attract them to STEM but to create a male and female gender network that supports them from within a somewhat male dominated field.
    I like to think that when fathers have daughters they become advocates for them in the world. Check out this link on pubmed, the Dads and Daughters advocacy organization: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12025277
    Although the idea here is not specific to STEM, it is an example of the benefits that come from positive male role models in addition to positive female role models.
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    Apr 15 2013: Hey, great article! Have you heard of The Scientista Foundation? It is our mission to increase the number of student women in science by increasing visible role models and strengthening communities for women in STEM across campuses. We'd love to have you join the movement. Check us out! --> www.scientistafoundation.com
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      Apr 15 2013: Hey Julia!
      Thanks so much for commenting! I hadn't heard of The Scientista Foundation, but now that I have I'm really happy it exists! What a great movement!

      Also, regarding your response below about TV show characters that are female scientists, I definitely think that this helps, too! Just as a small example: My 15 year old sister is learning/teaching herself how to code, and visibility of female programmers in TV shows (Such as Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds and Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who) was a huge help in convincing her that programming isn't just something our dad can do. My sister actually liked the character of Oswin so much, she decided to dress up as her for Comic Con last year! These things that might seem shallow and insignificant are actually a huge help in countering the forces steering women away from STEM.
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    Apr 13 2013: I have no negative vibes about the rockstar issue. I feel positive that as far as science is considered it is iconoclastic. We don't need to fashion science or scientists as geeky and humor constipated. I also don't think this is basically a feminine idea (I would have no qualms had it been so) but science can have a lighter side too and scientists can be very interesting people. I think Richard Feynman was a rockstar of a scientist.
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      Apr 13 2013: What negative vibes? I didn't say I don't like rockstar female scientists - my point in previous comment was that not everyone can be a rockstar (then "being a rockstar" would kinda loose a point, right?) It's important to analyze how majority of women in science (STEM fields) can improve their positions - having several examples of female rockstar scientists of course helps a lot, but does not solve the whole problem. Becoming a rockstar is a result of so many factors - and not every female scientist has access to all of those...to conclude, I was not making a point against rockstar female scientists - in fact I love rockstar female scientists and would like to see as many of them as possible - but I do think that it is not enough to inspire more young women to go into engineering in equal numbers to men (which was Hindi's direct question if I understood it properly) so I suggested some more steps in that direction
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        Apr 13 2013: That's great! :) I didn't say you don't like rockstar female scientists either. But I know for a fact many, men and women both, look down upon scientists who are flamboyant, colorful and wear a rather fashionable look. I think we all know what it takes to be a good and credible scientist and that doesn't include the private life and attitude of her as a person.
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    Apr 13 2013: Hey Hindi - great question! My view on this is that yes, female role models are definitely needed, not only to inspire and motivate but also to give concrete advice and tips on what to do, how to do and also when to do certain steps in education and career. Nina is doing such great job exactly in this aspect! This conversation topic is one proof of it:) However, in my opinion, "rockstars" is not really what most of women scientists/engineers are aspiring to become, or at least it's not the only thing. I think most girls who are considering STEM field are also wondering how it will be possible to balance career and family life. Men are also thinking about that, I know, but it is a fact of nature that women need more time - at least 9 months more:) to devote to "having-a-child"-project. So it is harder, especially in very competitive field and all STEM fields are highly competitive...I think that if Universities and companies would make better arrangements - arrange for more flexible working hours, childcare facilities within campuses etc. it would mean a lot for motivating more girls to choose such careers.
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      Apr 13 2013: I'd love to see the 'having-a-child' project equally shared between men and women. Biologically women have a special role but socially speaking the more we can make it less exclusive for women the better. I have this somewhat strange feeling that as a man I shall never know the physical process of carrying a child in my body, giving birth to it, developing a bonding with it and weaning it out to let it grown into a self reliant human being. I also feel this enriches the life of a woman in a special way that a man has no privy into.
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      Apr 13 2013: Hey Ivana! Thanks so much for commenting!

      I think this is a really interesting point, and something that very often gets glossed over when we discuss how we approach young women and education.

