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Memo to Chicken Little: Female Scientists Do Roam Among Us, and Gasp! Some Even Wear Lipstick

02/07/2014 05:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2014
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To: All girls who like science or math
From: Your cheerleader
RE: Media reports of the low number of female students who major in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) fields
Summary: Don't let the pressure get to you, just go with your gut

We're getting an avalanche of five-alarm stories and commentary about the dearth of support for girls in STEM subjects, but is it possible we're missing the forest for the trees?

My Facebook feed overflows with giddy "shares" of the girls-gone-viral Goldiblox commercial showing adorable little girls playing engineer with their pink erector sets, which is supposed to magically turn them on to engineering. Major articles and studies lament the prejudice that hampers girls in pursuing STEM education after middle school. And, my personal favorite -- three Democrat Congresswomen wrote to the Government Accountability Office demanding a study of the government's role in STEM's gender bias. Not a study of the potential bias, mind you. Just a study of the government's role in it. Brilliant.

As a woman who likes science as a bystander but chose not to pursue it professionally, I've got a couple of problems with all this handwringing. Mostly, well-intentioned as it is, it implies that women need "help" choosing a field of study. High school girls are exposed to exactly the same science and math courses they need to graduate as boys are, but in the eyes of the handwringers, girls are either too shallow or simple to choose for themselves, or need to be socially engineered into the correct balance of male vs. female, regardless of their choices. I appreciate your concern, but frankly, it's pretty demeaning.

First, and most important, given the genuinely lamentable state of America's overall participation in STEM fields, shouldn't we first solve that bigger issue by making it gender-neutral? In other words, we seem to have enough trouble producing ANY American scientist, engineer or mathematician, at least compared to other countries. Our problem isn't the lack of women or racial minorities in STEM, it's the lack of any quantifiable student interest. Solve that first; figure out what's hindering the majority of all our students from pursuing STEM studies, and we might find that the gender and racial score-keeping will balance itself out.

Second, on empirical data alone, the evidence seems to suggest that we actually have plenty of women in STEM, thank you very much. Dr. Drew Faust, the female president of Harvard University, reports a 70% increase in female science majors in the last decade. As one example, this past year showed 45 female students majoring in Statistics alone, compared to just two women in 2008.

Dr. Barbara Ericson, the Director of Computer Outreach at Georgia Tech, told The NY Times that in a study of high-school AP courses in STEM subjects, nearly half of all AP calculus test-takers and more than half the AP biology test-takers were girls. Dearth, indeed. True, she was trying to point out there were too few computer science-focused girls compared to bio and math, but seriously, if that's our biggest problem...

And remember that letter I mentioned, asking the GAO for a gender-bias study? The letter refers specifically to the finding by the National Science Foundation that women hold an increasing number of STEM degrees, and references the GAO's own report, "Women's Participation in the Sciences Has Increased, But Agencies Need to Do More." Why, more, exactly? To what end? Our engineer scarcity is an American problem way before it's a gender one. Before we throw money at a sub-header issue, why not fix the main one?

And then there's my own personal observation, at my high-school's recent parent-teacher conference. While looking around the auditorium, I counted 11 women among the 17-person science department. Similarly, out of a math faculty of 15 teachers, 9 were women. Sure, I was happy that there were a lot of women, but mostly I was just happy that my kids' school had strong STEM departments, period. Clearly, those female teachers didn't get the memo telling them that not enough of their "kind" were interested in science and math -- they just ignored the media chatter and pursued what they liked, and what they knew they were good at. Mostly, they did it regardless, or even because of, the Barbie dolls and pink hula hoops they played with as children.

Ignore the noise and go with your gut. That should be what we encourage our daughters and sisters to do. Instead, we fixate on the minutiae of score-keeping and numbers-balancing, of how much pink vs. blue, of how the evil patriarchy is ruining girls' lives, while we ignore the forest for the trees. Ours girls are brilliant and ambitious, which is why, if gender equality truly is to deliver on its promise, they deserve the freedom to explore what interests them, but also to reject what doesn't.

It's not our daughters' job to satisfy someone else's idea of a socially-engineered utopia. Ignore the noise and go with your gut. The politically correct apple cart might get overturned in the process, but so what? Hopefully, we'll have enough engineers to develop a better one.