Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2005
Harvard President Lawrence Summers drew a storm of criticism this past winter when he spoke about the dearth of top-level women scientists and engineers and suggested that innate sex differences influence achievement in these fields. His somewhat belated explanation that he had intended to provoke discussion, not advance a hypothesis, did little to quell the furor. Summers' remarks and the debate and discussion they ignited are but the tip of the iceberg. Despite years of genuine progress for women in scientific and technological fields, misconceptions about women's abilities and subtle barriers to their progress remain. The interactions and interconnections among biological similarities and differences, environmental factors and cultural assumptions, are complex and difficult to unravel. But regarding questions of when, why, and how women do or do not advance in science, the old "biology is destiny" thesis is clearly not supported by the evidence.
Since the Wellesley Center for Research on Women1 (CRW) was launched back in 1974, sociologists, psychologists, and educators here have studied science, technology, engineering, and Women and Science, math (STEM) education for girls and young women, differences and similarities in the course taking and achievement patterns of boys and girls, and girls' educational and career choices. Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) researchers have also evaluated numerous STEM programs from preschool through graduate education. "Work on women's involvement in the sciences, math, and technology has been a consistent thread at WCW," says Susan McGee Bailey, executive director. "I find it discouraging that after three decades of work by hundreds of individuals and organizations and all that has been accomplished and learned, old ideas still have such a prominent following."
Innovations in science teaching
One of the first such CRW projects was conducted in 1976 by the distinguished Wellesley College professor, mathematician Alice T. Schafer. A pioneer in her field, Schafer remembered one of her own math professors declaring that he would prefer to fail every woman in his class. Schafer's goal was to bring more women into mathematics and to alleviate girls' "math anxiety." To help students who had trouble with math, as well as those who avoided it completely, she developed a course in which women gave the lectures, and which featured hands-on labs, peer tutoring, and an emphasis on the applicability of mathematical concepts to business, economics, social sciences, and even the humanities. Schafer's method was prescient in its insistence on the relevance of math, its use of encouragement, and its focus on success in first-year math courses-crucial components of keeping young women on a "math track."
How Schools Shortchange Girls
In the early 1990s, the American Association of University Women commissioned CRW to undertake a thorough review of the literature on the education of girls in the US. That project became How Schools Shortchange Girls. Bailey, the report's principal author, originally wanted to title it "Gender Matters," as she had become convinced that discussing educational reform without discussing the differing developmental and psycho-cultural issues confronting girls and boys was meaningless. The report, which also looked at the roles of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class, noted that "solutions designed to meet everyone's needs risk meeting no one's."
The math and science section of How Schools Shortchange Girls was especially well received. Authored by Patricia Campbell and Bailey, the chapter highlighted the fact that "wage differentials favoring men are considerably less-or disappear altogether-for women in their early thirties who have earned eight or more mathematics credits in college." But the report also made it clear that a lot would have to change before many girls chose to study math at this level. Although the differences between girls' and boys' test scores were diminishing, by the end of high school, girls' loss of confidence played a large role in their decision-making about math and science. According to the report, "Gender differences in confidence are strongly correlated with continuation in math and science courses." Boys dropped out of math courses when they couldn't do the work; girls dropped out even though they could: "The drop in confidence preceded a decline in achievement." By high school, girls saw math and science as "male," and they didn't envision themselves using these skills. They disappeared from the math/science pipeline before they ever got to college. While some changes have occurred in the past decade, particularly in terms of girls viewing math as strictly "male," there is still work to do in attracting young women to technological fields.
"Perversely absurd": The lack of women scientists
In 1993, CRW published the first installment of Pathways for Women in the Sciences, which described the results of a longitudinal study of Wellesley College students and graduates. The study, which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, addressed the very question raised by Lawrence Summers: why women "are under-represented in scientific careers and especially invisible in upper levels of the science professions." Study co-directors Paula Rayman and Nancy Kolodny questioned students in the class of 1995 at key points in their college careers to find out why some of them chose to study science. A second part of the study, authored by Rayman, Janet Civian, Belle Brett, and Lawrence Baldwin, published in 1997, surveyed science and mathematics graduates from the classes of 1983 through 1991 to find out how many of them stayed in these fields. The researchers also surveyed alumnae from classes 1968 through 1982 for a longer view of women's careers in science. In the opening paragraphs of the initial report, Rayman and Kolodny pointed out that the absence of women is a problem not only for women but also for science. They quoted Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard scientist with a perspective quite different from that of Summers: "[G]ood scientists are hard to find and it seems perversely absurd to place social impediments before half the human race when that half could . . . do the job as well as the half granted access."
