TOPICS > Essays

Encouraging girls to become scientists? It’s not rocket science

October 20, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
Women in the U.S. receive less than 20 percent of Bachelor's degrees in computer science, engineering and physics. Eileen Pollack, one of the first two women to receive an undergraduate degree in physics at Yale, offers a solution to getting more women into science.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now time for a NewsHour essay.

Women in the U.S. earn just over 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, yet they receive less than 20 percent of degrees conferred in computer science, engineering and physics.

A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that, in 2013, 26 percent of all computing jobs were held by women, a drop from 35 percent in 1990.

We asked Eileen Pollack one of the first two women to receive a bachelor’s of science degree in physics at Yale and who now teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan, to share an idea from her latest book, “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.”

EILEEN POLLACK,
Author, “The Only Woman in the Room”: When I was growing up, I wanted passionately to be a physicist.

But in seventh grade, the principal wouldn’t let me enter the accelerated track in science and math. “Girls never go on to careers in those subjects,” he told my mother. “Besides,” he said, “getting skipped ahead in science and math would ruin my social life.”

As a result, I arrived at Yale in 1974 far behind my male classmates. I failed my first physics midterm, and my parents urged me to switch majors. But I worked incredibly hard and didn’t give up. Four years later, I graduated with a nearly perfect GPA, an A in a graduate course in gravitational theory, and two original research papers.

Even so, I didn’t go on. As ridiculous as it seems now, I assumed that if I were talented enough to apply to graduate school, one of my professors would have let me know.

Since then, I have done a lot of research on gender bias in the sciences, and I’m sorry to report not much has changed. When parents ask why there are still so few girls in advanced science and math classes in high school, I tell them, because girls still need way more encouragement than boys to take those courses.

We still raise girls to look to other people for assurance they are attractive and smart, while boys are raised to determine their own value. Many girls are still made to feel it’s not feminine to be good at science or math.

And if a girl complains about how hard her AP calculus course is, her parents are more likely to let her drop it than if her brother voices the same complaint. As a result, by the time they get to college, most girls won’t, or can’t, sign up for rigorous courses in science or math. Those who do often find themselves unprepared or lacking in confidence.

What delivers the one-two punch that knocks so many women and minorities out of STEM fields is that scientists have this strange belief that, if you need to be encouraged, you aren’t talented or dedicated enough to be one of them. If you flunk your first physics or calculus midterm, you deserve to be weeded out.

What they don’t realize is that young women and students of color grow up in a society that fails to encourage and often actively discourages them from thinking of themselves as scientists. Ask most people to picture a physicist, and they will imagine Albert Einstein or Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.”

My parents didn’t know how to provide me with the encouragement I needed to achieve my dreams. But the solution isn’t rocket science. If your daughter finds herself in a course designed to weed her out, cheer her on, urge her to seek extra help, and give her a giant pat on the back for having made it so far, despite all the discouragement she already has overcome.

SHARE VIA TEXT