      Two weeks ago I met a young man pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience, and he told me that on the first day of orientation he was standing with his female friend and classmate, and a young woman (that neither of them knew) went up to her alone, and said "before you go in today, think about your biology."

      Obviously, for most women, the pressures are much more subliminal than in this instance, but the point still stands. This effort gets that much harder when girls get into STEM programs and have been taught that their bodies are ticking timers that will go out soon, and that they have to choose between families and work. It's definitely important to facilitate strong young women staying in STEM fields just as much as it is to get them into it in the first place.
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        Apr 16 2013: Yes, Osaze, I agree, it's not only the gender issue that's preventing individuals from pursuing STEM-related fields. It's also the socio-economic factors... I have some understanding of what it means to come from underrepresented group since I am from an Eastern European country (Serbia) that most of the people in US never even heard of (unless they like tennis, then they must have heard of Novak Djokovic, but actually also if they are in the STEM field then they should know of Nikola Tesla...both are from Serbia :)...I am just now reading the great book by Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers, story of success
        http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017922 and I really liked how he explains success as the result of the "accumulative advantage", which is very different from the common thinking that success only depends on the talent, zeal and persistence (plus some luck) of an individual...that's another reason why I think that those "rockstar" scientists are not extremely good examples per se since their success is a result of whole ecosystem that they belong to...am a bit jet lagged at the moment to write more about this now, but will follow up on this soon! :)
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          Apr 16 2013: Hi Ivana,

          I agree with your sentiments so far as that there should be an emphasis on making a career in a STEM-related field freely accessible to all of the youngest and brightest (regardless of gender, etc.). Though perhaps it's more important that we strive to break down barriers stopping a desire to pursue a STEM-related field rather than attempt to force people into career paths they may not be so inclined to pursue. This requires a bit of a balance when it comes to the zeal with which we attack the boundaries preventing underrepresented groups from pursuing STEM-related fields.
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    Apr 11 2013: I think more than "making rockstars" out of women in the STEM fields, we need to evaluate the reason that there are few women to make rockstars out of in the first place.

    In the 90's, Mattel put out a talking Barbie who famously said "Math class is tough!" I'm sure the company was trying to make something girls could relate to, but that's the problem! Now any girl playing with that Barbie who was struggling in math class might say "Yeah! Math class is tough!" and resign themselves to never understanding math. So many friends of mine in high school would try to do their math homework, not understand it and throw their hands in the air. "Oh yeah, that concept is pretty tough" I'd say "Do you want me to explain it to you?" However rather than take an extra ten minutes to understand the concept, they'd copy the answers from the back of the book. "Nah, its fine. I just really don't like math." I think that the long lasting stigma that girls aren't good at math gives people an excuse to give up when it gets tough. I think no matter how many female mathematicians I list, these friends aren't going to believe in themselves. Low self esteem tends to plague developing girls as it is, so when a subject gets difficult, it's easier to say "I don't like it" than "I don't understand it." Since no one was expecting them to excel anyway, they get away with it.

    Honestly, rather than "rock stars" I think we need more "garage band" women in STEM. Amazing teachers who care about their students are the real way to further the STEM fields. I know my interest in Math has stemmed from fantastic teachers over the years, men and women alike. If we can get to girls (AND BOYS!) early and make these subjects fun, and instill a love for thinking, I think this problem would straighten itself out soon. Obviously, seeing women in science as "rockstars" shows young girls that it IS possible, and that no, it's NOT weird to like math, but I think we have other issues at hand as well.
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      J D

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      Apr 16 2013: I agree that reforming education is a good place to start. As Nina Tandon's link showed (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/04/science/girls-lead-in-science-exam-but-not-in-the-united-states.html?_r=0), boys slightly outperform girls in math in the US in particular. I suspect that this may have something to do with the way that US education revolves around prepping for standardized tests. Standardized test prep detaches the teacher from their teaching, and detaches the subject with its purpose. Studying math and science is less rewarding when the problems feel irrelevant or arbitrary. It is also more difficult to care.
      When faced with these tedious tasks, in addition to the societal expectations of women that girls probably feel from an early age -- from toys, as you mentioned Nicki, to advertisements to cartoon characters -- and when there is no strong force opposing those messages, it's probably very easy to develop a habit of thinking that math and science don't deserve much attention.
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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.
  • 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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    Apr 12 2013: Hi Hindi! This is a very good question.
    It may be a bit off topic but I recently won a bet with my friends to have successfully guessed the person behind the very popular facebook page 'I fucking love science' to be a woman. :) Check the page, it's brilliant.
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    Apr 12 2013: Hi Hindi!

