High school girls like science, too.

Junior year. It’s the time when some things are finally starting to settle down while others are being tipped on their heads, leaving students scrambling to figure out where everything is now. Choosing a future fits into this latter category. For years, my generation was allowed to drift along, struggling with problems in the “now”. Then high school hit, and suddenly, “now” wasn’t enough anymore. In addition to that, my classmates and I are forced to think about the “next” too: what we want to do with our lives – and how our plans will make us seem to outsiders.

In one sense, I’m lucky: I’ve known what I want to be since I was in eighth grade, so this year, I can sit back and relax a little while everyone is scrambling to throw their futures together. But in a sense, I’m also facing other difficulties, because of the college major I’ve chosen: aeronautical engineering.

There are two things that society might find “wrong” with that simple phrase: airplanes and engineering – in other words, my entire major. If it were a guy saying that, nobody would have any problem – because, of course, guys are “supposed” to like machines and building things, and girls aren’t “supposed” to like fields like that. Even more than that, I think the reason why people might balk at the idea of me wanting to design airplanes for the rest of my life is because they’re scared that a girl might actually want to do something in the science fields. Would it be too general to say that people might even be scared that a girl could be smart?

I’m in the AP Physics C class at my school (I took AP Physics B last year as a sophomore), and of the 23 of us in that class, only 6 of us are girls – an impressive 25%. I’m not in AP Computer Science, but apparently there are only 3 girls in the 25-or-so-person-class (more along the lines of 12%). The FIRST Robotics Club is even worse, with about 3 regular girls in the 40-person club (8%). If these aren’t scary numbers, I don’t know what are.

I know that a lot of the girls at my school are great with science and technology – physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, engineering, it doesn’t really matter which – and yet most of them take an alternate route. Females dominate fields like psychology and anthropology, while STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is overwhelmed by men. And it’s not because the girls aren’t good at science; as I said, most of the girls I know are great in STEM fields. It’s because it’s easier for girls to follow the mold than it is to face criticism of those who aren’t willing to accept a girl geared toward science. Even more than this: I’m fairly certain that even tests that supposedly prove that men are better than women at science are skewed, too. From a young age, girls are surrounded by propaganda telling them that STEM is for the men, and so it generally follows that these same girls decide that because they’ll never be accepted in science, they just don’t need to bother. Every girl is just as good as a guy at science, but because of the propaganda, most girls have absorbed the idea that girls won’t be accepted and taken it to mean: “I’m not good at the STEM fields.”

I wish it were easy to correct this. But unfortunately, as a high school girl, I’ve seen what this propaganda has done to my classmates. I can probably name every girl in my grade who wants to be an engineer like me, and they’re all in my physics class or in robotics. Telling girls they’re just as good as the guys isn’t magically going to convert another 100 girls at my school to engineering; we’ve had it pummeled into our brains for too long to leave STEM to the men. But if we start getting rid of the negative messages now, then teenage girls 30 years from now – my daughters, possibly – hopefully won’t be told no. They won’t be told to stick to the liberal arts, and instead, they’ll branch out toward science and make the STEM fields more gender-balanced.

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” That’s what the current (and female) president of Liberia said. It scares me to try to overturn society’s messages. It scares me to try to convince at least one girl out there that yes, she can be a scientist or engineer. Even my own dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer – a field where about 6% of the engineers are women – scares me, and it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. But I think I can rightfully say that this means that my dreams are just the right size for a girl like me. And through these dreams, hopefully I (and all the other women in STEM out there) can prove that I can be a girl who likes science, a girl who’s smart – and a girl who isn’t quite as willing to let go of her goals as society thinks she is.

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  1. Posted April 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    It is unfortunate that you are getting the message that women are not good in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Looking at the success of women in the STEM fields at colleges and universities should be encouraging. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports (www.nsf.gov) that in 2010 women were awarded:
    - 57.2% of the 1,668,227 bachelor’s degrees, including
    - 50.3% of the 525,374 science and engineering bachelor’s degrees.
    Hundreds of thousands of women earn a science or engineering bachelor’s degree every year. This should encourage you. While roughly the same number of women and men get science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, for gender parity at the bachelor’s degree level we actually need to encourage about 242,000 additional men to get liberal arts degrees every year .

    For master’s degrees, women were awarded:
    - 60.3% of the 698,528 master’s degrees, including
    - 45.5% of the 139,926 science and engineering master’s degrees
    Though the science and engineering gender disparity is not large, to achieve gender parity we need to encourage about 12,600 women annually to switch from liberal arts to science and engineering and, then, recruit about 144,000 additional men into liberal arts master’s degrees.

    For doctoral degrees, women were awarded:
    - 49.5% of the 57,405 doctoral degrees, including
    - 41.1% of the 32,649 science and engineering doctoral degrees
    There is a rough parity of doctoral degrees between women and men which is very encouraging, but women receive 5,827 fewer science and engineering doctoral degrees annually. Bringing this down to the university level, about 21 women annually in each of the 282 doctoral degree granting universities would need to be recruited to switch from a liberal arts doctorate to a science or engineering doctorate (or 21 men annually per university from science and engineering to liberal arts) to achieve gender parity.

    I encourage you to pursue a science or engineering field. We need more women and men to pursue these disciplines.

    Note that NSF’s “science and engineering ” degrees include agriculture; biological sciences; computer sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; mathematics and statistics; physical sciences; psychology; social sciences; and engineering. The data is “based on degree-granting institutions eligible to participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs…”

    • Posted April 14, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      Thank you very much for these statistics! They’re significantly more promising than what I’ve seen in my daily life. That being said, it’s interesting that if you take a closer look, many of the women in science fields are in biology (probably the one science where women outnumber the men). It’s true that my post does address all sciences, which includes biology, but I personally find it said that most girls tend to avoid the remaining aspects of STEM – the engineering, computer science, etc. (It’s also interesting to note that most people seem to forget that STEM includes biology and chemistry…)
      But again, thank you very much for these statistics!

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