Tuesday, November 11, 2008

STEM & Women

Back when I was still attending MSU, I attended a regional meeting of of the Society of Physics Students (SPS). One of the topics was the number of females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The speaker challenged us to try to name famous women that had made notable contributions to our fields.

In astronomy, several names popped to mind: Margaret Geller. Annie Cannon. Maria Mitchell.

I listed those few I could come up with, but in the entire auditorium, I was the only student that could name a single one.

In a similar situation, while I was taking Calculus 2, my professor said that if the entire class could name three female mathematicians, he would cancel the final. All the students began flipping furiously through their textbooks for names, but only turned up one.

For anyone in the field, it's obvious that females are grossly underrepresented (astronomy seems to be one of the hottest scientific fields for women however), but the question has always been, "why?".

A recent paper from the AMS has taken a fresh look at this issue. What the paper describes is likely not surprising to most people; The most significant factors the researchers found was cultural views on such fields. In countries which do not afford women the same opportunities as males for mathematics education, women obviously are strongly underrepresented. However, when the ability is given to compete equally as with Title IX in the US, women become more frequent in the fields. Yet still not as represented.

Part of the reason, the researchers conclude, is that there remains some social taboo against such fields. Women from Asian and Indian countries are far more common in the STEM fields.

Another interesting note was that even in societies were math is seen as "geeky" and not an appropriate field for women, girls tend to do just as well as males in elementary schools. Only when social pressures start taking over in middle schools do girls start falling behind notably.

So how does the US stack up here? As you might expect with how poor I and other science bloggers have noted the US education system is in respect to science, it doesn't do too well:
Asian girls and white girls who are immigrants from Eastern Europe are well represented among the very top students identified in the extremely difficult mathematics competitions discussed here; it is only USA-born white and historically underrepresented minority girls who are underrepresented, underrepresented by almost two orders-of magnitude relative to Asian girls educated in the same school systems
Go go cultural taboos America!


Anonymous said...

Your professor should have amended that:

"Name a female mathematician who is NOT Danica McKellar."

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Who's Danica McKellar?

I'm sure I used to know more, but they've obviously not stuck, since I can only recall Noether and Lovelace at the moment.

For shame.

Anonymous said...

There are probably so many reasons why women are still lacking in STEM, but as the younger generations who had more opportunities start moving up the career ladder, it will start to change.

My favorite is when I see more opportunities in academia for young men AND women to work their work schedule around having babies. Those 9 months of pregnancy and X months of nursing are something that we'll always have in terms of "inequality" and it's good when both parents are allowed extra time and space to work from home or work different hours to do that.

Oh, and... astronomy chicks rule!

Stephen said...

What? Not even Henrietta Swan Leavitt?