Why aren’t there more women in science?

Associate Professor of Physics Kathy Aidala

By Keely Savoie

Associate Professor of Physics Kathy Aidala grew up talking about science at the dinner table with her engineer father, accountant mother, and sister—who also grew up to be a physicist.

“I didn’t realize that it was unusual for a woman to be a scientist until much later in life,” she recalled at a recent talk, “Why Aren’t There More Women in Science?”

Aidala addressed the topic as part of SciTech Café, a monthly series of discussions with professors from the Five College Consortium designed to promote a better understanding of science. Aidala, who teaches a course on gender and science at Mount Holyoke, gives similar talks to academics who recruit scientists.

The ratio of women to men in science varies by field: while women hold more than 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees in biology, they make up only about 20 percent of the degree holders in engineering and physics—and just 14 percent in computer science.

“There is no simple answer as to why” there are not more women at the top of their fields in science, said Aidala, who recently was named by Nerdwallet as one of “40 under 40: Professors Who Inspire.”

“The best thing we can do is talk about the issue,” she said. “We can improve parental leave policies and spousal hiring programs, and that can help. But in physics, computer science, and engineering, we don’t even have the women in the pipeline to reach that point in their careers.”

Aidala cited research showing that unconscious biases—the implicit assumptions we make in our everyday lives based on gender—play a key role in marginalizing women in science. Numerous studies have demonstrated that merely substituting a male name for a female name—or obscuring gender altogether—can radically change the perceptions of individuals, whether they are students, parents, teachers, or employers evaluating résumés.

Further complicating the issue is a phenomenon known as stereotype threat.

“Girls are constantly getting a subtle (or not so subtle) message that math and science are not for them,” said Aidala. When that message is internalized, it leads to poorer performance in the direction of the bias.

In study after study, Aidala noted, subjects perform differently on tests when they are told that there was a gender bias in the expected direction; that is, women performed more poorly, and men performed slightly better.

“The stronger the implicit bias, the greater the difference,” said Aidala.

Unconscious bias and stereotype threat affect the engagement of women in science on every level, from the very inception of their careers—and even at the high school level—to the positions they are offered and the salaries they are paid. Media, parents, and teachers often influence the interest of youngsters based on subtle differences in expectations.

“Girls often decide early on that science isn’t for them,” said Aidala. “It’s hard to change this with legislation. You can’t say, ‘Don’t be unconsciously biased.’ ”

Attracting more women into the pipeline is a key starting point—but retaining them so that they move on to higher studies and careers is just as important.

Some institutions of higher learning have developed models that level the playing field for men and women in science. At Mount Holyoke, for example, female physics majors are engaged by active learning techniques in the classroom that were developed as best practices from physics education research.

Physics students at Mount Holyoke also can participate in peer mentoring and collaborative workspaces that provide both support and community. A 24-hour lounge provides physics and astronomy students an appealing space to do their work in a group setting.

On a national level, Aidala advocates for requiring four years of high school math and science, and introducing engineering and computer science at an earlier age.

“We need to provide female role models, encourage more women to do science, improve parental leave policies, create a collaborative and supportive environment in undergraduate classes and workplaces,” she said.

Most importantly, she said, we have to confront and challenge our own biases.

“Redefine your notion of what a scientist is supposed to be, identify talent and passion differently,” she said. “We all have biases that we're not entirely aware of. The important thing is to keep talking about them, and to recognize when they impact our behavior. And that conversation is happening more and more frequently as time goes on.”

Jeromie Whalen, a technology educator at Northampton High School, who attended the talk, intends to incorporate some of Aidala’s suggestions for making technology curricula more attractive to female students in his class planning.

“Looking at how you can tailor your offerings to the interests of the diverse range of individuals is critical,” he said, noting that classes with a greater representation of female students tend to promote creative problem solving and richer class discussions.

“Having a wide diversity of students is really good for creativity and innovation,” he said.

SciTech Café is funded through the Materials Research and Engineering Center and the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the National Science Foundation.  

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