09/05/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Eve's Expectations: How Bias Impacts Christian Women in Science

On a kindergarten field trip to a friendly forest, one of the chaperones told my mother that I would probably become a scientist some day. I had stooped to peer into the underbrush for the third or fourth time, lagging behind the others to inspect fire ant colonies or weird-looking wild mushrooms.

My mother has told many stories like that, so often that I can hardly distinguish them from my own memories. I can almost see that path in Lemontree Park with its winding regiments of candy red ants doing their business in the sandy shadows. I can also see that look in my mother's eyes, half-exasperation, half-amusement at my momentary neglect of everything but the wonders of the natural world.

It's true that growing up I possessed a kind of careening recklessness when it came to exploring things maybe I shouldn't have poked my nose into. No matter what that recklessness may have looked like to the authority figures of my youth, it wasn't a blatant disregard for rules that kept getting me in trouble or danger. On the contrary -- I thought a lot about rules. About which places, media, language, and actions were forbidden me and why. I had, in a sense, a very high regard for rules -- they marked out the boundaries of my universe at the time. Disobeying them could bring delight or terror in uncovering the "why?" behind adults' otherwise inscrutable edicts. And to me, these tantalizing discoveries were way more interesting than board games or Barbie dolls.

Today I like to think that the field trip chaperone was right about my aptitude for science -- for all these reasons, not just because I liked to look at bugs. Yet somewhere along the way it became clear that I had no head for numbers, no patience for equations or their rules.

If my teachers had better illustrated the whys as well as the hows of long division and later, trigonometry, algebra, the calculus I never got to -- math might have come easier. Geometry did make sense to me, probably because the reasons undergirding the rules of geometry were plain to see, not obfuscated by metaphorical symbols. Anyway, science dropped out of the picture others painted for my future so tacitly and so soon that I never even missed it.

"If you aren't good at math, you can't be good at science" is woefully flawed wisdom to hang over children's heads as a way to encourage them to apply themselves to word problems and mixed operations. With me it had the opposite effect. What I internalized, instead, was an unspeakable distance from the logical and empirical as a path to understanding. Since I'd always been praised for my efforts at art and poetry, eventually I pursued those paths instead of science.

What if I'd been born a boy? On the one hand, I pose this question lightly, harmlessly. Another curiosity. On the other hand, I'm quite serious about it.

It is a well known and increasingly talked-about fact that the overwhelming majority of professorships and research positions in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are held by men. One reason is that boys are more persistently encouraged to go into the sciences than are girls. Dimming, perhaps, but still lurking almost everywhere is the belief that men are better adapted for the pressures of STEM careers and that they naturally possess more of the skills required to excel in STEM.

Ten years ago, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers was pressured to resign after making comments about women's supposed genetic inferiority for math and science. There seems to be no solid evidence that such overall biological setbacks actually exist, but societal setbacks are a different matter. They exist, and they may be even harder to overcome than any predispositions written in our DNA.

At MIT, out of about 85 physics professors, only five are female. While I was there doing graduate work in science writing, I spoke with MIT physicist Janet Conrad about that discrepancy. She said, "You absolutely feel the added pressure (as a woman in physics), and confidence is so important." She explained that many of the women she knows studying physics "psych themselves out" before exams purely because they expect not to do as well on them.

Is attitude everything? Surely not, but it makes a huge difference in the professional arena, where competition for tenure-track jobs is stiff to begin with. One 2013 study by researchers at Yale showed that when reviewing applications from two identically qualified candidates, groups of university professors in physics, chemistry, and biology representing six major research institutions were far more likely to offer the male candidate the job. They also set a salary for the female candidate about four thousand dollars lower. That might not surprise some readers, but perhaps the fact that the women in the study were just as likely as the men to exhibit this prejudice, will.

Closing the gender gap in science will require a culture-wide reprogramming of the expectations held for, and by, women and girls concerning what they can do and where they will feel most welcome to explore their gifts and inclinations. As I experienced in my own upbringing, the expectations elders set on us impact the passions we're likely to pursue, and which ones we'll ultimately eschew.

If it's harder to become a scientist just because you're a girl, imagine how much harder to start on that path as a member of a religious group that's often marginalized by leading scientists in the public sphere. Popular writers of science tend to emphasize tension or incompatibility between science and religion and some openly belittle people of faith as unintelligent or incapable of appreciating the value of empirical observation.

Best-selling books in the sciences are often laced with sneering condemnation of Christians, especially, regardless of whether religion has anything to do with the subject of the book. Young Christians who like to read about science often come away believing that scientists as a rule are hostile to faith and pursuing such a career would be inharmonious with their upbringing and identity.

Thus being a woman, a Christian, and a scientist means having to navigate minority status in three important arenas all at once: you might be the only Christian among your colleagues, the only woman working in your lab, the only researcher, mathematician, or engineer in your congregation. Are these good reasons not to pursue what could be a deeply rewarding and worthwhile career in STEM? I don't think so. The Christian women I know working in STEM fields say their studies make them feel closer to God, because the more they learn about the forces that shape our world, the more they appreciate the love and extravagance of their creator.

Last summer, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) launched a social network for Christian women working in STEM fields. The women in CWIS (Christian Women in Science) are already offering guidance and support to each other for their lives at home, in the lab, and at church.

To complement the early success of this group, this summer's issue of the ASA's God and Nature magazine is dedicated to those faithful women scientists working to overcome the extra pressures placed on them just because of the faith in their hearts and the set of organs they were born with.

If you're passionate about science and about opening doors for young women in STEM, or if you're simply curious about how faith, culture, and gender affect young people considering careers in these fields, explore and share the resources of ASA and CWIS -- including this summer's issue of God and Nature magazine. If you have a story of your own about your path through faith and the sciences, we welcome your letters and submissions.