    I appreciate your thoughts, it is definitely something I think about a lot, as I am also an female engineering student.

    I think that the lack of female role models has a big effect on the amount of girls interested in STEM. Miss Representation is an organization started by Jennifer Siebel Newsom (http://www.missrepresentation.org/, http://tedxwomen.org/speakers/jennifer-siebel-newsom/ watch her ted talk video!) that works towards creating a more positive image of woman in the media. One of the quotes from the documentary is "You can't be what you can't see". While I don't think this is completely true, as there are always those few who break the trends and start something new, it definitely has a lot of truth to it. See the article for more information: http://www.thedailymuse.com/tech/you-cant-be-what-you-cant-see-how-to-get-more-women-in-tech/

    The study you mention about 15-year old girls outperforming boys in many places not including the US is fascinating. It constantly surprises me that in terms of gender issues, the US is less advanced than many other parts of the world. But I guess the US is more conservative than many countries.
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Hadar-

      I found that study that Hindi quoted really interesting also. I found an article about it (that also contains a very helpful infographic): http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/04/science/girls-lead-in-science-exam-but-not-in-the-united-states.html?_r=0, and gives an interesting explanation about why this might be the case.
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      Apr 12 2013: I know that in the US in k12, girls have been out-performing boys for a long time in math. It is also true that the publishers of math textbooks in the US are attentive to including depictions of scientists and mathematicians of both genders and a diversity of ethnicities, precisely because school districts consider that feature in textbook selections. I believe girls graduate from high school at a higher rate than boys in the US and may now be the majority of the college population also in the US.
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    Apr 12 2013: Hindi, Yeah ... women in many fields have had a tough road to hoe. Last week President Obama made very sexist statements about the Attorney General of California ... about how hot she was. He could have stated her esteemed position but he commented on her looks and body. Kinda kicks all that campaign talk to the curb.

    The good news for your question is the enrollment stats ... more women than men are going to college.

    At General Dynamics in the development phase of the F-22 Raptor there were many females in the design phase. When you suggest "rock star" status for females is that what you really want. Condi Rice was a very effective Secretary of State who also has a deep resume ... then we had Hillary Clinton who was the "rock star" but did not accomplish near as much as Condi and turned the US into a failed diplomatic nation. You never heard about Condi but Hillary was in the news daily. No I will take Condi any day over the poilitician "rock star" hillary.

    Heros do not have to be in the headlines ... do not seek the spotlight .... most work quietly and effectively behind the scenes.

    If someone wants to be in a STEM field then go for it. Women drive race cars, go to the moon, head giant corporations, surgeons, and leaders in every field.

    The thing that should bother you is why some women are highlighted. Is it like Obama said a real looker and a hottie or that she earned her way and does creditable work. I respect one and have distain for the other.

    I have worked for both men and women ... the sex made no difference ... the leadership skills did.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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    Apr 11 2013: also: check out this talk about Sesame Street's recent STEM (Science-Technology-Education-Math) program: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aehZHKLeKKk&feature=em-uploademail
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    Apr 17 2013: I think what is closing the gender gap isn't super science stars, it's modern times combined with equality with a major dash of inspirational and motivational people of influence ( not the Super science stars but individual's personal mentors ) Women have natural interests in the same various fields of study as men, and shouldn't be thought of as kids to excite the unexcitable ( I don't care I like the way this word sounds ). It's the sign of the times that is closing the gender gap, as each generation is born they are able to see past the veil of discrimination and limitation, pushing harder on the boundaries of what is present and what is future. We need to work with this very concept of kids being not being bias towards genders and any subject. Roll with that and encourage ANYONE who has a thirst for knowledge to be all they can be, in humanity. Marriage and families are a shared experience and this is changing as well with more Men being stay at home Dads, while the women work the 9 to 5 taking more equal roles with family, even alternating. It's a gradual uphill slope that's going to plateau eventually with effort.

