Grant intended to close gender gap in science, math fields

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009
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An ASU team of researchers recently received $1.9 million in grants to help close the gender gap between men and women in science fields, a disparity that some women in the field say is still prevalent today.

The rate that women are earning doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is 7 to 10 percent lower than males, according to an ASU statement released Wednesday.

Professor Dale Baker, an author of many writings on the subject of equity issues in science, said while many things have changed for women in science, some have not changed since she started college in the 1960s.

“When I first started, I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, which of course didn’t accept women. People weren’t nice,” Baker said. “I was usually the only woman in my classes.”

The grant money received will help expand the research team’s existing work. The team plans to use the money to develop and test a Web site geared to be a learning environment for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, women.

When Baker applied to the University of Pennsylvania and went to her interview, recruiters questioned why she was there.

“My name confuses people, they thought I was a male,” she said. “They basically told me they didn’t waste seats in their program on women because they get married and leave. They had wanted to interview me based on my name and my GPA but when I got there, they said I wasn’t a good investment.”

While formal barriers like that have all but disappeared, there is still work to be done in terms of women in these fields balancing their careers and their families, she said.

“Tenure years are also critical childbearing years,” Baker said. “When you’re working for tenure, it’s hard to stop and raise children.”

When Baker was younger, many family members and colleagues were put off by the fact that she wasn’t planning on having children, she said.

“My mother would say, ‘You poor woman, you have no children,’ and no one ever said, ‘Your poor sisters, they have no education,’” she said. “I caught a lot of flack from parents and relatives telling me I wasn’t doing the right thing.”

Engineering sophomore Emily Christman said she chose to go into engineering because she has always liked math and been good at it.

It’s hard to be a woman in science and mathematics fields in college, but Christman said she sees it as an advantage after school.

“Some places have to hire a certain number of women because of how slanted the field is,” she said.

While Christman said no one has ever criticized her education choices to her face, she has received discouragement in other ways.

“Someone was talking to a professor about me and the classes I was taking and they talked about how I was blonde,” she said. “The professor said that blonde female students never completed the program and that I wouldn’t graduate.”

Despite the fact that some teachers don’t believe in their female students, Christman said she doesn’t plan on quitting.

“Teachers don’t take you seriously and then grades roll in, and they start treating you OK,” Christman said. “If anything, that attitude makes me more determined to prove them wrong.”

Baker said there are some measures that would encourage more women to pursue science and math.

“An environment with female role models is valuable, you need a critical mass of them,” she said. “It needs to be shown more what you can do with these degrees to encourage more people to go into these fields of study.”

James Middleton, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and associate senior vice provost, said science, technology, engineering and math fields have improved for women, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for greater improvement.

“What you find is there’s a large spot of society not being appropriately served,” Middleton said. “I think the learning style of teaching math and science isn’t where it needs to be. I think we’re all not being served, but women are disproportionally not being served.”

Reach the reporter at sheydt@asu.edu