Curing Science's Gender Imbalance

It's not a matter of inability. It's a matter of building a critical mass of women in science to serve as role models

By Po-Ling Loh

As a prospective female mathematician, I feel qualified -- no, compelled -- to comment on this issue. I have been interested in math and science for as long as I can remember, probably due to the influence of my two older brothers. In elementary school, my gender never seemed to be much of an issue, since there were nearly equal numbers of boys and girls in the accelerated math groups that my teachers formed each year.

However, when I embarked on the path to mathematics competitions in middle school, I realized that fewer and fewer of my peers were female. The issue became fully apparent in seventh grade, when my teammate pointed out that I was the only girl among the top 10 finishers at a state math competition. At the national MathCounts competition, another competitor thoroughly embarrassed me by asking if I knew "Po-Ling Loh -- you know, the guy from Wisconsin whose brother won last year."

Girls seem to be deterred from science and math primarily because those subjects are traditionally considered boys' subjects. Girls seem to passively accept that the term "female mathematician" has oxymoronic connotations. I disagree strongly with oft-held sentiments that girls find math and science too difficult, or that their scientific skills are inherently inferior to boys'.


  But even within the sciences, girls tend to be more attracted to certain areas, such as biology or chemistry, and they shy away from such areas as physics or engineering. Is this because girls often restrict themselves to disciplines that are seen as being more female-friendly? Or because they tend to enter disciplines where there are female role models?

Several decades ago, females chemists and female biologists were nearly nonexistent, but this is no longer the case. Time appears to be the only remedy for today's glaring gender imbalance. As even more successful female scientists become visible role models, hopefully in a wider variety of fields, scientifically minded girls will be less afraid to follow suit.

The worst scenario would be for girls to be further deterred from pursuing careers in science or math because of [Harvard University President] Larry Summers' careless words. His remarks have already led some researchers to claim that females do, indeed, possess an inferior capacity for scientific thought. If this myopic line of reasoning spreads, it would surely be the last straw for girls who already feel intimidated.

Po-Ling Loh was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search

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