    The barriers that exist were made to be broken by the generations that question it's placement. So we see a issue let's give it a tissue.
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    Apr 16 2013: inspiration coming through fame???
    inspiration through doing great work that will help the human race and everything it interacts with?

    maybe what your trying to do is to get the public interested.
    maybe slowly changing public interest from ,what snooki did or didn't do, to actual world events, ingenuity and problems might help.

    Dissipating the very sexual aura the media gives to women? You hit a nail there though.

    Maybe if the way the general male population "JUDGED" women changed from a sexual stand point they would notice things like her motivation, personality and other traits.
    Maybe She would care less of judgement and focus on the difference she could make.

    Maybe judgement is a very negative way of change.

    and maybe we should teach our children that.
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    Apr 16 2013: Hi Hindi,
    I feel that women are encouraged to study engineering and other predominantly male fields through scholarships and benefits for minorities. I don't think it is necessary or beneficial to create role models for women because we already have programs that encourage women to study engineering.
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    Apr 15 2013: Here is an interesting source of data for context: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/tables.cfm

    When I looked at the data tables for intention to major in science and engineering, I found that at four year colleges, in this 2011 data compiled by UCLA, 33% of freshman women intended to major in science or engineering (so about one-third of female students) and 44% of men did.

    Looking at sub-fields, of women freshman at four year colleges and universities, 26% (just over 1/4) intended to major in biological or behavioral science.

    It's specifically engineering that draws disproportionately few women. Biological and behavioral sciences draw a higher proportion of women than men.

    If anyone is wondering what other kids are majoring in, the big category, according to the National Council on Educational Statistics is Business Administration, which conferred 22%, or almost 1/4, of all four-year degrees in 2009. Health and education majors draw another 14% together.
  • Apr 13 2013: You have to be kidding. If a man or woman were not already inclined to science thy would never even know their names, or care too.
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      Apr 13 2013: Walter-

      I'm sorry that you seem to live somewhere where your non-scientifically inclined friends are completely apathetic to the study, but in my experience, most people have heard of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Sir Isaac Newton. A lot have even heard of Neil Degrasse Tyson and Brian Cox. I don't think it's asking too much of society to suggest that there should be a female scientist whose name is as widespread.
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        Apr 14 2013: I knew Marie Curie's name when I was a little girl. Two Nobels, one in Chemistry and one in Physics. And her daughter had a Nobel prize as well.
        • Apr 15 2013: Nobels - no apostrophe (sorry, teacher, not nazi).

          i use marie curie in one of my lessons too, though it tends to creep the students out, dying from radiation poisoning and all. it would be nice to have an alternative that met with a rosier end, any suggestions?
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          Apr 15 2013: As co-founder of the Scientista Foundation, I often ask women and men if they can name a female scientist. The most common answer? -- Marie Curie! I get it so often that I call it the "Marie Curie Phenomenon." Though Dr. Curie was a brilliant scientist, there are many notable women in STEM throughout history and present-day that people should be aware of. In order to increase the visibility of these women, we at Scientista launch social media campaigns and feature articles. One of our most recent project highlighted the 16 female Nobel laureates in science. If you're looking to learn more names, this would be a great place to start! --> https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.486949788003105.109655.291308750900544&type=3

          Julia Tartaglia, Co-Founder, The Scientista Foundation (www.scientistafoundation.com)
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        Apr 14 2013: Hi Hindi,
        I think you bring up a very relevant issue. Women are highly underrepresented in the fields of math, engineering, and science and I feel this should change. I think that although there are interesting science related programs out there for young students, they often have a more negative social perception. I remember in my middle school it was extremely embarrassing to be a girl on a math team or robotics team. Though some of it may just take time, I think the integration of women should not be taken lightly. If slowly the image of a female scientist or engineer could become someone inspiring, someone to look up to and aspire to be like, it could really make an impact. With the recent increase in successful tv reality shows, why not make one about a female scientist? As long as it includes all the drama, plot, and excitement of other tv shows it could really help introduce young girls to the idea of working in such a field at a young age.
        • Apr 15 2013: why should this change? to me it's a triumph for humanity if people - girls or boys - can choose not to continue with studies that don't wish to continue without being coerced by incentives to follow some path other than the one they wish to take. i agree that addressing a stigma that might be preventing girls from entering science is a worthy goal, but then the goal is that; fighting the stigma, not drawing more girls into science.
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          Apr 15 2013: There are some great tv shows and films that feature women scientists, and I think they are really powerful. We definitely need more of them. One of my personal favorites is Temperance Brennan, the protagonist of the TV hit, Bones, which is produced by forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. It would be interesting to conduct a study on the impact of these "rockstar" scientistas.

