Gay Gordon-Opening Statement

Date: Wed Dec 01 1999 - 10:16:05 EST

Women in Science - Who are they? Where are they?

As the Associate Director for Publishing for the Eisenhower National
Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education (ENC), I am looking at
the discussion topic, Women and Girls in Science, from the standpoint of
K-12 education. The answers to the questions, Who are they? Where are
they?, can often be found in girls' experiences with science in the K-12

Before I begin, let me give a bit of background about my organization. ENC
is a contract with the US Department of Education. We collect K-12 math and
science curriculum resources and makes information about those resources
available to teachers and other educators across the country. We hope to
improve math and science teaching and learning through the information we
provide and the products we produce, several of which target equity in the
math and science classroom (see <>). In this
statement, I frequently refer to math as well as science. I don't think you
can separate one from the other if you are discussing the current situation
or the possibilities for the future for women in science.

If you look at the information published by NSF on their web site (<http://, you get a sense that
women are making some progress. Women are now enrolled in as many math and
science classes in high school as men (with the exception of physics), the
numbers of doctorates in science and engineering awarded to women over a 10
year period are up by 69 percent, and the proportion of women receiving
doctorates is also up. The AAUW finds that young women are majoring in math
and science in college at a higher rate and that women earn equivalent or
higher grades than males at all points in their academic careers.

But, NSF also points out that while the percentage of doctorates in science
is up, NSF includes social sciences in its count. Psychology is the only
science where there are more women Ph.D.s than men, and the proportion of
women holding doctoral degrees in all sciences is still only 31 percent. In
1994, only 11 percent of the doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded
to women. While women are 51 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent
of the labor force, they comprise only 22 percent of the scientists and
engineers, and they earn less than men, partly because they are younger and
partly because they are predominantly employed in the social sciences,
rather than the natural sciences.

An interesting study by the Society of Women Engineers shows that women
select math or science as their field of study if they perform well in
these areas. Men on the other hand, may select math or science in spite of
their performance. What worries me is that there may be many more women and
girls who would have chosen a career in science or engineering, except for
their K-12 classroom experiences in math and science.

We know quite a lot about teaching practices that are likely to encourage
girls to study math and science and the practices that have the opposite
affect. Iris Weiss found that K-8 teachers are mostly women and often not
adequately prepared to teach science. Therefore, they fear teaching it,
lack confidence in their ability to do so, and don't provide good role
models for young girls.

Other studies show that, in general, teachers treat boys and girls
differently in the classroom. They call on boys more often than girls,
ignore the contributions of women, foster competition in the classroom, and
use activities targeted to boys.

However, we know some of the ways to make math and science class more
appealing to girls (for instance, see Sue V. Rosser's Re-enginnering Female
Science). Teachers can:
 - Provide hands-on experience and practical applications
 - Be sensitive to the applications and methods of experiments
 - Use both qualitative and quantitative data
 - Use an interdisciplinary approach
 - De-emphasize competition
 - Provide a broader, more holistic scope of study
 - Create collaborative groups or study groups
 - Use female examples
 - Include more history of science
 - Create communities of learners

If teachers did all of this in the science classroom (and indeed, they are
being encouraged to do so by the national math and science standards), they
would create a better atmosphere for all students to learn science.
Hands-on science, practical applications, an interdisciplinary approach,
collaborative groups, and the inclusion of the history of science are all
good teaching techniques for the science classroom, regardless of gender.
So part of the problem in encouraging more girls to stick with science is
to improve math and science teaching overall.

Unfortunately, many teachers are unaware of what works best for students in
the science classroom. Elementary teachers may not be teaching science and
middle and high school science teachers may not be aware that there are any
gender- related problems. In a recent publication from the Third
International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) documenting the U.S.
case study findings, researchers found a significant gender gap in advanced
math and science courses in the high schools they studied, but most
parents, students, and teachers in the study did not perceive a problem.

Would improved science teaching counteract the other influences in girls'
lives in middle school, the age at which they show a marked decline in
interest in science? Some influences are very powerful, because they are an
integral part of the milieu in which the girl lives, including the school
she attends, the family she is a part of, and what she sees and hears in
the surrounding culture. Research indicates that girls are concerned that
science isn't feminine and that they consistently underestimate their
ability to do math and science. They also lack self-confidence, and they
lack role models and encouragement that might help them overcome their

To answer my own question, I don't think changing teaching would completely
make up for the cultural pressures at work on middle school and high school
girls. But, improved teaching would help, particularly to the extent that
teachers encourage girls and provide role models and mentors. There are
some wonderful examples of intervention programs to help girls overcome
their lack of confidence and to develop interest in becoming scientists.
The ERG program described by Trish Koontz in the 1997 NCTM Yearbook is a
good example, and the Rural and Urban Images program developed by the
Appalachian Regional Education Laboratory (and included in the stories
section of the ENC equity web site mentioned earlier) is another. There are
also a number of good web sites where girls can read about women working in
science and engineering such as Women in Science at
<> or Design Your Future at <http://>.

K-12 inservice education is one place to begin to address the problem of
too few women in engineering and the natural sciences. But there are many
other problems to explore. How do we improve K-12 preservice education, so
that all new teachers entering the classroom are aware of gender
differences in learning? How do we change the culture and address things
such as the "yuck" factor (squeamishness about science experiments) or
"learned helplessness syndrome" (letting boys take the lead) identified by
researchers as limiting girls' interest in math and science? Should women
change to meet the current demands of the science profession or should
science change to help women solve the "three clock problem" (balancing
career, home, and partner's career)? How can we encourage women to return
to school for advanced degrees in math and science? How can we encourage
the science profession to accept them? What can women do for one another?

Gay Gordon
(Dialogue Facilitator)

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