Science Fields Still an All Boys Club

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

male scientist (Shots Studio/Shutterstock)

Einstein, Pasteur, Hawking, Bohr. Do you notice anything about these people, besides the fact that they made some of the most important scientific discoveries in history?

They’re all men.

The recipients of the Noble Prizes this week—from physics, medicine and chemistry—are all men, too.

Historically, men have dominated the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, also known as STEM.

But just last summer, researchers at Yale University found that physicists, chemists, and biologists are still likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a female one.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor of creative writing at University of Michigan, but she was one of the first two women to earn a bachelor of science in physics from Yale.

She joins The Takeaway to talk about why she didn't continue her studies in the sciences, and what today’s culture has to do with it.


Eileen Pollack

Produced by:

Johanna Mayer


T.J. Raphael

Comments [11]

Lynn Dierking from Corvallis, OR

I just want to pick up on an insightful question asked by John related to whether the "community of science" discourages girls to pursue science. Eileen interpreted the question in terms of science being a solitary activity so felt that it was not an issue, a fine way to respond. However, another way to think about community and what I thought John might be getting at is to recognize the community embodied in the "enterprise" of science, what John referred to in the title as the "all boy's club."

In a study recently completed with a colleague, Dale McCreedy at Franklin Institute Science Museum, Cascading Influences: Long-term impacts of informal STEM Experiences for Girls (‎), there was good news and not so good news. The good news first—many women in our sample indicated that STEM plays a significant role in their daily lives—they either are working in traditional science careers or now engage in science-related careers, interests, and hobbies.

The not-so-good news is that we found there are still tensions around the ways that girls/women think about what counts as science. Unfortunately, a sterile laboratory setting is still the predominant image that comes to mind for many young women when they think about a science career; even young women in this study who were fully engaged in active, free-choice science programs still had many misconceptions about what science is and who does it. Perhaps one of the most powerful findings was that many of the STEM outreach initiatives and resources being designed for girls, though well-intended, might be resulting in outcomes that are entirely opposite to what developers hoped to achieve. The report states that, "Our society's focus on traditional science careers, inherent in the "pipeline" metaphor, may be discouraging participation in STEM or trivializing other ways of engaging in STEM. These perceptions may prevent or limit girls from valuing the science in their life."

Some food for thought. Thanks for an insightful piece, John and Eileen!

Oct. 14 2013 02:15 PM
Julie from Austin, TX

No biases? Imagine a man at a scientific conference introducing himself at dinner, and in response receives a question: "oh, are you husband then?" (To which he has to make the correction- no he's not, and he's there to give a talk.) Think that really happens to the guys? None of these are bad people, and they embarrass at their mistake. They're products of ingrained beliefs slow to change.

Men (and women) don't know this if they don't live it. It persists, and this is just one example of the subtle ways it plays out.

Oct. 10 2013 01:21 PM
David Dailey from California

The other, unspoken, fact is that most boys don't bother with Science or Physics either. Why? Could it be due to the years and years of training required for a salary and opportunity that is not really compelling compared with other fields in which people can start earning money earlier in their lives and achieve leadership positions earlier in their careers? The same challenge applies to women and minorities and may be in some sense an even greater challenge for these two groups as the economic situation for these folks is often such that they really need to make money sooner in their lives.
People have lots of other choices, and science is long, hard, not especially well paid and, for many fields, crowded with far too many trainees for the jobs available.

Oct. 09 2013 03:46 PM
Brian from Austin, Texas USA

In 2010-2011, there were about 83,000 engineering bachelor degrees earned, 18.4% were female. Women are missing roughly 26,000 engineering degrees vs. a perfect, 50% gender split.

Since 1982, women have received almost 10 million more degrees than men. Currently, there are 7 women getting degrees for every 5 men. In grades 8 through 12, girls enjoy double digit advantages over boys in both reading and writing skills?

Which is a more important gender equity issue, 26 thousand women getting the “wrong” degree, a business or medical degree instead of an engineering degree or 5 million men getting no degree at all? How are boys lacking proficiency in R&W ever going to make a positive contribution to society?

