STEM, Gender, and the Science Cafe

“STEM, Gender, and the Science Café”

Posted: October 14, 2013
by: Jessica Baron

A talk delivered to the South Bend branch of the American Association of University Women
Sunday September 29, 2013
Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture, Downtown South Bend

(with thanks to April Lidinsky and Charlotte Pfieffer for the invitation and support)

Jessica Baron at the South Bend AAUW meeting

Jessica Baron at the South Bend AAUW meeting

I’m here today to talk about gender, STEM, and the science café, but I also want to talk more generally about the importance of mentoring networks, of expressing interest in innovation, and of making science more meaningful and less intimidating to society.

What I want to do today is set out for you what we know about women in science, the role the AAUW and their report “Why So Few?” has played in this knowledge, some recommendations for making things better (some from the AAUW and some that I want to suggest myself), things we’re doing to make the situation worse, and what I think are the most promising ways forward.

First, let’s put out on the table what we know:

1. There are not an equal number of men and women in STEM fields. This is particularly a problem in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics. (Source)

2. Women do sometimes outnumber men in the “soft” sciences. (Source 1, Source 2)
So, in biology, for example, we can find more women than men at some levels. (However, biology has just been shown to provide a smaller salary at the Bachelor’s level than many of the humanities – Source 1, Source 2)

3.  We know precisely where we lose the most number of people (both male and female!) in the STEM (particularly TEM) fields. We lose them between high school and college when, for some reasons we’ll discuss, they (and particularly women) no longer want to study or work in STEM. (Source)
As of 2009, young men and women in the US were taking the same amount of STEM credits in high school. In theory, this means that both genders gained the same amount of intellectual preparation to study the STEM fields in college and beyond. (Source)
But when surveyed, only 19% women and 35% of men wanted to pursue STEM in college and the numbers dropped steadily all along the way (after the first year(s) of college, after receiving a B.A. or B.S., and again after finishing a Master’s). (Source) Now, to be fair, both of these numbers are low. The problem is, to some extent, that we are unable to get both men and women interested in STEM, though we clearly struggle more to entice women to enter the fields.

4. Our most recent numbers show that few women go on to get higher degrees in STEM fields. This is especially striking if you take out biology, which women study in high numbers. (Source)
This is important to consider for a number of reasons. But let’s think about this – what jobs are college grads likely to get with just a B.A. or B.S. degree? Over the years, my students (the ones who have not gone on to graduate school) went on to become legal assistants, marketing specialists, financial managers, and work in sales, social media, and education. It is often the case that STEM graduates without higher degrees do struggle to find employment. Many employers at this level seek employees with strong communication skills, something that is not taught often enough in the STEM fields.

5. We know that women tend not to be as visible as men are in STEM. For example, a disproportionate number of men sit on scientific advisory boards, policy teams, and win big awards. This is important to note because the salaries and awards that come with these position are often what allows scientists to spend time doing outreach activities, precisely the things that make them more visible.
If you think it’s not the case that women are less visible in science, gather together a group of people and ask them to name all the living scientists they know. The last time I did this, I got zero women the first time around. When challenged to come up with a woman, it took a few minutes, but the group came up with primatologist Jane Goodall. We went on to discuss public scientists (and science communicators) and again I asked the students to make a list. Neil deGrasse Tyson (an astrophysicist) and Bill Nye (formerly a mechanical engineer at Boeing and now a science communicator) came up in a matter of seconds. Out of curiosity, I asked the group to name a woman who makes a contribution to STEM outreach and education similar to Bill Nye. I got the answer: Ms. Frizzle.

No offense to Ms. Frizzle. She’s great. But she’s a cartoon character.

So where are the women in science OR science outreach?

Here’s a quote I like to read people in order to really depress them. It’s from a book titled Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney. Now, full disclosure, this book is not politically neutral. But this particular quote is. Mooney says that:

“… most of our citizens have only fleeting encounters with a science world that can come off as baffling, intimidating, or even downright unfriendly. Just 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally, according to survey data, and even fewer can name the government’s top science agencies: The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. When polled in late 2007 and asked to name scientific role models, 44 percent of people didn’t have a clue. They simply couldn’t give an answer. And among those respondents who were able come up with specific names, the top selections were either not scientists, or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein.” (Source)

It’s amusing at first, until it starts to sink in. Then it’s just sad.

6. Finally, we know that we need more people who are scientifically literate in general, men and women, of all ages. (Source). This doesn’t mean we all need to become scientists or STEM professionals of any kind. But we need to recognize that STEM literacy is important. Science and technology shape our future. It’s our responsibility as citizens to understand where we’re headed, talk to one another about it, and give our feedback. It’s also important that we understand science for ourselves. We need to get people out of the science and politics trap, where people who don’t feel confident about their knowledge of science or technology just take on the opinions of their political party or figure of choice. (Those political figures are among the many who need to become more science literate!)

