There has been a recent trend to encourage girls to study the sciences. Has the effort for inclusion been successful? What needs to happen to ensure success of women in the field of science beyond undergraduate or graduate studies?

Questions surrounding the discussion of women in the sciences, even into the modern era are exceedingly interesting to me, as is the fact that this question was asked in response to the biography of Maria Mitchell which we read earlier this semester.

It seems fitting that my other question would concern my other major as an undergraduate: mathematics. Math was one of the first activities that I did when I was younger that I discovered that I was not only good at, but I enjoyed doing. Learning about the beauty of numbers has been something which has captivated me since just after I learned to read. Both my older brother and I have degrees in mathematics, a love which came from our math major father, and whether that can be attributed to genetic or environment, a love for math runs in my family. I have always excelled in mathematics, and I do not mean that I am the most talented or the most mathematically minded, but I have worked hard and understood most of the mathematics taught to me, often much better than many of my fellow students, especially before I reached university. My parents were nothing but encouraging of my love of math, even seeing that it was the field I would major in and devote my undergraduate career to, long before I realized that myself. I was lucky in that respect.

I was seven years old the first time someone told me that math is a “boys” subject. Obviously, at that age, I did not completely understand the weight of what the boys in my class meant when they said that, and I am sure neither did they. All any of us knew was that was something some adults said, because it was important for them to have ways of thinking placed into neat little boxes called gender. While the memory of this event sticks with me, I do not remember feeling upset by what was said to me, but instead confused. How could one subject be a “boy” subject, and another subject belong to girls? It did not make any sense to me and so I did not take what they said as words of discouragement, probably because I had a strong support system at home that simply wanted me to succeed in anything which brought me joy. I cannot repeat enough, how lucky I was in that respect.

Once I reached university, I realized that it was not just little boys on the playground that believed math belonged to men. I was one of five women in my class to graduate with a degree in mathematics. There were over 40 men. I do not know the statistics for every science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but I have a feeling that the numbers are probably quite similar. I do not remember many instances of being actively deterred from pursuing math in college because of my gender, except perhaps from older faculty members who hesitated whenever I chose to speak up in class an answer questions. Even the passive actions of the department often made me hesitant to raise my hand in class and actively participate in lectures. As one of a few female undergraduate teaching assistants in the department, I struggled to gain authority in a classroom, even though I was the authority in that room on the subject, because many students were apprehensive about having a woman teach them mathematics. I have to admit that even though it had been written 40 years ago, I found many of the sentiments expressed by Naomi Weisstein in “How Can a Little Girl like You teach a Big Class of Men?” striking, and yet never really all that surprising. So the question stands, are we succeeding in including women in the sciences?

Where do women sit when it comes to the sciences? How do we “stack up?” Well for starters, women in the US earn just over 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, a promising statistic that is unfortunately followed by the fact that they receive less than 20 percent of degrees conferred in computer science, engineering, and physics.[1] This may or may not seem like progress, it all just depends on where women were decades ago, and it turns out that collectively, the United States is moving in the opposite direction of where it needs to be moving. A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that, in 2013, 26 percent of all computing jobs were held by women, a drop from 35 percent in 1990.[2] Directly to the question of whether or not we are making progress in including women to enter careers and gain degrees in the sciences, the answer is, an overwhelming no.

Even though there has been a push in recent decade to include more girls and women in science, the question now has to turn to why are these efforts not working. Why is half of the human population still so underrepresented in the sciences? There are a multitude of reasons why women do not pursue the sciences, but the majority of them lie in our children, as so many of our problems do. First and foremost, we still raise our girls to look to other people for assurance that they are attractive and smart, while we raise our boys to determine their own value. This leads to many girls still being made to feel that it is not feminine to be good at science or math because they are not validated in their enjoyment of those activities. Meanwhile, even if boys were actively told that science is not a masculine activity, they would still pursue it because they do not draw their worth from the validation of others, as girls have been taught to do.

This issue of confidence in one’s ability to perform in mathematics and science, is clearly seen in test scores, which while not the best means of assessing the abilities of students, still provide meaningful information about the test habits of children as well as the confidence which children have in certain subjects. In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted a study based upon international texts and surveys in order to investigate international gender equality in schools. The study found that girls appear to lack self-confidence in their ability to solve mathematics and science problems and achieve worst results than they otherwise would, despite the fact that they outperform boys overall. [3] Even many of the highest achieving girls have low levels of confidence in their ability to solve science and mathematics problems and express high levels of anxiety, especially towards mathematics. However, even more interesting is the fact that girls were also found to have more positive attitude towards going to school overall, they did more homework, more often read for pleasure, and were less likely to play video games-so that far fewer girls than boys were among underachieving students.[4]

It would seem that girls have an interest in school and in learning, and yet lack confidence in science and math, which they do not in other subjects. This may be because of the way which scientists are presented to students, as well as how scientists themselves see their work and their field. There is a strange belief in STEM fields that if you need to be encouraged in the sciences and math, then you are no talented or dedicated enough to be a part of that field. So if you flunk your first physics or calculus midterm, then the belief stands that you deserve to be weeded out of the field. This acts as a one-two punch that knocks out many women and minorities from STEM fields, because they have been actively discouraged from pursuing these careers for much of their lives. They also lack positive role models in STEM fields, and thus have an even more difficult time envisioning a career in one of those fields.

Where do we go from here in order to address the deficit between men and women in the sciences, because clearly the “push” to create a more inclusive environment for women in the sciences is not working. Most educators believe that it lies in creating more programs for girls in science within the schools, in order to actively encourage and bolster self-confidence for those girls. However, this does not fix the problems which exist for many girls when they leave the classroom and return to their homes, or even go onto the playground with other children. So there needs to be a deeper push to change the culture surrounding women in science, to include the idea that it is not radical for women to be interested and talented in the sciences, just as men are. Women who have careers in science need to act as mentors to the next generation, to serve as role models for what it is to be a woman in science. Girls need to be exposed to STEM in general, to make it seem that these are viable career options. These are both options which are completely reasonable. But until the wider culture surrounding women changes, both in STEM fields and overall, and until scientists allow for a culture that is not based on pure talent alone, it will remain to be an uphill battle for women in STEM.

[1] Judy Woodruff. “Encouraging Girls to Become Scientists? It’s not Rocket Science.” PBS Newshour, 20 October 2015, 4 December 2015,

[2] Ibid

[3] Richard Adams. “Girls Lack Self-Confidence in Maths and Science Problems, Study Finds.” The Guardian. 5 March 2015, 4 December 2016.

[4] Ibid.

Judy Woodruff. “Encouraging Girls to Become Scientists? It’s not Rocket Science.” PBS Newshour, 20 October 2015, 4 December 2015,