Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Marie Curie Be Damned (Part 1)

I'm the granddaughter of a rocket scientist and the daughter of a physician. Hard science is wired into my DNA. Yet, here I am, a third year law student. I have tricked myself into believing this is the path I was destined to pursue. In fact, sometimes I tell myself that I'm just naturally better at writing papers and all that "non math stuff." But that was not always the case. Until the age of 14, I was convinced I would be a marine biologist. As a child, I always excelled in math and science. I won science fairs. I was always a year ahead in math or whatever the advanced version of math was available. In 7th grade, I had a terrific math teacher who mentored, encouraged, and championed me as a scholar and bona fide "mathlete." Somewhere that got lost, and I'm still attempting to parse out what happened, and who (if anyone) is to blame for abandoning my scientific pursuits and arriving at my current belief that numbers scare me. I think the current discussions regarding women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) shed some insight into my personal journey.

Woman have always been underrepresented in the STEM fields. The problem is that despite our awareness of the issue, men continue to dominate in these fields, and women's numbers just aren't growing. Heather R. Huhman, notes in her piece in Forbes,
A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female. Additionally, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000. No matter where you turn, the stats are grim. Today, women hold only 27 percent of all computer science jobs, and that number isn’t growing. This is unsurprising when we take into account how many women are actually studying computer science in college; less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science go to women, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees
An article in the New York Times last week reminded us of this fact yet again, this time articulating how bias persists against women in science. A new study by researchers at Yale concluded "science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills." This was true of both men and female science professors (tangentially proving Nicholas D. Kristof's assertion, in his NY Times Opinion piece, Women Hurting Women, that women are not immune from causing harm to their fellow gender-mates). This bias directly affects the success and promotion of women in science. The most notable in my opinion is that the report found that "professors were less likely to offer the women mentoring or a job." Looking back on my own personal story, mentors had a profound effect on my intellectual pursuits and confidence.

Only 7 years ago, the President of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, foolishly shared his own stereotypical bias aloud at an academic conference by attributing the low numbers and lack of success of women in science to innate differences between men and women and lack of women's own interest in science or their innate unwillingness to do what it takes. While Summers received heavy criticism and backlash to his comments, this Yale study reminds us that Summers was neither alone nor in the minority. In fact, today Rui Dai reminded us in her Huffington Post article,"many people believe that the gender bias is a result of the inherent differences between men and women." This is not to say that all of this bias is due to obvious gender bias. In fact, some of this bias is likely subconscious, which is difficult to combat within ourselves and even more difficult to prove by those who are negatively affected by it.

In Part 2 of this piece, I will address some possible causes of women's lack of representation in STEM fields, included the impact of bias such as what was found in the Yale study. I also hope to discuss solutions to fixing this pervasive and troubling problem, including the role of law in accomplishing needed change.


Heather said...

I've thought a lot about this in my personal context as well. Growing up in Livermore, with the National Lab in such a small town, there were many more science electives in my high school than history/english electives.

And yet, I didn't take any of the science classes. Why not? I had the same impression that numbers are scary, but where did this come from?

Charlene said...

Thanks for your post Patricija! I find myself wondering the same thing sometimes. I took math up to BC Calc in high school, and did just damn fine. But it seems I was always convincing myself that I was better at other things...to the point that today - I too am scared of numbers. And the more I think I'm scared of numbers, the more of math I seem to have forgotten, until it seems I really AM bad at math.

Self-perpetuating law school cycle. I want to get back in the mix someday.

MC said...

A study out of the University of Kansas found that ability alone is not enough to predict whether a young woman will succeed in STEM fields. http://www.news.ku.edu/2012/march/5/stem.shtml. Initially, this sounds like a positive result, until you learn that social variables, including perceived socio-economic status, may negatively affect women's participation and success in these fields. According to Barbara Kerr and Karen Multon, women's perceived distance from privilege may discourage them from STEM fields. Their research is ongoing, but if their data supports this theory, it would be great to see the development of STEM outreach programs, to encourage young women. In fact, this kind of outreach should be happening anyway.

Patricija said...

Way to anticipate some of the themes of Part 2 of this series. There are so many social variables, and the entire argument about innate abilities between the genders is simply hogwash. While I do think that there may be innate abilities within INDIVIDUALS, I think to say that the difference lies in the biological make-up of men and women themselves is so misguided (not to mention ineffective). Stay tuned as I address some of the issues you hit on in your comment in my next post. :)

Elizabeth said...

STEM is highly emphasized in the Girls Inc. curriculum for just this reason.

I personally was a math rock star too, but after high school was far too scared to take a math class at Berkeley. And because I had taken AP Calculus in high school, I have never had to take a math class since high school.

Interestingly, you can see this bias even in the legal field. Tax Law is dominated by men. On the micro scale, my partnership tax class had 8 men and only 2 women.

But as your graphic showed, every other field in college is dominated by women. Is STEM the last bastion of male academic dominance at the undergrad level?

Attisaurus said...

As an Asian-American woman who has been groomed for medical school since the crib (don't forget being forced to go to SAT camp in the fifth grade), I feel that women of my circumstances are somewhat shielded from the societal biases against women's STEM ability. I don't remember ever questioning my ability to excel in STEM, and I attribute a lot of this to the fact that it was always expected that I would excel in STEM. My family expected straight As, especially in the hard sciences, and straying from their expectations was never an option.

I can't even imagine what my mother would do if she had caught me wearing the "I'm too pretty to do math" t-shirts that (almost exclusively Caucasian) girls at my high school wore back in the day. Reality is a social construct, and stereotype bias is a very real threat.

My mother is a university chemistry professor, and raised me and my sister with the unquestioned truth that women are more mature, logical, and diligent than men of the same age group - and therefore better suited for STEM than something fluffy like English or anthropology. I can't help but wonder what America would look like if my mother's paradigm had been the dominant one for the past century.