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Women In Science: Why So Few? (VIDEO)

First Posted: 02/07/2012 8:22 am EST Updated: 04/06/2012 6:12 am EDT

Hi everyone. I'm Cara Santa Maria. And I'm standing here today because I chose to pursue a career in a STEM field. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And unfortunately, there aren't enough of us out there--women, I mean. Women make up just about half of the American workforce, but we hold less than a quarter of the STEM jobs.

In fact, a recent survey revealed some surprising findings about girls' attitudes toward STEM careers. Thirty percent of teen girls say that math is their most challenging subject, while only nineteen percent of boys say the same thing. You know, I remember walking through a shopping mall a couple of years ago and seeing a girl wearing a tank top that said "I'm too pretty to do math." After my horror subsided, I thought to myself, is this normal? Why is she okay wearing that?

Well, one thing we've noticed throughout the years is that girls consistently say that they just aren't that interested in pursuing a math, science, technology, or engineering career. But why? Is there something intrinsically male about STEM subjects? Are girls wired to be less interested in them? Here's what we do know: males have been shown to outscore females on tasks measuring spatial skills, such as mental rotation, while females generally perform higher on verbal tasks. But even if this difference has a strong biological component, evidence suggests that these discrepancies can be overcome in a short period of time with simple training. And the truth is, what appears to have the greatest impact on girls' attitudes are sociocultural factors like stereotype threat.

You see, when people are afraid they're being stereotyped, they can feel those eyes on them. They're extra sensitive, which translates into a fear that they may slip up and confirm that very stereotype. In one of the first experiments about stereotype threat, two groups of boys and girls with equivalent math abilities and interests were given a graduate-level aptitude test in mathematics. In the first group, before taking the test, they were told that there was no gender difference in past participants' scores. When the exams were graded, they were seen to perform similarly. But in the second group, the students were told ahead of time that men performed better on the test than women. The results were staggering. On average, boys scored in the 86th percentile, while females' scores hovered around a mere sixteen percent. Since then, this phenomenon has been demonstrated by more than 300 different experiments.

We are faced with a chicken-and-egg situation: girls have less confidence than boys in their ability to succeed in STEM subjects, so they're less likely to try to succeed. In fact, boys and girls show similar aptitudes and interests in science in elementary school, and then suddenly, at puberty, the gender gap dramatically widens. All girls in STEM fields, even today, can speak to the fact that there are subtle signs of discrimination around every corner. In fact, studies show that both men and women hold implicit biases, or attitudes that they are unaware they even have, regarding gender roles in education and the workforce.

So how do we effect change? First, let's bring these biases into the consciousness of the public at large. You have them. I have them, but we don't want to. And one of the best ways to educate young women is to give them somebody to look up to. We need to see more female role models in science, technology, engineering, and math. And we must must remind young girls that it is cool to be smart!

And just look at what some of our most inspirational female scientists have accomplished. Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, without which, we wouldn't have lifesaving x-ray technology. And Jane Goodall's research has raised global awareness of the plight of great apes. Just last year, in the first ever Google science fair, of the 7 thousand, 500 entries from 91 different countries around the world, the top three winners were girls. I hope the next time I'm at the mall, that girl's t-shirt will read "I'm pretty, and I rule at math."

What do you think? Drop me a line on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

See all Talk Nerdy to Me posts: www.huffingtonpost.com/news/talk-nerdy-to-me
Like Cara Santa Maria on Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Cara-Santa-Maria
Follow Cara Santa Maria on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CaraSantaMaria

Further Reading:
U.S. Department of Commerce
ScrippsNews
Smithsonian.com
NewScientist
Science
Progress

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