WASHINGTON, D.C.--If only Bill Nye, the Science Guy, were a girl.
Attracting more U.S. women into science will require a change in the culture that assumes girls are less capable than boys of doing science and entering the profession. That's a primary message in a new report, "Balancing the Equation," that concludes progress toward equity in science, engineering, and technology over the past decade has been disappointing slow.
"Change is possible, but our efforts have been sporadic and disjointed," says Linda Basch, executive director of the National Council for Research on Women, an alliance of 95 university research centers and institutions that issued the report yesterday. "There is still a leaky pipeline throughout the educational system and into the workforce." As examples, she and others cite a steep decline, from 37% to 20% over the last 15 years, in the share of undergraduate computer science degrees going to women and the fact that women researchers say balancing work and family is becoming more difficult.
One serious leak occurs early in education. Speaking at a press conference here, physicist Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, said that many girls still face "subtle obstacles" that block their path into science--from teachers who put more credence in answers from boys to school counselors that discourage girls from taking advanced math courses. "Until we get the cultural perceptions changed," she said, "we're going to face continued underrepresentation of women in science." Ride is head of a new educational media company, Imaginary Lines Inc. of La Jolla, California, that is trying to draw middle-school girls into science clubs, festivals, and contests.
In addition to creating opportunities for girls, researchers say that school reformers should also focus on building self-confidence. "Even when girls get A's in math and science, studies show that they don't think they understand the subject," says Carol Burger, head of a science and gender equity program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. "And those doubts make them more likely to drop out of science."