Can Legislation Fix the U.S. Science Gender Gap?

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In 1972, when Mae Jemison was just 16 years old, she arrived at Stanford University, where she intended to pursue a degree in engineering. But it wasn't long after arriving in Palo Alto that she learned that the university's science departments weren't nearly as enthusiastic about her as she was about them. In one of her freshman science classes, she recalls, the professor looked at her like she was "bonkers." "I would ask a question, and he would look at me like it was the dumbest question and then move on," she says. "Then a white guy down the row asks the same question, and he says, 'Astute observation.' It makes you start to really question yourself."

In the nearly four decades since, Jemison has proved repeatedly that she deserves a place at the table. She graduated from Stanford with a double major in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies, got a medical degree, and eventually became the world's first woman of color to go to space. She is, without a doubt, exceptional. And in part, it may be that exceptionalism that enabled her to persevere despite the messages she got from her professors. "It was good that I was 16 and I had that arrogance," she laughs. "I was combative. I was going to make it, no matter what."

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But though Jemison is an exception, and the kind of explicit discouragement she faced 40 years ago may have lessened, for women working in or studying science, technology, engineering, and math (known as the STEM fields) today, the landscape remains surprisingly, and depressingly, similar to what it was when Jemison was at Stanford. In high school, girls only take 17 percent of computer-science AP tests. They earn only 18 percent of computer and information-science degrees in college, and they make up just under a quarter of computer and math professionals. There has been much debate about why women are so underrepresented, including controversial discussions about potential innate differences between men and women when it comes to scientific or mathematical ability, but the bottom line is that the gender gap persists. In an attempt to decrease the discrepancy, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson proposed an independent bill aimed at strengthening women's achievement in math and science; it prompted enough debate among the House Committee on Science and Technology that she had to withdraw it. "They decided it wouldn't go over well on college campuses," she says, since it would have required universities to reveal more information than they might have wanted.

Johnson recently succeeded in appending a women-specific measure to the America COMPETES Act (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007), which is up for reauthorization. If the Senate approves the bill, it would provide grant programs to those academics who get federal funds for their research, to encourage them to figure out ways to minimize gender bias in tenure, promotion, and honors. It would also help women take time off for pregnancy or child care without being penalized in their research or pursuit of tenure, which is another likely contributing factor to the gender gap in STEM fields. As NEWSWEEK's Jeneen Interlandi wrote last fall, "It's not innate gender differences that hold women back ... It's not even gender bias (OK, maybe a little, but that's not the biggest problem). It's that science is demanding and very, very competitive. No matter how family-friendly a given university is, a scientist who chooses to have a baby risks having her next big breakthrough scooped up by a competitor who chooses to spend 24/7 in the lab." Johnson's proposals are not the only examples of trying to legislate gender parity in academics; whether the problem can be addressed that way remains to be seen.

But there are still other issues at play in why women continue to lag behind men. A slew of recent studies show that the problem for women in math and science is related to something both larger and more nuanced: culture (which poses a problem in other industries as well). A March report from the American Association of University Women found that female postdoctoral applicants have to produce 20 more papers to be judged as productive as their male counterparts. Another study, conducted by the Bayer Corp., found that more than 40 percent of female and minority chemists and chemical engineers had been steered away from pursuing careers in math and science at some point during their education—of those, 44 percent said they, like Jemison, were discouraged by a professor, and 65 percent of African-American female respondents said a professor had discouraged them at some point during their education. "These are the ones who actually made it through," Jemison notes. "This is the reception they were getting. You can imagine what happened to the ones who didn't make it through. Women and minorities fall through the cracks ... I think a lot of women and minorities graduate in spite of, not because of."

These findings are consistent with studies showing that girls from countries where gender equity is more widespread are more likely to perform well on math assessment tests, which, in turn, "suggests that the root of gender disparity in math is sociocultural factors, not anything unchangeable that girls are born with," NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley wrote a year ago. "Society either sends a message that girls can excel at math, that they will be rewarded for doing so—or it doesn't."

Even more, Project Implicit, an online lab that examines implicit social cognition—subconscious feelings, preferences, and assumptions—has been measuring and documenting bias as it relates to gender and academic aptitude on its Web site. They found that some 70 percent of their 4.5 million respondents subconsciously associate science and math with men more than women. "This has been an old saying for so long that women have started to believe it," says Congresswoman Johnson. "And frankly in the past I think women did believe it."

Since people tend to choose careers and fields of study they think they will excel in, these biases, even if subconscious, could be a significant contributing factor. They also might fuel what researchers call the "stereotype threat," the disruptive impact that negative stereotypes can have on test taking and academic performance. Another study referenced in the AAUW report tested two groups of students who were equally proficient in math. The first group was told outright just before the test that men tend to perform better, the other was not. Girls in the first group scored just 5 percent, compared to the boys' 25 percent. Scores in the second group were 17 and 19 percent, respectively.?The AAUW report included one optimistic note: education can mitigate the negative impacts of the stereotype threat, and that's partly what Congresswoman Johnson is trying to do with her legislation. But that's just one piece of the pie, and it won't do anything to change overarching stereotypes and assumptions about male and female aptitude, which will only change once we stop associating STEM professions with white men.

During a conference Jemison organized to address the issue, a few of the (white, male) professors suggested something more radical: making funding for tenured professors contingent upon them making sure there are more women and minorities in their classes. "You want it done? Give it to them," Jemison says. "Make them responsible for it ... Right now they don't have any skin in the game." Putting the onus of turning things around on men rather than women is gathering strength among advocates for gender equality. A recent New York Times op-ed called "Feminism of the Future Relies on Men," argued that it's men who can and should implement gender-neutral policies and other measures that enable female success and ensure that labs, corporations, and classrooms cultivate and promote the best talent.

Because getting more American women involved in STEM fields isn't just good for "equality," it's also important to keeping America competitive in terms of technology and innovation. "Having an adequately prepared STEM workforce is about homeland security and national defense, green economy and high-tech jobs that would be here on American soil," says the AAUW's Lisa Maatz, "Frankly, right now we have a pipeline that's incredibly leaky."

Find the author on the Web at The Equality Myth.