Googling (NPR gender education gap), the first 3, salient stories are “chasm in computers”, “digital gaps” and “STEM gender gap”. Searching for “gender education gap”, the only stories found involving education are about “STEM Gender Gap” and “Computer Science Gender Gap”. This suggests that NPR is unconcerned with the massive gender gaps disadvantaging boys and men. Why?

May I suggest that you focus your investigative attention on males who can barely read or write, who drop out of high school and who never get a college education. Why is this happening? What can be done to retrain, reeducate and remotivate the teachers who are so woefully failing to educate our boys and men, 74% of whom are female?

Oct. 09 2013 02:59 PM
Lori from Beulah MI

What a bunch of nonsense! My daughter, age 23, is majoring in Biochemistry at Michigan Tech. She is barely 5 feet tall, and is gorgeous. But no one ever, ever, suggests she doesn t have the brains or the drive to be where she is. The moral is: if you act like a doormat people will treat you that way. If you act as though you should be taken seriously, then they do.

Oct. 09 2013 02:39 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I love talking Astro Physics, jet Propulsion and gravity's rainbow with women who know more than I do. It turns me on. I don't understand what is wrong with most men, I really don't.

Oct. 09 2013 02:17 PM
Sedate Redfield from Eugene, Oregon

The Ellen Pollock interview this morning, 9 October, was informative if somewhat discouraging, re the continued discouragement women encounter when contemplating entering the fields of science and math. What I found objectionable was the interviewer's several interjections of a personal nature ... his daughter's interest in those fields.

This interview wasn't about him or his family. Warm and fuzzy have no place in a serious interview on a serious subject.

Oct. 09 2013 01:30 PM

If you are a white male, and probably vote strictly Republican I'd venture you are probably 50, 60ish yrs. or older, or are the male child of someone of this description. My statement is stereotypical; well, when you use stereotypical arguments in order to disagree, I determine you've got FEW new ideas, and little experience in the wider world. My personal experience is from a woman's perspective; I have lived in a Conservative culture in my family as well as my community. It's sad but true that we all suffer from underlying/unconscious thinking that leads each of us to stereotypical thinking. When you suffer the consequences of this thinking you become, conscious really fast.

Oct. 09 2013 01:21 PM
Jim Byars

I simply disagree. It has been my experience that when minorities do not get what they want. Or are traded in the way they believe they should be treated. That affected persons answer often is it's because I'm black or it's because I'm a woman. When in fact it was because the person did not agree with you. I just watched a documentary on frontline where a woman investigator presented findings regarding head injuries in football. She asserted her findings were not accepted because she was a woman. A man in the audience said there was no sexism involved it was just we did not agree with her

Oct. 09 2013 12:39 PM
Heather Fletcher from Philadelphia

Our Direct Marketer of the Year is a woman in tech. Sandy Carter, GM, IBM. As for why there are comparatively so few women in STEM, there's a sidebar to the story. It includes a quote from a SciFri commenter.
If you allow links, here it is:

Oct. 09 2013 12:34 PM
Catherine from Cambridge, Massachusetts

As a Scientist in her mid-30s, I was shocked to learn my workplace had recently eliminated the fully paid 12-weeks of maternity/disability leave offered until as recently as last year. The policy is now 8 weeks short term disability paid, 4 weeks unpaid (with options to use vacation to pay unpaid time off).

When does a man EVER have to make such a choice? Why do we insist that women still have to choose between having children and having a paycheck even while on maternity leave? Most places still don't pay anything while a women is on maternity.

The underlying problem is still the pervasive attitude that a workplace is doing a woman a favor by giving her federally mandated leave, paid or unpaid, to allow her to have children and a job. Equally as offensive is the idea of giving the woman a "choice" to use all her vacation time to pay herself while caring for her newborn versus no pay at all. Is this really a choice? Essentially women who want 2-3 children while working choose to have no vacation for 2 or 3 or more years to spend time with family. Again, when is a man ever faced with making this type of decision in the workplace?

Biologically, women are different. We just ARE. We are no less capable mentally or scientifically. We need to change hearts and minds in the sciences; women should be allowed to have both a career and children without having to sacrifice basic benefits men always get to enjoy. Combining all of the above with a scientific career that itself is challenging for either a man or a woman, you can see why some women choose after having children to leave the sciences.

Oct. 09 2013 12:26 PM

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