Ok, so there are some general statements as well as statistics for you. Now I want to take some time to talk about the important contributions of the AAUW to the study of women in STEM.

In  2010, the AAUW released their report entitled “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” by Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett, Andresse St. Rose (available online here). It’s a wonderfully comprehensive report, but if you feel like you don’t have time to read it all, I would at least recommend taking a look at the executive summary.

The report rehearses some of the issues I just mentioned and tries to understand why so few women enter the STEM fields (and it does take into account TEM, especially).

“Why So Few?” identifies three basic reasons that women don’t go into STEM fields at the same rate as men.

The first is social and environmental factors. This can mean a lot of things; it’s a pretty big category. Specifically, they point to the problems that girls have succeeding in math. Our culture encourages boys to think of themselves as good at math and girls to consider themselves bad (or even naturally deficient) in math in both overt and subtle ways. Part of this is the myth that math is an innate skill that some people are just naturally good at. Very few people become competent in mathematics immediately and/or easily. It’s a learned skill. It takes hard work. It doesn’t take a genius. And math is an important ingredient in a good science education. We have to tell young women that we recognize the struggles math presents and encourage them to work through the issues instead of forfeiting math to boys.

When we discourage girls from math (or even encourage them to move on to other topics, usually verbally-oriented, that they may find less challenging), we are subtly telling them that it’s ok to give up and we take away an opportunity. We need to tell girls they can be good at math, even if it doesn’t come easily.

There’s an interesting study that tackles this issue of how expectations affect our performance. In a study of stereotype threat, researchers gave two groups of students with equivalent abilities a graduate-level aptitude test in mathematics. The first group of students were told gender had no impact on the scores of students who had taken the test earlier. The second group was told that male students generally scored higher on the test than females. When the tests were scored, the scientists found that gender had little impact on the scores of the first group of students. However, the second group of students, the ones who were told that males would perform better, had drastically different results. In that class, males DID achieve better scores on the test. In fact, they scored in the 86th percentile, on average, while females scored around the 16th. (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

There have been dozens of studies confirming the effects of stereotype threat on both women and minorities in mathematics. It’s shocking to see how much more likely a person is to succeed if we tell them it’s possible. For every overt statement that boys are better than girls at math, there are also lots of tiny “microagressions” – small and even unintentional verbal or behavioral acts that imply that we don’t expect as much from girls in mathematics.

The only skill that appears to be measurably better in boys is spatial ability, which boys are encouraged to build (again, even inadvertently) through 3-D games, sketching, and building. Studies also find that when we give these same sorts of tasks to girls, they are able to catch up to boys in spatial skills. (Source 1, Source 2)

The second issue the AAUW identifies is departmental and professional culture (which, to be fair, is not just a problem in STEM but in a lot of fields). Both men and women treat women poorly in the workplace. Women are discriminated against in employment and promotion, and the situation becomes worse for many women who choose to have children. (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4)

Recommendations for remedying departmental and professional culture include mentoring programs and programs promoting work-life balance. Of course, the issue of work-life balance and the care of children is an issue that needs to be addressed for both men and women. (Source)

The third and final issue identified in the AAUW report is bias and stereotypes, which we’ve touched on already above. The idea that STEM fields are masculine, that women are more equipped to study nature, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the caring professions absolutely affects the way young women view their opportunities. And as we’ve seen in the second point, even if women manage to overcome this and enter the STEM fields, they still face bias in their work lives.

Now, this is a whole lot of bad news to drop on you. The good news is that all these things can be changed.

Let me tell you about a few of the AAUW recommendations (the full array of recommendations can be viewed in the report) and add a few of my own.

– First, we need to spread the word about women’s achievements in STEM to show not just young girls, but people of all ages, that women can do, have done, and continue to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. (Some of you may know that October 15th is Ada Lovelace Day. It would be great to see us celebrate this as a community. It’s a day when historians and others worldwide are supposed to mobilize themselves to write articles and share stories on women scientists. To find out more, go to

– We also need to expose girls to successful female role models. This can be problematic because of the lack of visible women in STEM, but in the Internet era, it just takes a bit of searching to find women to contact or read about. A good resource for the history of women in science is the website for the Women’s Caucus of the History of Science Society. Their Online Historical Digital Collections are available here.

