GIRL POWER: Don't let STEM snobs deter you

GIRL POWER: Don't let STEM snobs deter you

March 2nd, 2013 in Opinion Rants

Early on in our nation's space race, scientists discovered that women had an edge on men as astronauts.

Women were smaller, they performed better in "isolation" than men, their respiration was better in conditions that space travel would offer, and more of them -- 68 percent compared to 56 percent of men -- passed the tests for knowledge and stamina.

But in 1952, President Lyndon Johnson put a stop to the Women in Space Program -- WISP.

In 1963, of course, Russia put the first woman in space.

Fast-forward to 2012 and 2013 when headlines all across the country are bemoaning the fact so few women are going into science and engineering fields.

On Thursday night, Mae Jemison, America's first woman of color to make a space flight, told an audience of more than 500 people here that things have changed -- but not quite enough. Women remain the best equipped, and even the best prepared, to enter the fields of mathematics, science and engineering, she said. But they still are being steered away: This time by college professors and by their own lack of confidence.

"Women are being weeded out," she said. Not necessarily by intention, but by educational systems that fail to notice and attend to a need for change.

"American women entering college are the best prepared academically to hit the books and successfully graduate with a STEM degree (82 percent)," according to a Bayer research survey of faculty leaders from the nation's top 200 research universities STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments.

Yet only 18 percent of students currently graduating with engineering degrees in the United States are women ,and even a smaller percentage are minorities.

Jemison says this must change.

"I bring this up because these biases prevent us from getting the best talent," she said. "And this is not just a body count. We need people with different perspectives."

The Bayer study found that female and minority students were deterred by early "discouragement and traditional STEM teaching approaches."

Among issues at play is the interaction of stereotypes and self confidence, says Jemison, who has a medical degree and a chemical engineering degree. She also works with Bayer's Making Science Make Sense campaign.

The young women and minorities are taking deliberately challenging (read, university weeding-out) courses, and some are seeing the difficulty as a sign they shouldn't be there. And 40 percent of the country's working female and minority chemists and chemical engineers said they were "discouraged" in high school and/or college from pursuing their STEM career.

Jemison has a similar story.

"In my high school, I was the first and only girl to sign up for a drafting class. The instructor saw my name and walked into my homeroom and asked the teacher, 'Is this a joke?'"

Unfortunately, the faculty of research universities seem to have little appetite for change.

n Forty-six percent of STEM department chairs saw the rigorous introductory courses, meant to "weed-out" students, were generally harmful because they often drive away students with potential. Still, 57 percent do not see a need to change the intro courses.

n Seventy percent say the issue of recruiting and retaining women and minority undergraduates has reached a point where it needs to be addressed by university leadership, including trustees, presidents and deans.

n Eighty-four percent believe the issue is important to their chancellor or president, but only one-third say their university has a comprehensive STEM diversity plan with retention and recruitment goals.

Jemison is right. This is not about equal numbers. It's about having all the tools we can muster to create the right answers for tomorrow.

"America's success in the future depends on the present, and we as adults have to change the world today," she says.