08/27/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Why Don't Girls And Science Mix?

Girls just don't mix well with science or math. At least that's the message that continues to emerge from studies on the under-representation of women in these fields.

High school girls still make up only 17 percent of computer science Advanced Placement (AP) test takers. And women still make up only 27 percent of those earning math PhDs. The same percentage -- 27 percent -- of people with careers in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) fields are women. Just 30 percent of STEM college professors are women.

Even in 2012, why do so few females pursue careers in science and math? The American Association of University Women has found that, among other reasons, girls continue to need more female role models. And, in my opinion, the woman who continues to stand tallest as a role model for generations of girls is Marie Curie.

Sure, you're thinking, everyone has heard of Marie Curie. But what do you really know about her? Perhaps you vaguely recall that she was the first person to be honored with two Nobel Prizes -- or that she was the first to use the word "radioactivity."

But, born in 1867, do you know what a steep hill this woman had to climb in order to pursue her passion for science in a male-dominated world? Do you know that she was a single mother who raised one daughter, Irene, to become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and another daughter, Eve, to become a famous war correspondent? And that she did it on her own?

No doubt there are still so many reasons to look back on Curie's life and to put it forth -- even all these years later -- as a lingering example for girls and young women everywhere.

Although her triumph over a tough childhood in Russian-occupied Poland is the stuff of legends, her real journey began in 1906. That's when her scientist husband, Pierre Curie, was killed instantly after being run over by a horse-drawn wagon on a busy street in Paris. Marie was left alone with Irene, 8, and Eve, 14 months.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Marie carried on the couple's research and was appointed to fill Pierre's position at the Sorbonne, making her the first woman professor there. In 1911, Marie won her second Nobel Prize (she had shared a Nobel Prize with Pierre in 1903). With Irene at her side, she crisscrossed France during World War I, transporting portable X-ray machines to doctors on the battlefield

For years, women have been going on about whether they can "have it all" -- a blending of marriage and motherhood with a demanding career. And yet women like Marie Curie didn't sit around thinking about such things. She immersed herself in her career because she loved it. Leaving it behind never even crossed her mind.

How was Marie able to do it? One reason is that her widower father raised all of his children -- whether boys or girls -- to believe they were capable of great things.

Once, when Marie was only 11, the headmistress of her school told Marie's father that, although Marie was at the top of her class, she was much more sensitive than her peers. Perhaps, the headmistress suggested, he should consider holding the girl back a year. He did exactly the opposite. He immediately pulled Marie from the school's nurturing environment and enrolled her in a much tougher school that catered to high achievers.

Through the years, Marie's father introduced her to the thrill of physics and chemistry and all subjects with the same enthusiasm he did Marie's brother.

(I hate to admit it but I probably haven't done the same... I recall giving my two sons two different kinds of chemistry sets on various Christmases but not giving one to my daughter... and I can't really recall why.)

Researchers today say that girls can perform just as well as boys on science and math tests but that the stereotype that girls aren't good at these subjects hasn't gone away and still does persistent harm. Just being part of a culture that believes boys are better suited to science and math than girls is enough to have a long-term negative effect on women.

Not only do they believe they wouldn't be good at it, but researchers also say that many girls simply don't think science and math are all that interesting. Just look at how the media portrays these subject areas. The Big Bang Theory, for example, is about a group of highly intelligent -- but entirely socially inept -- male characters.

This message of trying to get more girls interested in science and math is not a new one. But with women still not entering scientific fields at the same rate as men, it's one that must be drilled into people's heads again. We must continue to highlight and celebrate women scientists who could be emulated by young girls and who could send the message that girls and boys are equals.

As Marie Curie herself once said: "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained."

Be sure to check out Shelley Emling's just-published book 'Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family' (Palgrave Macmillan).