          Julia Tartaglia
          Co-Founder, The Scientista Foundation
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          Apr 15 2013: In what way was it embarrassing to be a girl on the math team?!
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          Apr 15 2013: I happen to agree with Ben and believe that every person should have the freedom to choose whatever career path they want and not be pressured into science if they don't want to. One of the reasons why I believe, many women opt not to go into science, is because those careers are often more demanding and it could be much harder to raise a family. On the other hand, if a woman wants to pursue science - I believe that she should have every opportunity to do so. And I believe its important for those woman that have careers in science and are also dedicated mothers to publicize their accomplishments so that they can serve as role models for other women. There are many woman that shy away from going into science, even when they're interested because of this career vs family factor, and I believe that it's important to show these women that it's possible to have both.
          I do think that having role models can be helpful for women. And I think it's important to educate young girls about all types of fields - humanities and science equally. Whatever our daughters want to accomplish in their careers - they should be able to, and I think it's important to educate women that they shouldn't let family get in the way if they dream of both. Every person should be able to accomplish what they want based on their own merit - not their gender.
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          Apr 15 2013: Neema, I think the point of embarrassment is because hard science is still a male bastion. Engineers, mathematicians ans scientists have the stereotypes of 'don't-mess-with-me' which is essentially a male fad. I work with a team of scientists and engineers for over 20 years now where a girl would think twice before wearing a particular shade of lipstick, afraid that it would make her look too feminine. The embarrassment is on account of women trying to fit into male stereotypes.
          I think women think very differently from men and they assimilate in fundamentally different ways from men as well. Science will greatly benefit if women can make their own codes of conduct and attitudes while doing STEM.
          I am a great fan of Jane Goodall, who can be a role model easily. Please do not make a connection between that and my profile pic. :)
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          Apr 15 2013: Hey Neema! Those are some really interesting ideas! Though regarding the reality show one, I worry that, like most reality shows on TV, there would be a distinct lack of reality involved. :)

          Hey Lauren! While I definitely think that societal pressures of women and family are partly to blame, I feel like it cannot be the main cause of the gender disparity. If a woman's desire to start a family constantly overpowered the desire to work, we wouldn't see women enrolling in advanced degree programs overall. Meanwhile, overall there are actually more women than men in universities. Med school and Law school enrollment is about 50/50.
          And it's probably a lot easier to be a full-time mother who's a programmer than it is to be a full-time mother who's a doctor, wouldn't you say?
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          Apr 15 2013: A great comment about Bones was brought up. Big Bang Theory, another such show, has 23 of its female characters as scientists!

          I dont think its accurate to say that any scientist is a rockstar... Perhaps in the scientific community there are certain people who are held at high esteem, but certainly the male members will tent to idealize the male scientists and I know that Hindi (OP) probably idealizes a few female scientists!

          I think that peoples work stands for itself. We arent living in a time where women need to use male pseudonyms when they publish. Female work is represented in the scientific community, and worthy material will be idealized. The stigma is only residue of Old World ways.
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          Apr 16 2013: Hi Hindi,
          In regards to what you said earlier about woman being enrolled in high degree programs,
          Yes many women are enrolled but how many of those go on to advanced careers. Since many women in our society typically start families later te time that they graduate from their advanced degrees is often the time that they are looking to start a family. Just something to think about.
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          Apr 16 2013: I agree with Ben here.

