Editorial: Wanted: more girls in science

Last modified: 5/16/2013 5:23:40 PM
Last year, in an attempt to remedy the gross gender imbalance in employment in science and technology fields, the European Commission created a video targeting young women. It was called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing.” The ad consisted of laughing and dancing girls interspersed with foaming beakers and other iconic images from science – think Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj in stiletto heels and short lab coats. It deservedly provoked ridicule, but it also prompted the commission to ask girls to create the video that should have run. The contest winning entries were infinitely superior to the original. They can be seen at Smithsonian.com/eccontest.

Unlike the European Commission, the New Hampshire Department of Education, the IT and Manufacturing Partnership and NHTI got it right the first time. The state’s first “Girls Technology Day,” held recently at NHTI in Concord, was a hit. The day was filled with opportunities to meet female scientists and explore STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – in a hands-on fashion by using computer-assisted design programs, programming robots, 3D printers and other tools. More than 175 girls from around the state attended. The question now: How many of them will go on to study and pursue a career in science and stick with it? Historically, the answer has been not many.

Nationally, fewer than one-quarter of all the jobs in STEM fields are held by women. Study after study has shown that while boys and girls are equally interested in science in elementary school, at some point during middle school or high school most girls decide it’s not for them. There are many potential reasons: teacher bias in favor of boys, a perception that being good in science isn’t cool, a lack of female role models. All, no doubt, contribute to a gender gap that the United States must close to compete globally. It will take more than an annual Girls Technology Day to do it.

What’s missing most is a critical mass of girls and women in science to help encourage others. Also needed are female role models and mentors to show girls that science can be fulfilling, lucrative and fun. The girls day at NHTI was a step in the right direction.

Efforts like those at NHTI are taking place all over the country. Change will come. Futurist Faith Popcorn speaks of what she calls a “She-Change” in society. Young single women, Popcorn says, now purchase twice as many homes as young single men. They make up a majority of medical school classes, receive 60 percent of all master’s degrees and own more than one-third of all startup businesses. That change, however, has been slow to come to the sciences.

Jennifer Galbraith, a professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology at NHTI, told Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne that she has the same percentage of women in her freshman engineering class this year as she did a generation ago: three out of 60, or 5 percent.

Science and technology are the poorer, and progress slower, because large numbers of women have yet to be convinced that a science career is for then. Educators and scientists, male and female, must do all they can to encourage women to pursue a career in the sciences. Locally, a good start might be to use the Concord conference as a springboard to create an online peer group for girls who enjoy science.

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