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Bridging the Science Gender Gap: Raising Female Scientists and Engineers

October 1997

Girls and boys start school with equal levels of interest and ability in math and science, but somewhere between kindergarten and graduate school, many girls veer away from these fields -- and from the potential for rewarding careers in science and engineering.

Women currently make up less than 20 percent of the nation's professionals in engineering and physical sciences. With decades of research to back her up, psychologist Helen Farmer knows part of the reason why.

"Society doesn't give girls support for their careers in the way it does boys," Farmer says. Many girls experience a "null environment" when it comes to science and math, meaning "the environment neither encourages nor discourages," she explains. Boys, on the other hand, are actively encouraged.

Farmer, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been tracking gender issues in science since the 1970s, when many fields opened up to women. Her new book, Diversity and Women's Career Development: From Adolescence to Adulthood (Sage Publications Inc., 1997), is rooted in an NSF-funded study that began almost two decades ago.

In 1980, Farmer surveyed more than 2,000 midwestern high school students, asking about their career motivations and interests. Ten years later, she sent 1,500 of them follow-up surveys. She was particularly interested in why some women persisted in their choice of science and why others did not.

After analyzing the 505 returned surveys, Farmer interviewed 105 of the men and women who had originally aspired to careers in science and technology. Some had followed through on their aspirations, others had not.

Farmer found that parental support was a crucial difference between women who had followed through on their career goals and women who had not, she says. In other studies, Farmer discovered that even when boys and girls receive similar grades in a math class, boys develop more self-confidence in that subject area.

In addition, she found that teachers and parents did not give boys and girls the same indications about the importance of math and science. "Fathers are constantly saying to their sons, 'You need to do well in math, because of what you might want to do in the future.' Girls don't hear that as much."

There are ways of correcting these inequities for future generations. Evidence from the women who persisted in science careers indicates that they were inspired and motivated when their parents expected them to achieve in science and math and told them this was important for their future.

Yet another approach, says Farmer, is to start both boys and girls thinking about equality in math and science careers at a young age, using imagination games. "Girls need to be engaged in future planning for a dual-career lifestyle where both husbands and wives work and raise families."

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