Why Female Scientists Are a Rarity

11/14/2012 05:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

Growing up, we loved science class. We brewed steaming potions by mixing chemicals; created ice cream by shaking salt, ice and sugar; and crafted volcanoes made out of clay.

Somewhere along the line, however, our interest in pursuing the sciences disappeared.

We're not the only ones. According to the National Science Foundation, 66 percent of fourth grade girls and 68 percent of fourth grade boys report liking the sciences. But as kids grow up, something changes, and by the time high school approaches boys are twice as interested in science careers as girls are.

Implicit cultural biases start as early as elementary school. For instance, research shows that when asked to draw a scientist, most second graders depict a white male in a lab coat.

Furthermore, a recent report from the AAUW, "Why So Few?," sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, set out to examine the disparity between the numbers of men and women in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. The report concluded that subconscious cultural influences, rather than overt or deliberate discrimination, limit women's advancement in the scientific and engineering fields. Moreover, as evidenced by a recent study at Yale University, institutional sexism is at the foundation of gender imbalance in the sciences. The study found that both men and women in the science faculty rated male applicants as significantly more competent and hirable than the identical female applicant.

Implicit bias is common even among those who 'actively reject these stereotypes.'

A solution? We need more female role models as examples of what we could be and do as scientists. We recently road tripped to Boston to meet Professor Hazel Sive, the associate dean of the School of Science at MIT and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. As one of the first female professors at MIT, Professor Sive sat down with us to discuss her path to becoming a scientist and the barriers she faced along the way.

We spent the afternoon observing Professor Sive's lab and experiencing the scientific exploration that once sparked us growing up. If we had talked with a role model as passionate about the sciences as Professor Sive, would we have taken a liking to the sciences? We will never know. In order to diminish the gender gap we believe more examples in the mainstream, such as hers, will ignite other young women to investigate the excitement and passion of the sciences.

Check out our episode with Professor Sive.