Google announced the winning results of its first science fair earlier this week. More than 10,000 applicants from 91 countries entered the online contest. As you may have heard by now, the winners were all girls: Shree Bose (17-18 age group), Naomi Sha (15-16 age group) and Lauren Hodge (13-14 age group) each won first place in their respective age categories.
This is a significant moment for girls in science, as well as a much-needed reminder of the importance of encouraging talented girls and women to stay in a field where they have been historically underrepresented.
Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, who also served as a judge in the science fair, calls the fact that all three winners were girls a “coincidence.”
“This underlines that there is no quality difference between the genders,” Cerf said.
In recent years, significant strides have been made by women in the top echelons of science, but men continue to outnumber women in most academic departments. According to the Association for Women in Science, doctoral degrees in engineering were distributed at a ratio of one woman to 416 men in 1950. In 2005, it was one woman to nearly five men. In 2003, 26 percent of women are employed in science and technology related professions, compared to 18 percent in 1983.
Countless studies have shown that one reliable predictor of success for any science student is a strong mentor. A 2008 study published in the journal “Sex Roles” looked at those who graduated from top U.S. doctoral programs in chemistry from 1988 to 1992. The authors concluded, anecdotally, that women experience a mentoring gap compared to men in science, beginning with their undergraduate studies.
It’s also important to note that all the winners in the Google science fair focused on projects related to bioscience. Biology is the one area of science which has historically had a reputation for being more open to women. In 2004, American women were nearly on par with their male peers for the numbers of doctoral degrees received in the biomedical and biological sciences and had even surpassed men in the amount of bachelor degrees in these fields, according to Association for Women in Science statistics.
For Carol Kemelgor, director of the Center for Women in Science at the State University of New York at Purchase, the biology focus of these three winning projects is not at all surprising. Having interviewed students and faculty in science Ph.D. programs across the country for a book about the gender gap in science that she co-authored with Henry Etzkowitz and Brian Uzzi in 2000, Kemelgor noted that biology departments in universities tend to have a more extensive mentoring system compared to any other science departments. “Students spend a year choosing mentors,” she said.
If more women enter the sciences, then there will be more female mentors who might reciprocate for a younger generation until an eventual leveling of the playing field exists. In the meantime, the Google Science Fair winners will hopefully inspire more talented young women to pursue their passion for science.
“Having all three of the winners be girls is amazing,” said winner Shree Bose. “Science has been one of the fields that girls have come in second and winning this contest makes me feel really good being a girl and a scientist.”