– It’s important to teach students about stereotype threat (and microagressions). Many of us do not immediately realize the ways in which our words are interpreted by the listener as limiting, biased, or potentially intimidating. We all have biases. The most helpful thing we can do is try to identify them and work on either extracting them from our conversations or point them out when we talk. If people understand stereotype threat and microagressions, they are much more likely to be able to think through this and prevent it from doing damage. (Source)

– We need to cultivate a growth mindset in young children. This kind of intervention involves banishing the myth that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are just natural geniuses. That is, you don’t have to be “gifted” with an innate ability for these fields in order to enter them. There are more people in STEM who have grown their intellectual skills over time and after many years of hard work.  There are plenty of people who are thriving in STEM fields who can tell you that they didn’t get straight As in their science and math classes in college but still went on to pursue careers in STEM.

– We must continue to encourage girls to develop spatial skills, a key ingredient in mathematical prowess. As I said earlier, girls can improve these skills, but they are not given as many opportunities in their play time as boys to build these skills.  3-D video games, sketching, and building are some of the activities that girls should be encouraged to pursue in order to improve spacial skills. (See an interesting new initiative for getting young girls interested in engineering here.)

– It’s important that we emphasize real-life implications of science early on in STEM courses. Science and mathematics classes should be more than an endless list of formulas to memorize. Laboratory exercises need to be more than just a series of steps to go through. If students understood how their knowledge could eventually be used in the real world, the value of STEM would be obvious (beyond our normal enticement of encouraging students to think about the money and the job opportunities available in STEM – which may or may not be available. Source)

– The AAUW is leading the argument to enforce Title IX in non-athletic educational endeavors, particularly in STEM. (Source)

– Climate assessments, both in academic departments and in laboratories need to be conducted so that groups can take an honest look at the statistics of women in their workplace and so they can receive and discuss the feedback of women. This is obviously just a first step. (Source)

– We need to assess and address the work-life balance troubles that women often encounter when they want to raise a family and enter one of the STEM fields. Although women currently earn 41% of PhDs in STEM fields, they only make up 28% of tenure-track faculty in those fields. In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) introduced a new undertaking, the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, a “10-year plan to provide greater work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers.” The NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative will, for example, allow researchers to delay or suspend their grants for up to one year at no cost in order to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations, provide supplements to cover research technicians with stipends to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave, offer greater opportunities to STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs, support submission of proposals for research that would assess the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline, and leverage existing NSF relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities. (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

– Finally, we need to build mentoring networks that encourage women of all ages, but particularly those who have already earned jobs in STEM, to pursue their professional goals. (Source 1, Source 2)

So those are some of the AAUW’s suggestions for improving the numbers and conditions of women in STEM. I have a few that I would like to add, that are in no way out of line with what the AAUW proposes.

– First, we need to get people to understand science better. Most people have no idea how science is conducted, what counts as evidence, and how scientific research turns into the science news they read in the media. Good science communication should be encouraged and celebrated.

– While we all like to get things right and show off our skills, we need people to understand that science requires a lot of failure – we call it DATA. This mindset requires resilience and we need to tell students up front that failure to make an experiment work, for example, is not a sign that the experimentor is inept in the STEM fields.

Now, so far, I’ve only mentioned things we should be doing to encourage people (especially women) to pursue STEM. There are also things that we DON’T need more of, things that are deleterious to getting people interested and involved in STEM.

Here’s what we DON’T need:

– We don’t need to force people into STEM. Our goal is not to have 100% of all people wanting to pursue STEM careers. We do want to understand why people aren’t interested,  but we don’t want to force people into fields that they don’t want to pursue. I’ve met many a college student whose parents have dictated their major as a condition of paying for their education. These students are at best demoralized.

– We don’t want to chase people away from the humanities. The humanities are an equally important part of science and technological innovation. If more people understood the value of history, philosophy, and policy study (just to name a few) in monitoring and influencing the future of STEM, we would greatly improve the fields. Not enough people think about the ethical issues involved in technological innovation.

– That said, we don’t need to think of humanities as just slaves to STEM overlords. The humanities are important to understanding the world – equal to, but distinct from STEM.

– We don’t need more bad biographies of women in science! I feel passionately about this because I wrote about Florence Nightingale in my dissertation and she has been cursed with a great number of unhelpful biographies.
Related to this, we need to learn to tell stories about women in science more respectfully. Both book-length and Internet resources on women in science have a knack for putting emphasis on the personal and familial duties of successful women in science. This is far less likely to occur in biographies of male STEM professionals. Now, this point can be controversial. Let me give you an example.