          Every person should have their own choice as to what they want to do with their lives. However, if we take that too freely then there will be no guidance to our youth. Its the guidance and social stigmas that push the youth to grow into something one day.

          If girls don't want to enter scientific fields, why make them? Maybe its only a matter of social stigmas. What society accepts as truth is hard to change; you never really know where and when social stigmas are going to end up.

          As Avi says, the stigma of the male dominated society is only a residue of Old World ways. In today's world, anyone can enter the science field without any real prejudices.
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        Apr 15 2013: Ben, while Julia provides you the laureates and Wikipedia has a long list from before the 21st century, I think pointing to some working right now is, if anything, more valuable. A look at faculty at your closest university is an example.

        There are those who think Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist who has been on faculties at Princeton, MIT, and Harvard may be the most gifted theoretical physicist ever to get her doctorate at Harvard.

        The president of Princeton University is an acclaimed biologist.

        For that matter, we have women scientists and technologists among our TED speakers, which brings them into your classroom easily on any computer..
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    Apr 13 2013: Yes and no.
    Yes b/c I do agree that perhaps it would inspire a lot of young girls however I think the gratification will be one more standard to which girls will compare themselves.
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      Apr 13 2013: Hey Thaddea!

      That's an interesting point, however, I think that while some standards of comparison can be toxic for young women, a standard of intelligence and academic achievement would be a really healthy thing to aspire to!
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    Apr 12 2013: Fetal brain development IS hard science. But it is also about babies, cute cuddly babies you can hug and care for like dolls. Why can't we study the mathematics of beauty? Or hair tension, or the chemistry of food? Much of the movement to include girls in science are not sensitive to what MOST girls are naturally interested in. Some girls who grow up with boys, tend to have boyish interests just because they want to belong. I find that the same phenomenon is happening in science. Women have to be man-like to be considered scientists. They don't have to be. They can be totally girly and still be absolutely capable of hard science on things mostly ignored by male scientists.
    True feminism is embracing the feminine and being totally okay. In the sciences, there are many unexplored areas that need further scientific inquiry just because the male counterparts are focused on things that go. Science is a method that can be applied to anything observable. If I decide to make a science experiment on girl bonding by measuring the rate of blinks versus girl and boy bonding, that is still science if I follow the scientific method and the experiments can be replicated and confirmed by other scientists.
    Human consciousness can expand in all directions. To limit pushing sciences to girls by saying, yes you too can build a rocket ship, when most girls find collecting seashells more fascinating is not really doing it. How about we show how the beauty of nature is a mathematical phenomenon, how about teaching them about fractals applied to pretty things? The point is to look at the interest of young girls (and definitely a majority will be into pretty things, pretty faces and friends...) and showing how that can benefit from a scientific perspective too. Girls ask for dolls. If they've never held one, they wouldn't ask for it. But I've seen a girl think she was boyish until she saw her first monster high doll. She was transfixed and wouldn't let it go.
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    Apr 11 2013: I think any publicity, if you draw attention to it and make it look attractive catches on. People sometimes just forget to champion science to girls because girls are more socially-minded and tend to be more interested in people than things. That said, there are plenty of science to be explored in female-centric preoccupations. Science of fetal brain development, science of friendship, science of love, science of beauty. The point is NOT to try to too hard making girls feel drawn towards rocket ships. Some would be, but if you're around children in a play area, you'll see girls zoom in on a doll and other girls, while the boys will immediately be drawn to things that go. Science is a method. Girls can still remain girls and be preoccupied in things that they are naturally drawn to--but this time in a scientific perspective.
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      Apr 12 2013: hi Cecilia

      I agree that one shouldn't be prescriptive - I loved dolls, but I also loved things that go - and microscopes! I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged me, but I think some girls do grow up with people not buying them "boy-like" toys, so in that sense, we should try to give both boys and girls the same messages, that science is fun and interesting!
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Cecilia! Thanks so much for your comment!

      While I definitely see your point, I think generalizing girls like that is a slippery slope. Girls can be interested in (and excel!) in the hard sciences as well. I've seen it firsthand over and over again in my engineering school. I just think somewhere along the way, they're not being inspired the same way boys in their classes are. That's where we need to look to solve this problem.

