The Search for the Next Sally Ride

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sally Ride, who passed away on Monday, inspired young women and girls across the country by breaking NASA's formidable glass ceiling and becoming America's first female astronaut. She worked to encourage female students who were interested in math and science to pursue their interests, despite those fields being largely dominated by men. 

While many women work in science and technology, including prominent names such as as M.I.T.'s Susan Hockfield and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, the numbers are still disproportionate. Women hold nearly half of the jobs in the American economy, but less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — are performed by females. This gender gap persists despite the fact that more and more women are graduating from college and entering the workforce. 

Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta and Jane Stout have written a research paper called "STEMming the Tide." They discuss some alarming trends when it comes to how women perceive themselves in their fields of choice. 

Dasgupta says that the problem begins with stereotypes about the "ideal scientist." 

"The ideal scientist, often, even in an unspoken way, is typically male, or is typically geeky, even though neither of these things are in reality true," she says. "But because the message is that science is masculine, and science is nerdy, what ends up happening is that girls and women who are very talented and have this knack for tinkering, this knack for science may not feel that this is where they belong." 

In the case of STEM jobs, the problem is not clear-cut discrimination against women, but rather, as Dasgupta puts it, a matter of "invisibility." 

"When you feel like people like you are not in those fields, and there are other options available to you, those women, especially when the material gets tough, I think [they] start to experience more self-doubt about whether this is their calling." Dasgupta and Stout found that women begin to drop out of math and science programs during the first year or two of college, when the material becomes more difficult.

"In our research, Jane and I found that women actually outperformed their male peers in calculus, in all of these engineering fields and physical sciences," Dasgupta says. However, the women displayed lower levels of confidence than the men in the study. 

"This divergence between doing well but feeling that 'maybe I'm not so good at this' completely goes away when the professor or the teacher [is] a women, rather than a man," Dasgupta says. "We found that female scientists and engineers who are more advanced in the field act as 'social vaccines.'" The presence of a female role model boosted female students' confidence in the study. 

Female students can also benefit from each other's presences, in that older graduate students can act as mentors for younger women who are studying in one of the STEM fields. "Mentors don't always have to be the superstars of the field," Dasgupta says.

"Sally Ride is a great example because one of the reasons she got really interested in physics is because in the 10th or 11th grade, she had a science teacher who was a woman," Dasgupta says. "That science teacher had a profound effect on her interest in physics and changed the course of her academic trajectory." 

Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, who found a very hostile environment towards women when she was studying chemistry at the University of Chicago in the late 80s. Several professors had hired a stripped to celebrate when one of their colleagues being granted tenure "I was in the chemistry library in the building at the time of the soiree," she recalls.


Nilanjana Dasgupta, Christine Fair and Jane Stout

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Brad Mielke

Comments [3]

Lorraine Hopping Egan

Role models ARE important! The Women's Adventures in Science series of 10 biographies and accompanying website ( feature 10 contemporary scientists with very cool jobs. The books tell their personal as well as their professional stories, which makes these women very human, approachable, and real.

(Disclosure: I authored two of the titles—Bone Detective and Spcae Rocks. More info on the books:

Aug. 31 2012 01:58 PM

In regards to the comment during the show that Ms. Ride had a same-sex mentor in grade school science class that ignited her passion for the subject, I'd like to add that this same phenomenon negatively affects many young boys since there is a serious lack of male role models in schools across the country. The lack of male mentors in early academics may have something to so with the the continual downward slide of male achievement in school.

Jul. 25 2012 02:42 PM
Sharon Homer-Drummond from South Carolina

I just completed my Ph.D. in Integrative Biology, having had earlier careers in marketing/PR and as an officer in the Army National Guard. I returned to the sciences in 1997, earning a second bachelor's at UIUC in 2001 and an MS from the University of Miami in 2006. During my working life and academic careers, I've certainly saw plenty of sexism, but learned to deal with it by either shrugging it off or by directly confronting it (depending on the situation), combined with presenting a professional demeanor at all times. I've had the advantage of watching both the military and the sciences undergo radical changes since I graduated with my first degree in 1986. Biology and chemistry in particular are now very female heavy (biology is female-dominated), and the military has a much larger proportion of women at all ranks. But, the fact remains that women are the primary one responsible for their own help. If we want help in dealing with a unprofessional working environment, then we must be willing to confront it and deal with the consequences. And we must remember that we need to present that same professionalism ourselves. I've seen too many women who complain when they're the recipient of unwanted jokes, advances, etc., but who make no mention of the same behavior (within the work environment) when they seek it. Our professional lives should remain that - professional - if we're to expect professional behavior from those we work with.

Jul. 25 2012 10:14 AM

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