Engineering a Better Future for Girls

It remains to be seen if small steps toward socially norming science will make a difference, but the data is beginning to suggest that we are on the right track.

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Larry Summers, once considered to be the front-runner to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, recently withdrew his name from consideration. The reasons behind his withdrawal are numerous, as Summers is an exceptionally talented economist, but seems to draw controversy wherever he goes. In fact, I and lot of other women will always remember Larry Summers as the embattled president of Harvard University who suggested that there aren't many female scientists and engineers because women, as a whole, aren't interested in science and have lower natural mathematical and science abilities than men.

As an economist, Summers knows that we have a technology-driven nation. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the future of the U.S. economy depends on developing and encouraging deep U.S. expertise in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This means encouraging and supporting all of our children in these fields, not just half of them. If we don't recognize and acknowledge that our lack of female scientists and engineers is not an ability-driven gap but instead a pervasive socialization problem that begins at the earliest ages, then we will continue to alienate and exclude half our population from these critical fields – and risk harm to the future U.S. economy. As a female engineering faculty member at Villanova University, I can personally testify that women are both talented and interested in the STEM fields, and that it is overt social pressures that continue to steer most girls away from these fields despite their natural talents and abilities.

Most adult women today, myself included, grew up in a time in which social pressures against math and science were strong and pervasive. Blocks and Legos are for boys. Girls don't like to build, play with this Barbie instead. Of course when you pull her string she says, "Math class is tough!" But even in today's supposedly enlightened and gender-neutral society these social pressures continue to exist. Most building and technology toys are marketed and developed only for boys, and if you have been in a toy store recently you easily recognize that gender divisions are in many ways even more pronounced now than they were in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up.

The truth is that little girls really do enjoy science and building toys if given the opportunity. They just need to be shown that these toys are for them, too. If the "boys club" is opened to them, they are eager and enthusiastic about participating. Once Lego figured this out, the new line of Lego Friends marketed at girls took off. I hear grumbling that the line is too overtly feminine with its pink and purple bricks -- but isn't that exactly the point? Why can't something be feminine and still be a science and building toy? Otherwise we just perpetuate the social norm that "feminine" and "scientific" don't mix. Mattel finally came around as well; today Barbie is not only a ballerina but also a computer engineer and an architect.

It remains to be seen if small steps toward socially norming science will make a difference, but the data is beginning to suggest that we are on the right track. Although young women currently make up only 18 percent of engineering majors, there are many bright spots including such disciplines as biomedical and environmental engineering, where in 2011 these fields awarded 39 percent and 44 percent of their degrees, respectively, to women.

Why are these fields successfully enrolling and retaining women? The relative newness of the fields mean that they come without the social baggage that more established fields like mechanical or electrical engineering and physics carry, and have successfully shown the relevance of engineering and science to the world around us. The idea of making a difference in the world is incredibly appealing to most young people and when young women understand the impact that engineers and scientists can have on society, many more decide to pursue this path. At Villanova we have been particularly successful at this, with our engineering student body reaching 30 percent female and continuing to increase.