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Why Women Might Be Giving Up On Math And Science

Oct 6, 2013

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The vast majority of professional scientists, mathematicians and engineers are men. But why? More young women than ever are pursuing advanced degrees, but there are still very few female professors of physics, math or engineering. We caught up with some young women at UCLA, all good students who had scored well enough in math to get into UCLA, and asked them why they decided not to study science or math in college.

MINERVA PRAMMO: I was actually really good at science. Before I was an English major, I was a neuroscience major. People were just always, like, asking me, so you're going to be in neuroscience. And I was like, yeah.

SARAH WALLY: My name's Sarah Wally(ph). Part of this is that I don't have much of a background in it, and it's really hard to get caught up to people who are really good at it and really have the basics down.

RATH: That's Minerva Prammo(ph) and Sarah Wally. Eileen Pollack wrote about why there are so few women in science in an article for The New York Times. In it, she writes about a fascinating and disturbing study that illustrates one challenge women face.

EILEEN POLLACK: Jo Handelsman, who is a researcher - she's actually a biologist at Yale - had the sense for years that there was sort of an unconscious gender bias going on that women experience. But she wanted to find hard numbers and actually document this because scientists tend to pride themselves on their objectivity, their rationality. So they didn't believe it in their field. So she came up with an experiment where they basically had made up a job application. And, really, all that was different was on one job application, it seemed to be coming from someone named Jennifer, and on the other from someone named John.

And the results were astonishing. Jennifer was judged less competent, less hirable and less worthy of mentoring or being encouraged to go on in the field than John, solely on the basis of the name. And it was young women and men in the field doing this, not just the old guys, you know. And I think that was what was startling.

RATH: Well, speaking of which, I mean, you had, with your own career trajectory, you were one of the first women to earn a science degree from Yale. You've experienced this sort of stuff. I understand before you got to Yale you had to teach yourself calculus?

POLLACK: Yeah. I know it sounds like I grew up in the, you know, in Paleolithic times, but it really wasn't that long ago. When I was in 7th grade, we were all given an exam, it was science and math, and the boys who did well were skipped ahead so that when they got to be juniors or seniors in high school they would be able to go to the local community college and take calculus and physics there.

And I wasn't skipped ahead. And the principal said, first of all, that girls never go on in science and math so I would just be wasting a seat, but also that it would ruin my social life.

RATH: So you got yourself your own education. How was it when you got to Yale?

POLLACK: Oh, it was a nightmare because, in fact, I had no idea how far behind I was and went to the first physics class, and there were 118 guys and, I think, two of us women in there. I was beyond lost. And just that discomfort of being the only woman in the room. So every time I would cross or uncross my legs, the lecture would almost stop or I would sense my classmates moving. It was so distracting.

RATH: Well, it's interesting you write about how women who actually attend all-girl schools tend to do better in this way.

POLLACK: I was struck again and again over the years, I was doing interviews and meeting with young women, that if people would say, I don't know what you're talking about, I didn't experience that, my question would be, did you go to an all-girl high school? And almost always, they would say yes, unless they were from another country, which was the other defense against this.

RATH: So we've talked about a lot of the factors that served to discourage women from pursuing careers in the sciences. How do you think we can encourage them?

POLLACK: You know, I think women need to hear more encouragement in any field because I see it - I teach creative writing. And even though it's mostly women in the room, they're not often - or they didn't used to be the ones who went on to publish books. I know this sounds like a teratology, but encouragement is the key. Literally saying to, you know, whether it's a 12-year-old or an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old, you know, you can do this.

RATH: Eileen Pollack teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Michigan. She's working on a book about women in science and engineering. Eileen, thank you.

POLLACK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.