Last year, rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died and her obituary was published in the New York Times. The first words of her obituary mentioned not her acocmplishments in the development of rocket and jet propulsion technologies, but rather the fact that she made a “mean beef stroganoff.” (The opening line has since been changed to “She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.”) (Source 1, Source 2)

Discussion raged for weeks after Brill’s obituary was published about the appropriateness of mentioning her domestic duties so prominently (or at all) in her obituary. Perhaps you have heard of the “Finkbinder test,” a checklist proposed by journalist Christie Aschwanden to help journalists avoid gender bias when they write articles about women in science. In order to pass the test, an article about a female scientist must not mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

It’s not clear that a story that mentions some of these thing is “bad” or that it influences the way we think about the science that person did. But it is interesting to compare stories about male and female scientists, and to see just how many stories about women do not pass the Finkbinder test. In some cases, we wouldn’t dream of mentioning a man’s domestic duties in a story about his professional work. On the other hand, many women work very hard to succeed in science despite many obstacles, and stories that willingly flout the Finkbinder principles are sometimes making a respectful gesture towards those struggles. Perhaps you don’t like the Finkbinder test, but it is worthy of discussion.

– Finally, I believe something that we really don’t need are the recent attempts to “girlify” science. Girls don’t need glitter test tubes. They don’t need to be assured that science is sexy. And here, I’m not talking about toys for young girls that happen to be available in appealing colors, but rather the misguided attempts to sell science to women. The best example I can think of is a video put out last year by the European Commission called “Science, it’s a girl thing.” You can watch it here and form your own opinions. (It’s only fair to mention that the European Commission took the criticism to heart and does provide a good list of resources to girls. See here.)

Next, I want to talk about the importance of storytelling in encouraging people to pursue their goals and giving them an inside look at what’s it’s like to be a STEM professional.

As we all know, April Lidinsky has played a pivotal role in encouraging our community to preserve the past and express their experiences by telling stories. We’ve heard stories about the day to day lives of men and women, the challenges faced by minorities in our community, and remembrances of events that took place at venues long forgotten and neglected. All of this is important in building and maintaining our sense of community. It’s no different for science. Encouraging women (and men!) to tell their stories, express their frustrations, reveal those moments when they felt either triumphant or inadequate helps us put a human face on science. Simply recording pieces of a life helps us create our historical record. One of the primary projects of the women in science initiative known as Ada Lovelace Day is to fill in the biographies of women in STEM who were overlooked in some way. Without this information, the story of science is weaker. It’s only half complete. I think we gain a lot from initiatives to record the stories of women in STEM, and I would encourage you to look for some of the blogs that women in STEM find time to write, just to get a peek at what they’re talking about.

Finally, I want to end by talking a bit about our new, local South Bend Science Cafe and how it manages to draw together a lot of the things I’ve just talked about. When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference last year in Boston, I got quite an education in science outreach. I went to a panel on the Science Cafe model (an initiative by NOVA) and heard a great presentation on how and why to run a cafe. But more importantly, the Q&A period after the session was full of testimonials from people who had organized, presented at, or attended a cafe who claimed that it was a transformative experience. Organizers talked about how their work managed to make an impact on the community, creating a STEM “buzz” among kids and adults in their towns or cities. Scientists who presented talked of being forced to sit and really think about why their research is important and to put it into words that non-experts could understand and appreciate. They reported thinking more highly of their own research afterwards and wanting to do more outreach activities after that initial experience. Finally, and most importantly, the attendees (some of whom were simply scientists from a field unrelated to that cafe they were attending, but most often people who hadn’t taken a science class since high school or college many years before) talked at length about their appreciation for STEM after hearing a professional talk about it. They reported feeling more confident about science, being more interested in reading about new scientific discoveries and technological innovations, and being more willing to encourage their children to take an interest in STEM.  Science Cafes can give us access to potential role models, and they can help us engage in conversation in a supportive and inclusive atmosphere, appreciate the diverse careers and career paths of different scientists, and, most importantly, perhaps, make people feel comfortable about owning up to what they don’t know. It’s been said that the ideal question at a science cafe generally starts out with the phrase “I know this might be a stupid question, but…”

So, in appreciation of all of this great information we have about how to help get people interested in science, last month we started the South Bend Science Cafe. You can read about it here. I had many people tell me not to feel bad if I only got 5 or 6 people to show up to the first event. As it turned out, we crammed 100 people into Chicory Cafe as we heard about the potential of the Comet ISON. October’s cafe will feature Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Marya Lieberman, who will tell us about her research on low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals and how her invention of a cheap paper test for these drugs is improving short- and long-term health outcomes in the developing world. It’s a great chance to see chemistry in action.

So, I’ll leave you to think about these things. I hope you get a chance to ponder the incredible injustice done to some of the finest scientists in history simply because they were women. I hope you use some of this information to undo the damage that has been done to young girls everywhere when they were told (or subtly encouraged to think) that STEM fields are for boys. I hope that if you find yourself in a situation where you’re talking to someone with an interest in science that you encourage that interest and do everything you can to bolster their intellectual self-esteem. I also hope you remember my point about the importance of the humanities, both to support STEM and as an end in itself. And finally, I hope you come out to support our local science cafe. There’s been such great interest in it that I’m committed to doing everything I can to make it work.

Thank you.

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