      I definitely agree with you that "forcing" science upon girls is NOT the way to go. On the other hand, I think there are still too many households where girls only get "girl toys" and boys only get "boy toys." I'm lucky enough to have an awesome engineer for a father, so my childhood playroom was as much filled with K'nex, legos, and chemistry kits as it was barbie dolls, but outside of my college friends, most girls I know were not as lucky.

      Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a webcomic by Zack Weiner, has a humorous piece illustrating the problem at hand: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=1883
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    Apr 11 2013: Well, nothing says numbers have to be 100% equal. I mean, I'm a man, and if there were more females in something than men, I wouldn't lose sleep over it.

    Why do you care if a bunch more women become engineers? Maybe they just don't like it.
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      Apr 11 2013: Hey Greg, thanks so much for your comment!

      I wouldn't mind if there were, say, 45 female engineers for every 55, or even possibly 35 engineers for every 65. However, the fact that there are only 20 female engineers to every 80 leads to the conclusion that there is something happening somewhere in young women's science education (that is not happening in that of young men) to actively discourage them from pursuing degrees in it.

      As a female engineer, I want to make sure that the 15 year old girl in a chemistry class is looking at the material and seeing the same potential she'd see if she were a boy.
      As a person living in a world where scientific innovation enriches the quality of life, I want to see if we can do anything to stop a strange phenomena where a group that makes up more than 50% of the world's population doesn't seem to present an interest in a discipline that's dedicated to scientific innovation.

      I'm not saying we should go into classrooms full of girls and fill out engineering school applications for them against their will; I'm saying that the percentage difference is too large be happening naturally, and if we can bring more educated science students into this world, we should be trying to find a way to do it!
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      Apr 11 2013: hi Greg

      One problem is actually that there are many more women entering STEM fields, but not staying in them. If they were just not interested, you might imagine that across the board at school there might be no women (there might of course be other causes, but let's take that one for now).
      But the fact that there are fewer and fewer women relative to men as you go higher up in academia (Masters degrees, PhDs faculty etc) - makes me think that one cause could be a lack of role models.
      So we should look at how to keep women in STEM fields, and personally for me this is where role models can be an important tool.
      I think there are many other factors at play of course, including making the STEM environments attractive to stay in, but this is a topic for another discussion perhaps!
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    Apr 11 2013: Thanks, Renee! I never even thought of the polarization aspect of role models, but now that you mention it, I can definitely see where it would cause issues. I hope to get around to reading that book.
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    Apr 11 2013: an interesting infographic referring to the study Hindi mentions about 15-year olds and their science performance around the world: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/04/science/girls-lead-in-science-exam-but-not-in-the-united-states.html?_r=0
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    Apr 11 2013: I think the widely held view is correct in this case that having successful role models of your own gender, or like you in other ways, increases the likelihood that you will enter a field.
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      Apr 11 2013: Fritzie- Thanks so much for your response! Obviously nothing is conclusive, but if we can assume this to be the case, how do you think we can take advantage of this effect and facilitate more publicity to the amazing aforementioned women?
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        Apr 11 2013: I was not focusing on the rock star aspect of your question. I think having diversity in teaching faculties in STEM fields so that students learn from and are advised by women as well as men and by people of different ethnicities is more valuable than emphasizing the rock stars. The concept of rock star in itself tends to emphasize the status a few may achieve rather than the solid opportunities for the many.
  • Apr 11 2013: I am not in the science field, but as someone in the field of economics with classes made up largely of men, I can relate to this issue.
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      Apr 11 2013: Aliza- How interesting! I'd love to hear the rest of your story: what inspired you to get into economics, your experiences being a woman in a male-dominated field, and your role models in the field.
      • Apr 11 2013: I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'money makes the world go 'round.' On the assumption that it was true, I decided to study economics- a field that could connect me to human behavior in all sorts of situations. I've been fortunate to have Cara Marshall as my thesis adviser so I've had some connection to women in the field.

        My real role model in the field is Dan Ariely- one of the pioneers of behavioral economics. Elisabeth Altman- Gottheiner is also a role model- she was not only a great economist, but also the 1st woman to become a uni lecturer in Germany.