Mystery of the Missing Women in Science

Mystery of Women in Science

Illustration by Serge Bloch

This article was written by Natalie Angier for the New York Times.

Peter Ostrander, the tireless coordinator and cheerleader for a renowned science and mathematics magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., was not satisfied. Over the past few years, the pool of applicants had included nearly as many girls as boys, and the acceptance rate — based largely on test scores and grades — had followed suit.

Yet when it came to which of the invitees ended up choosing Blair’s magnet option over other offerings in the area, the scales tilted male. In 2012, for example, 80 percent of the eligible boys said yes, but only 70 percent of the girls. In 2010, the figures had been 93 percent and 56 percent.

Convinced the program could do better at pitching its product to girls, Mr. Ostrander recruited teams of upper-class girls last spring to call their hesitant young counterparts. Extol the wonders of the program, he said. Dispel the tired geek myths.

“The stereotype is out there that the magnet is filled with nerdy people,” he said. “Whatever that means.”

The upper-class students took to the phone banks with verve. (Full disclosure: my daughter was one of them.) They talked of fun, extracurriculars and sisterhood. They secured many yes votes and earned pizza and sandwiches — but still, fewer qualified girls than boys are entering the magnet this fall.

As a result, the demanding, gratifying, even thrilling four-year immersion in physics, chemistry, biology, calculus, computer science, astronomy, entomology, the proper use of power tools — and yes, the humanities and social sciences — remains almost two-thirds male.

Montgomery Blair’s experience is by no means unique. Even as girls prove their prowess in science and math, their ambivalence lingers when it comes to fields formerly painted boy blue.

As researchers see it, that reluctance, that slight and possibly subliminal case of unfounded quantipathy, must be confronted and understood if the wider inequities in science are to be rooted out for good. Ample evidence refutes the notion that female brains just can’t rotate the object, leap the quantum, do the math. Worldwide, girls’ average math scores are on a par with those of boys.

And even among math geniuses who score in the top ten thousandth of the population — the rarefied precinct notoriously deemed a boys’ club by the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers — the male advantage has been shrinking steadily, to about 3 boys per girl today from 13 in the 1980s.

Joseph Price of Brigham Young University and his colleagues reported this year that the gender gap in high-stakes math competitions disappeared simply by adding more rounds to a contest. Boys did better than girls in single-shot events, the researchers said, but when put through multiple rematches the boys fumbled, allowing the girls to catch up and often surpass them.

Girls also excel in the classroom. Nationwide, their grade point average in high school math and science is 2.76 out of 4, compared with 2.56 for boys.

The message of equal aptitude has certainly infiltrated today’s youth. In a recent presentation at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, Anthony Derriso of the University of Alabama reported his analysis of a vast 2009 study of more than 21,000 ninth graders nationwide.

Mr. Derriso, who is completing his doctoral dissertation in psychology, determined that students of both sexes rated boys and girls equally competent in science and math; expressed similar levels of confidence in their own math and science skills; and were equally likely to say they felt they were engaged in math and science and were supported by their teachers, parents and peers.

Yet aptitude is one thing, aspiration another. In answer to the question “Are you likely to pursue a scientific career?” some 2,300 students — 11 percent of the total — said yes. Among the ninth-grade yeasayers, 61 percent were male.

Mr. Derriso admits to bafflement. “If boys and girls are equally interested in math and science and feel equally confident about their abilities,” he wondered, “why this humongous difference in intent? I don’t have an answer for that.”

The division marches off to college. Connie Chow, the executive director of the nonprofit group Science Club for Girls, pointed out that 29 percent of male college students major in math or science, compared with only 15 percent of female ones. Boys who ace science embrace science, but female mathletes keep their skills at arm’s length. Researchers have found that, among students with high scores on the math portion of the SAT, boys cited their desire to major in the physical sciences, engineering or computers, while the girls preferred fields like economics, political science or medicine. One reason for the disparity may be that girls with high math scores, unlike their male counterparts, also tend to have high verbal scores and so may feel their career options are wide open. But still, given the choice, why do so many girls walk away from science and math?

In this country, women now earn close to 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees overall, but only 20 percent of the degrees in computer science, 20 percent of those in physics and 18 percent of those in engineering. Women constitute half the nation’s work force but just a quarter of its scientific corps, and women with science degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a scientific occupation. Instead, many end up in health care or education.

Those fields may be vital and heroic, but nobility comes at a price. Women in nonscience jobs earn just three-quarters the salary accorded those in higher-tech fields, and the paucity of female scientists helps explain the overall wage gap between women and men.

Advocates for women and minorities in science are not afraid to play the money card. Dr. Chow and her colleagues organize after-school science clubs for girls in low-income communities. The girls love it, expressing stronger interest in science than many privileged students. Yet for some of the girls, Dr. Chow said, “knowing how much you can earn as, say, a marine engineer really makes a difference.”

In seeking to explain girls’ persistent aversion to science, researchers argue that standard surveys won’t reveal hidden impulses or negative thoughts. People may say they consider women the equals of men, but as Jo Handelsman and her colleagues at Yale Universityreported last year, simply substituting the name Jennifer for John lowered both men’s and women’s estimation of an aspiring scientist’s résumé.

Small details can have serious consequences. Women do worse on standardized math tests when asked to indicate their sex. When they are told men and women do equally well on such tests, their performance improves. Students show greater gains when they are taught that the mind, like a muscle, gets stronger with work, as opposed to being told that talents are fixed and you’re born either quick or slow.

“It’s a uniquely Western phenomenon to say, ‘I’m no good at math, that’s O.K. and I can stop doing it,’ ” Dr. Chow said. “I grew up in Hong Kong, and no parent would say, ‘You’re right, just give up.’ ”

Don’t give up, budding scientist. One day you’ll look in the mirror and proudly embrace the term nerd. Whatever that means.

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