Why do too few women begin or stay with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers? On the Oct. 20, 2015, broadcast of PBS’s “NewsHour,” Judy Woodruff spoke with Eileen Pollack (at l.), author of “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.” A transcript of the broadcast follows:


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now time for a NewsHour essay.

Women in the U.S. earn just over 57% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, yet they receive less than 20% of degrees conferred in computer science, engineering and physics.

A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that, in 2013, 26% of all computing jobs were held by women, a drop from 35% in 1990.

We asked Eileen Pollack one of the first two women to receive a bachelor’s of science degree in physics at Yale and who now teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan, to share an idea from her latest book, “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.”

Author, “The Only Woman in the Room”: When I was growing up, I wanted passionately to be a physicist.

But in seventh grade, the principal wouldn’t let me enter the accelerated track in science and math. “Girls never go on to careers in those subjects,” he told my mother. “Besides,” he said, “getting skipped ahead in science and math would ruin my social life.”

As a result, I arrived at Yale in 1974 far behind my male classmates. I failed my first physics midterm, and my parents urged me to switch majors. But I worked incredibly hard and didn’t give up. Four years later, I graduated with a nearly perfect GPA, an A in a graduate course in gravitational theory, and two original research papers.

Even so, I didn’t go on. As ridiculous as it seems now, I assumed that if I were talented enough to apply to graduate school, one of my professors would have let me know.

Since then, I have done a lot of research on gender bias in the sciences, and I’m sorry to report not much has changed. When parents ask why there are still so few girls in advanced science and math classes in high school, I tell them, because girls still need way more encouragement than boys to take those courses.

We still raise girls to look to other people for assurance they are attractive and smart, while boys are raised to determine their own value. Many girls are still made to feel it’s not feminine to be good at science or math.

And if a girl complains about how hard her AP calculus course is, her parents are more likely to let her drop it than if her brother voices the same complaint. As a result, by the time they get to college, most girls won’t, or can’t, sign up for rigorous courses in science or math. Those who do often find themselves unprepared or lacking in confidence.

What delivers the one-two punch that knocks so many women and minorities out of STEM fields is that scientists have this strange belief that, if you need to be encouraged, you aren’t talented or dedicated enough to be one of them. If you flunk your first physics or calculus midterm, you deserve to be weeded out.

What they don’t realize is that young women and students of color grow up in a society that fails to encourage and often actively discourages them from thinking of themselves as scientists. Ask most people to picture a physicist, and they will imagine Albert Einstein or Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.”

My parents didn’t know how to provide me with the encouragement I needed to achieve my dreams. But the solution isn’t rocket science. If your daughter finds herself in a course designed to weed her out, cheer her on, urge her to seek extra help, and give her a giant pat on the back for having made it so far, despite all the discouragement she already has overcome.

Photo credit: Michele McDonald

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One Response

  1. G Sho

    I am a man who chose a STEM career who has always been struck by the dearth of female coworkers. Most of my employers have tried hard to hire women, but there are so few women in the field. When I was in college, there were a small handful of women who graduated with the same degree as I.

    I have two daughters, one of whom is very talented in math and science. She took all A.P. classes during her junior year (last year). I have encouraged her to pursue a STEM career, but she has informed me she is not interested. I still hold-out hope that she will change her mind.

    I am convinced that there is something about our culture that encourages women to make different career choices from men, AND the choices that women often make are choices that do NOT require degrees in math, engineering, or computer science. My daughter tells me she wants to pursue nursing school. To that, I have suggested that she consider a career in physical therapy, where she will at least make substantially more money. I will ultimately support whatever decision she makes, but my life’s experience tells me that women simply choose not to pursue certain careers in the same numbers that men do.

    The idea that in the 21st century women do not have the same opportunities as men, or are flat-out discouraged or not allowed to pursue courses in advanced physics or math is just NOT TRUE. I wish I could say exactly what it is in our society that causes women NOT to choose STEM careers, but it is a choice that women are making despite the fact that they grow-up having equal opportunities as boys and young men. I will also say that the whole false narrative about the so-called gender pay gap is wholly bogus and more than irritating.


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