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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: 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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