There is a clear gender gap when looking at the under-representation of women in comparison to men in STEM careers (Blickenstaff, 2005). This gender gap in science preferences emerges in high school (Marx and Roman, 2002). Formally equal standardized test scores in science begin to change, and female students begin to have lower average scores in science and math than male students (Good et al. 2010). Young women tend to begin to underestimate their ability in science courses and subsequently take fewer courses in math and science (Good et al. 2010). Even gifted young women in science tend to underestimate their intellectual skill in comparison to gifted young men in science (Eccles et al. 1999).
While there are multiple factors affecting career choice, a few of the reasons young women tend not to continue with science includes: a lack of academic preparation for a science major/career, a lack of positive experiences with science in childhood, the absence of female scientists/engineers as role models, irrelevance of science curriculum to many girls, the pedagogy of science classes favors male students, a ‘chilly climate’ exists for girls/women in science classes, cultural pressure on girls/women to conform to traditional gender roles , and an inherent masculine worldview in scientific epistemology (for a full review, see Blickenstaff, 2005).
Many people will say that less girls choose to continue in science because of biological differences between men and women. In contrast to such a viewpoint, we see that at age 9, girls and boys similarly engage in science classes and activities, while by age 13, girls begin to show less engagement (Good et al. 2010). Since differences emerge so late (high school), Good et al (and others) argue that: “these differences in ability and preference between male and female students are not sex differences caused by genetic, chemical, or biological factors, but instead gender differences learned through socialization” (2010:133).
Our lab’s goal for the week was to help camp participants see themselves as scientists and see the many ways they already engage with scientific ways of thinking every day. We did this through introductions to the philosophy of science, to social science, and to research questions relevant to girls’ development and health. For instance, we focused on the girls’ attention on research on the very first day by asking some common questions:
- How do you form a research question? How can you then test that question? What would be an interesting thing for you to study? How would you approach that? How do you decide what is enough evidence?
Our hope was to bolster the girls’ confidence in their abilities to formulate research questions and address those question with difference research tests. We followed up with this theme throughout the week and had multiple discussions about research focused on what the girls found interesting and what they might chose to study. For example, we had a discussion about microbiomes. The girls in my small group came up with expectations of what might affect nasal microbiome alterations and how those different variables would either increase or decrease microbiome variation.
Beyond inspiring the girls’ own abilities, we also naturally provided the students with a panel of women on different steps in a biological anthropology career pathway. All the members of LEE who participated were women, which included undergraduates, a graduate student (me!), and our advisor Dr. Clancy. As you might expect, this led to questions from the girls about future college major options, what biological anthropologists do, what career pathways they could take, how long/how much school would they need for different options, and what steps could they take now.
Throughout the week we ate lunch with the girls to give them a chance to ask these questions. Some students had come to the camp knowing exactly what they wanted to do (become medical doctors, perform stem cell research, design prosthetic limbs for people, and more!). Others had come to the camp liking science and wanting to learn what they could do within a science field. Still others came because they were encouraged to do so and had no idea yet if they wanted to go into a scientific career path.
While the camp pulls a select audience (those who would elect to go to a science camp), I think that the major accomplishment of the camp was newly formed friendships with other young women interested in science. As mentors, we can only provide so much – a small research project, an inspiring book to read, a good documentary, online resources, or college major and career suggestions. By gathering young women interested in science, they validated and supported each other’s passion for science. They have a new support system and already have been keeping in touch. Having a positive friendships associated with science correlates to higher positivity about one’s conceptualization of one’s self as a future scientist (Stake and Nickens, 2005).
By providing the girls with the tools to succeed and creating a support system, we hope they were left at the end of the week with a kindled love for science and a growing confidence in their own abilities as scientists, as well as increased positivity about their potential success in a scientific career.
Blickenstaff, 2005. Women and science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gender and Education, 17(4): 369-386.
Eccles J et al. 1999. Self-Evaluations of Competence, Task Values, and Self-Esteem. In, Johnson NG, Roberts MC, Worell J (Eds.) Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls. Washington, D.C.: APA, pp. 53-84.
Good JJ, Woodzicka, JA, and Wingfield, LC. 2010 The Effects of Gender Stereotypic and Counter-Stereotypic Textbook Images on Science Performance. Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2): 132-147.
Marx and Roman, 2002 D. M., & Roman, J. S. (2002). Female role models: Protecting women’s math test performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28: 1183–1193.
Stake, JE and Nickens SD. 2005. Adolescent Girls’ and Boys’ Science Peer Relationships and Perceptions of the Possible Self as Scientist. Sex Roles, 52(1): 1-11.