Commentary: Getting Girls To The Lab Bench

To remain competitive, the U.S. must close the gender gap in science

Lucie Yueqi Guo and Xianlin Li are proof that girls can love science, too. The two seniors at North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, a high school in Durham, won the $100,000 grand prize in the team category of the 2004-05 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, & Technology for a project studying the effect of DNA methylation on breast cancer. (Got that?) "Both of us have been interested in science ever since we were very young," says Guo. "Neither of us ever felt our gender was a detriment."

Their perspective is welcome amid the furor over a now- notorious speech by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers. At a Jan. 14 conference on the paucity of women in the sciences, he suggested there may be "innate differences" between male and female brains that make it harder for women to excel in math and science. He quickly backed down. And in fact most scientists say there's little evidence that men's brains, though different structurally than women's, are better or worse at specific intellectual endeavors. "Intelligence is always the result of an interplay between biology and environment," says Rex E. Jung, a University of New Mexico neurologist.

The furor over Summers' comments obscures a critical issue: Women must be encouraged to enter engineering and science if the U.S. is to remain economically competitive. This is particularly true given that science and math abilities in the U.S. are badly lagging other nations for both girls and boys. "We can't afford not to encourage women," says Janie M. Fouke, dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan State University. "Half the brightest minds in the country aren't at the table."

How do we get them there? We can start by eliminating some wrongheaded assumptions. Throughout their early education and college, girls and boys show the same interest and aptitude for science and math. Women took home 47.1% of all the science and engineering undergraduate degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2000. Most of these were concentrated in the life sciences and chemistry, and women earned only about one-fifth of undergraduate engineering degrees that year. Still, it's pretty clear that women are interested in the sciences.

The gender gap really emerges when it comes time to apply that education. Far more men than women go on to get masters and PhDs in the sciences, and the National Science Foundation says industry employed only 994,400 women in science and engineering in 2000, compared with 3.1 million men. Universities are even worse: Engineering school faculties typically run 10 to 1 male.

Here's how we can start to change those ratios:

MENTORING. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says youngsters need personal encouragement. "They need the involvement of their teachers, their peer groups, of people who can serve as role models." Guo and Li, for example, say mentors were critical to their continued interest in science. "In the lab where we worked there were a lot of female scientists, and they were all very inspirational," says Li.

HIRING. To get such role models, colleges must actively recruit women. That might be easier if science careers were seen as more family-friendly. But it's more important to develop an atmosphere that's not hostile to women. Studies have found science papers are judged more harshly if it is obvious the author was a woman. It's tough to overcome these cultural biases, but strong leadership from women like Susan Hockfield, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a start.

MAKE SCIENCE COOL. Truth is, boys are turning away from science as much as girls: The U.S. ranks below 13 other countries in the percentage of 24-year-olds with a math or science degree. "We have to change our culture to one that believes that it's really important to have a population that is well-educated in math and science," says Maria Klawe, dean of Princeton University's engineering school. If only that issue got as much attention as Summer's initial remarks.

By Catherine Arnst

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