The Weekly Geek: Women of science

It’s an old, troubling question: Why don’t more women go into careers in math and science? Women are actually earning more bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering than men are (since 2000, in fact), so what’s up?

The awesome Jonah Lehr (author of Proust was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide) tackled this subject is an easily digestible blog post this week titled “The Scientific Gender Gap.” In it, he highlights the concepts of stereotype threat and goes through recent research that shows just how powerful it is for women to actually have female professors in the technical fields.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the astrophysicists who helped discover pulsar stars

Regarding a longitudinal study of women in a calculus class at the University of Amherst:

They measured, for instance, how often each student responded to questions posed by professors to the classroom as a whole. At the start of the semester, 11 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was male, and 7 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was female.

By the end of the semester, the number of female students who attempted to answer questions posed by a male professor had not changed significantly: Only 7 percent of the women tried to answer such questions. But when classes were taught by a woman, the percentage of female students who attempted to answer questions by the semester’s end rose to 46.

The psychologists borrow a metaphor from medicine to explain their results, describing the effect of seeing a female professor as a kind of “social inoculation.”

Lehrer cites several other studies that show other instances of pervasive, nasty stereotypes getting in the way of encouraging promising women to go down the scientific path.

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space

“I think the power of seeing a female calculus professor is magnified by the absence of similar figures in mass culture,” he says, then cites a hideously depressing study that saw women’s attitudes towards careers in science decline when they were subjected to “gender stereotyping” advertisements. All that nasty subliminal messaging really is toxic after all.

Thankfully, there is an answer: “While I don’t expect television commercials to get better anytime soon — pop culture is full of persistent tropes — it turns out that we’ve got a fix for the negative effects of these stereotypes. The cure is female math teachers.”

If you’re a math teacher and you’re reading this blog right now, I salute you. The goal of having more ladies take on careers in math and science is incredibly important — not only because we need all the talent we have working on the world’s problems, but also because, simply, women need to represent. It’s an important point to keep in mind during Women’s History Month, and always. A few awesome role model lady scientists in TV/movies wouldn’t hurt, either.

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