Girls and the Future of Science

07/19/2011 04:14 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011
  • Meg Urry Director, Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics

Top prizes at the Google Science Fair were awarded this week for work on improving ovarian cancer treatment, the relation of indoor air quality to asthma, and how to reduce carcinogen levels in barbecued chicken. But as a science professor at a leading university, I have my own prize to bestow on this contest: best gender ratio in the sciences.

All three grand prize winners in this competition for would-be scientists ages 13-17 were girls.

In a country where men greatly outnumber women in the sciences -- in my field, physics, women hold only 12% of faculty positions nationwide -- this is encouraging news indeed.

Plenty of girls have the talent and interest to do science, including physics. Last year at Yale, we had more women physics majors than men and the fraction of women physics majors is consistently above 20%, the national average.

So what is holding women back?

People still speculate that girls are less able than boys at math and science -- remember the famous remarks by Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, in 2005? But huge variation in the fraction of physicists who are women, nation by nation, argues that cultural or social influences are a much stronger factor.

Some argue that girls lack interest and/or preparation in mathematics starting at a young age but now girls and boys reach the same levels in advanced math in high school and the (small) gender gap has narrowed. Moreover, Japanese women scored better than U.S. men on a measure of math ability, yet no one is suggesting Japanese women make much better scientists than U.S. men. Indeed, a 2007 report from the National Research Council concluded there is no measured difference in ability that could possibly account for the large difference from 50:50 gender balance in science.

It is true that family concerns, which arise during the same time a young scientist is trying to establish her career, may prevent some women from participating fully. Yet women academics without children are not doing better than women with children. And countries with strong maternity leave and child care policies, like Denmark or Norway, have even smaller percentages of physicists who are women than the U.S.

It's not ability, it's not preparation, it's not family issues, it's not lack of interest in the subject matter -- so what is it? Why so few women in science?

When I got my Ph.D. nearly 30 years ago, I thought it was just a matter of time before women fully populated the halls of science. Instead, I learned that women face obstacles men don't.

For one thing, women my vintage never learned to brag the way many scientists do. It's not unusual for colleagues to talk openly about their superiority or the breathtaking impact of their own work. I was uncomfortable with this kind of discourse -- which a female colleague dubbed "combat physics."

Girls are instead socialized to respond to others and consider their ideas. In the academic marketplace, it's all about putting your own ideas forward. A male colleague once told me, "Don't ask us what we think, don't try to forge a consensus. Just bang on the table and tell us what to do." This style doesn't come naturally to many women.

Expectations of women are also lower, social science research tells us, and equivalent records are evaluated differently -- by men and by women. The 2007 NRC report identified this as a significant barrier to full utilization of women scientists.

As a teacher, I know that when students hit bumps in the road, girls are more likely to internalize failure -- a bad test grade, they think, must be because they aren't good at this stuff or they didn't work hard enough -- whereas boys are more likely to blame the test or the teacher.

The future of our country increasingly depends on science and technology. We need all the best brains, regardless of gender. If our universities train women who then leave science, if we fail to attract female Einsteins to physics, we are losing an important edge.

My guess is the parents and teachers of the Google winners had high expectations, encouraged ambition, and above all, didn't play to gender stereotypes. Support and mentoring means a lot. By the way, Larry Summers deserves a pat on the back for recognizing women as top talents -- he was a key mentor to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. With help like that, maybe someday it'll be news that three boys win the science prize.