Girls!? In Science?!

If anyone needs evidence of the underrepresentation of women in science-based fields, they should wander into a comp-sci class and have a seat near the back. The lack of women is much the same throughout many fields of science, with a faint glimmer of hope in the biological sciences.

In the light of several new studies, which are pitting the old reasons explaining women’s underrepresentation against new theories, the old “academia is inherently sexist” arguments are falling to the wayside as new research focuses on a more lifestyle-based approach in combating the problem.

Scientists from Cornell university published a study in the Feb. 7 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that researched the “belief that women are underrepresented in science, math and engineering fields because they face sex discrimination in the interviewing, hiring, and grant and manuscript review processes,” reports

The researchers attempted to find evidence of sex-based discrimination, and found that although it occurred in the past, it does not seem to play a role in today’s world of academia. Instead, the scientists found that lifestyle choices as well as human biology are largely to blame for the lack of females in the so-called hard sciences or “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering, math).

Prof. Stephen J. Ceci, a developmental psychologist, says: “It’s not discrimination in these areas, but rather differences in resources attributable to career and family-related choices that set women back [in STEM fields].” The research involved comparing the competition between men and women for publications, grants and jobs and found that “no systematic evidence of sex discrimination in interviewing, hiring, reviewing or funding when men and women with similar resources — such as teaching loads and research support — were compared,” writes

The study went on to detail the reasons that women did not seem to choose to pursue STEM careers, and found that women faced choices different than those of men. Women who wanted to start a family were more likely to take low-level and temporary positions such as “adjunct or part-time appointments or jobs at two-year colleges, [which offer] fewer resources and chances to move up in the ranks.”

Children are also a large reason why women do not pursue tenure-track positions, according to a study from UC Berkeley, reports the New York Times. The study found “that women who are married with young children are 35 per cent less likely to enter a tenure-track position after receiving a PhD in science than are married men with young children and PhDs in science.” According to the study, between children and academia, there is simply not enough time to pursue a tenure track position, especially considering that a typical academic work week is about 50 hours long.

In addition to lifestyle choices, part of the problem may lie in the way the STEM fields are taught.

If this is the case, then a good place to start to look for examples of teaching methods that would benefit women might be the biological sciences and similar fields, where there are large numbers of female students. The Cornell study found that “females beginning before adolescence often prefer careers focusing on people, rather than things, aspiring to be physicians, biologists and veterinarians rather than physicists, engineers and computer scientists.”

Some educators are responding and gearing STEM education exclusively to women, in the hope of changing the pre-adolescence bias towards non-STEM careers. Dan Harmer, a teacher at Cardinal Leger Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., decided to design a computer science course for girls only. Dan asked the school to pool all of his Grade 10 computer science girls into one class. According to Harmer in an interview for the Globe and Mail, the program worked well because “the intimidation factor was gone and the girls loved it.”

Breaking the male-centric and male-dominated environment of a typical computer lab seemed to be the key, and seems to be one of the best ways to get women into the field. More programs in the same vein are showing similarly good results.

Another successful campaign to get girls interested in programming hinged on the students’ interest in video games. Researchers in Edmonton, Albt. found that high school girls are not only interested in playing video games, but they are interested in making them too. The study found that “the female students built games that were every bit as good as the male students made. [ . . . ] In terms of the quality of the games developed and the abstraction skills that the students learned, which could translate to knowledge of competing science — and in terms of the amount of fun that they had — there was no difference between the two groups,” says Prof. Duane Szafron, who lead the project, in an article for

Though there are many hurdles to overcome — including attitudes and teaching approaches — these first steps may be the key to opening up traditionally male fields to female students and professionals. Through these studies and the subsequently altered teaching approaches, we may be finally getting real gender equality.

And who knows, if these trends continue, in the coming years it might not be surprising to see a programming class with equal representation of men and women.