By Sherri Geng
My story may not be particularly illustrative of the typical young girl's childhood. Born into a family of four engineers, I was unusually blessed with an early exposure to the sciences. I myself have yet to be confronted by even subtle discouragement for being female in a world that has long been dominated by males, but I recognize that significant gender disparities do persist.
Studies show that in elementary school, girls perform at levels just as high as boys in math and science. But the success rates for girls taper off as they move into middle and high schools. So somewhere in between fifth and ninth grade, girls are being turned off from science. Why?
The causes are at least largely -- and I think entirely -- societal. At the same time that young boys are given Legos and toy radios to rip apart and put back together, girls are encouraged to practice social skills by playing house with Barbie and arranging tea parties for 26 stuffed animals.
For most girls, after this first major branching, science is perceived as a "geek" subject that connotes about as much femininity as rugby or coal mining. Sitting all day in front of a microscope or computer seemingly requires little social skill, and for a girl to consign herself to such a fate would be to repress all the social flair that she has honed from a young age.
Yet nothing could be farther from the truth! Succeeding in science involves abilities both to communicate often convoluted results and to make connections inside and outside the scientific community.
To combat the negative stereotype of science, we need more hands-on programs to demonstrate how fun and social the sciences can be. Too few girls realize that science and math, like writing and social skills, can serve as a valuable foundation for any career. Also, teachers should offer more educational alternatives that cater to girls interested in science, such as team projects that require cooperation.
Females need constant nudging and reassurance that wanting to be a scientist is not off the beaten path. With growing numbers of role models guiding them and more opportunities than ever before to break down the gender barrier, girls are in a position to challenge, even overturn, male domination of the scientific world.
Fragile adolescent egos and judgments aside, girls also face an inevitable question, regardless of what field they gravitate to: Raise a family, or pursue a demanding career? A recent first-person article in the Washington Post suggested that the task of balancing both family and career is impossible. The woman author, who had always wanted to be a doctor and had spent years painstakingly building up her medical practice and reputation, concluded that in the end, she wanted nothing but to leave medicine and raise her children. The author's account was supported by a barrage of other stories in which females chose to either give up their careers or the thought of ever having children.
What absurdity! The last thing girls need are deterrents like this. While I don't wish to pass judgment on those women's choices, I find it alarming and saddening that the article depicted only two options: sacrifice either job or family. Working mothers raise families around their jobs all the time, and young couples juggle domestic duties while putting down roots. These are the examples to which young girls ought to be exposed.
In the home, girls need to feel free to take a nontraditional path. Girls won't be encouraged to do that when a mother says she can't help with the algebra homework, so go ask dad. Instead, both parents need to help girls grow up with the expectation that they can be just as capable as, if not more so than, their male counterparts.
From a young age, I went to my grandmother whenever anything needed repair. She was a constant role model, sitting patiently with me on the garage steps with her toolbox while she taught me how to mend a punctured sneaker heel or a wrecked bicycle wheel. When I was in kindergarten, she taught me how to read numbers and letters. When I was in fifth grade, she taught me algebra. When I was in high school, she tried to teach me chemistry (alas, the elements don't translate very easily between Chinese and English).
Because of my grandmother, I never thought even for a second that science was out of the question for me. Never once did I imagine myself handicapped simply by being a girl.
While identifying the innate differences between girls and boys (brain development, behavioral patterns, genetic programming, etc.) is critical to understanding how to strengthen female interest in science early on, we should not focus solely on the gender disparities. Rather, we should proclaim proudly that both sexes are, in their own ways, equally capable of success in pursuing serious science -- and far more significant, that girls who find science intriguing are equally expected to make important contributions.
Geng was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search