By David L.V. Bauer
During my four years of high school, a new set of young women has emerged. They stand on their own as equals to their male peers. They're just as bright and just as aggressive in class. Yet far fewer of them are interested in a scientific career.
Why? I certainly don't think it's because of some innate female inferiority. Most people -- male and female -- find math and science difficult. I also don't think the reason lies with different brain "wiring" in females. If that were so, then we might expect women scientists to account for a disproportionate share of major discoveries because, after all, unconventional approaches are often behind the greatest scientific breakthroughs.
I believe part of the answer lies in persisting cultural attitudes. Popular culture often denigrates female teenagers. What's a young woman supposed to think when the women in her favorite rap video are dressed in bikinis and hanging on the arms of fully clothed males? The message is clear: It's a male-dominated world, baby, where women serve as objects of male pleasure.
MISSING THE EXCITEMENT.
Still, popular culture can't be completely blamed for turning young women away from science. Rap videos haven't deterred my female friends from wanting to be psychologists, ambassadors, or the next female conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. So other factors are at play.
Role models may be especially key. For each of my female friends, a parent, teacher, or caring professional has given generous encouragement and support. Very few of these role models, however, are even amateur scientists. So I'm certain that lack of exposure to science during their teenage years is why more women don't pursue science. It's not that they reject science -- it's just that they were never shown how exciting science can be.
The nature of the scientific community is largely to blame for this. Compared to business, academia has fewer positions and far less turnover. As a consequence, women have a harder time making inroads. And the slim number of existing female scientists means there are few role models.
An increase in the number of women in scientific fields will take time -- but it is happening. It just needs to happen faster. Three changes would help:
First, we need to expand our educational system to younger age levels. This means providing preschool, not day care, for three- and four-year-olds. Studies have shown that patterns for learning are set at this age. Children who show signs of being intellectually gifted need to be placed in advanced programs at an early age, where they will be encouraged to develop a scientific approach to critical thinking in their formative years.
Second, since girls have a greater interest in math and science while they're young, we must begin math and science education in earnest for younger children. Science should not be a supplemental piece of the elementary school curriculum. Critical thinking skills, deductive reasoning, and the scientific method should be an integral part of classroom work at the earliest possible opportunity.
Last, young women must be shown that science is definitely an option for them. The scientific community must expand outreach programs and encourage young women to maintain an interest in science through middle and high school. Outreach efforts must remove another barrier as well: the mistaken image that science is mysterious, confusing, and too abstract.
My generation has an unparalleled number of females who are ready to take their places as the leaders of tomorrow. Though the interest in science among them may not be what it should, change may come sooner than we think. Of this year's four Intel Science Talent Search finalists from New York City, I am the only male.
Bauer is the winner of the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search