Perhaps Pathways' most important finding-especially in light of the portrait of girls' high school science experiences provided by How Schools Shortchange Girls-was that "interest in pursuing science/mathematics as a career is developed before the college years. Few . . . students declared science majors if they had not already indicated some interest in doing so upon college entry." In addition, the students who stayed in the sciences were those who were the best prepared when they came to college-that is, those who took many high school math and science courses. The study's findings suggested that support from teachers, parents, and friends influenced students' choices, as did opportunities to do independent research, such as those offered in special summer programs. Recent work shows that these findings remain as true today as they were a decade ago.
Current WCW work: Program evaluation
WCW Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist Sumru Erkut, who grew up in Turkey, has had a life-long interest in careers that are non- traditional for women-at least in the US: "In my all-girls' high school I majored in math. No one thought anything of it. I had lots of female friends in engineering-the smart kids went into engineering. The intersection of gender and culture was different. When I came to the US, I was shocked at rationales I knew were bogus." For Senior Research Scientist Fern Marx, an interest in women scientists and science education also grew organically out of her high school experience, when she was the only girl in her advanced chemistry, physics, and math classes. As a result, she says, "My buddies were all boys."
Erkut and Marx have become involved in evaluating programs that introduce girls to pursuits like engineering, computer science, and even construction-many of which focus on middle school-aged children (see Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2004). "Middle school is the moment of bifurcation," says Marx. "Girls and boys begin differentiation academically and in terms of interest." They also differ in terms of confidence: "A girl without the right answer believes she's dumb. A boy just thinks he's unprepared." One of the programs about which they are most enthusiastic is "Rosie's Girls," the construction program where girls learn welding and run backhoes. "The program begins by giving them tools, a toolbelt, and boots," says Marx. "It's the first time they've ever gotten their hands on anything like this." Over the course of only two weeks, Marx observed "limitless possibility and growth." Similarly, programs funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council at the Boston Museum of Science encouraged fourth to eighth graders to "play around with things" such as LEGO blocks and motors. Erkut describes such programs as "class interventions." Children from poor backgrounds get access to toys and gadgets, like cameras, that middle class households take for granted. But unless girls are carefully encouraged, they may not actively participate in a program. Marx notes that in an Intel-funded, co-ed computer clubhouse program, "girls on the periphery were watching their boyfriends" and did not engage with the new tools. They needed girls-only sessions. Erkut warns, "ŒGender-free' programming becomes boys' programming." She jokingly calls the process of designing a program that draws in both girls and boys "stealth intervention-no one talks about it as a girls' program, but it's designed with their needs in mind."
Where we are now
Following the publication of How Schools Shortchange Girls and the renewed concerns raised about girls and scientific areas, the National Science Foundation funded programs and research for girls and young women in STEM areas. Policymakers, educators, and parents around the country also focused their energies on improving the atmosphere and the opportunities available for girls and young women. These efforts made a difference. The already narrowing gaps in achievement and course taking discussed in the report narrowed further. But stubborn gaps remain. One example: young women graduating from high school are much less apt than young men to pursue studies or careers in the physical sciences and engineering even though they have comparable academic skills.
Working again with Patricia Campbell of Campbell-Kibler Associates, Inc., the newest efforts underway at WCW are focused on addressing these continuing disparities by looking at the underlying misconceptions surrounding STEM and women and girls, misconceptions still abundant in our society. Many of these misconceptions arise when research findings are not communicated effectively. Others persist because they fit with the gender stereotypes that frame our assumptions about what women do and what men do. For example, a variety of sex differences exist, ranging from differences in the size of male and female brains to differences in the percentages of girls and boys taking advanced physics. The problem is in understanding what these differences mean-and what they do not mean. After all, girls as a group and boys as a group are more alike than they are different on any measure of ability or skill one wants to select. The biggest differences are found between individual boys and between individual girls. It is the confounding of the average with the individual that gets us into trouble.
The "understanding problem" has several components. It often starts with the communication-or miscommunication-of research results. Researchers need to be able to communicate their findings clearly-not only to other researchers but to the media and the general public. And what constitutes effective communication among researchers is often less successful with more general audiences. In an age of sound bites, the complexity of research findings can be lost, fueling misconceptions rather than deepening understanding. In the next few months Bailey, Campbell, and their teams will be developing materials that can help researchers become more effective in communicating their results, help advocates better understand research so that their advocacy efforts do not fuel misconceptions, and provide information for the media that can further their efforts to present research to the general public accurately, clearly, and without reinforcing traditional gender assumptions. The alacrity with which so many people responded to Summers' remarks, and the misconceptions that remain front and center in so much of the ongoing debate, illustrate the need for this work. Future issues of Research & Action will report on the progress of these efforts.
1The Stone Center partnered with the Center for Research on Women in 1995 forming the Wellesley Centers for Women.