Pioneers, past and present: From top left (clockwise), Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, Mary Leakey, Mae Jemison, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin
James Gross, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has a 13-year-old daughter who loves math and science. It hasn’t occurred to her yet that that’s unusual, he says. “But I know in the next couple of years, it will.”
She’s already being pulled out of class to do advanced things “with a couple of other kids, who are guys,” he says. And as someone who studies human emotion for a profession, Gross says, “I know as time goes on, she’ll feel increasingly lonely as a girl who’s interested in math and science”—and be at risk of narrowing her choices in life before finding out how far she could have gone. (See “In Her Words: Sylvia Earle on Women in Science.”)
Gross’s concern speaks volumes about what has been a touchy subject in the world of science for a long time: Why are there still so few women in science, and how might that affect what we learn from research?
Women now make up half the national workforce, earn more college and graduate degrees than men, and by some estimates represent the largest single economic force in the world. Yet the gender gap in science persists, to a greater degree than in other professions, particularly in high-end, math-intensive fields such as computer science and engineering.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women in fields commonly referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) made up 7 percent of that workforce in 1970, a figure that had jumped to 23 percent by 1990. But the rise essentially stopped there. Two decades later, in 2011, women made up 26 percent of the science workforce. 11-08-14
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