In tenth grade I dropped out of Physics during the first week. Not the teacher, guidance counselor, nor anyone else in school challenged this decision, which sprang out of frustration with one homework assignment, despite my finding the classes to be accessible and engaging. One’s plans of being an astronaut get thwarted by missing Physics credits.
Even while abstractedly knowing about the gender gap in the sciences, it wasn’t until Laura Huerta Migus spoke at the Connecticut Science Center on Tuesday that I heard another female tell a similar story. While at Texas A&M University, Huerta Migus changed majors after having a discouraging lab experience. Nobody challenged her on this decision or offered any kind of advising or mentoring.
Title IX may have removed structural barriers for women, but a culture persists in which females take themselves out of the running, either as adolescents or while in college.
Being “the only person representing your cultural experience and background,” Huerta Migus said, “cannot be minimized.” That experience of being the only woman in a classroom or in the workforce is “extremely dissuasive for persistence.”
Huerta Migus explained that while girls have a higher GPA than boys in math, there is a sharp drop off of females taking classes in science, technology, engineering, and math after a certain age.
In 2009, women earned 18% of all engineering degrees conferred to United States’ citizens. The disparity widens even more when looking at race and ethnicity. African American women earned only 1% of engineering degrees. That is fewer than 1000 African American women. Though demographically Hispanic women should have earned 8% of degrees in engineering, only 2% actually did.
Between that sense of being an “only” and the failure of being pushed to try, particularly in the high stakes, high stress setting created by No Child Left Behind standardized testing, females continue to opt out of science, technology, engineering, and math.
The keynote speaker, citing science centers as “no rules,” hands-on environments, considered them as spaces where girls and women could be engaged in ways they might not be in school settings. Huerta Migus, the Co-Principal Investigator on the Girls RISE Museum Network project, was at the Connecticut Science Center Tuesday to help launch the Celebrating Women in Science Initiative.
This initiative, currently sponsored by the Petit Family Foundation, will include Saturday science workshops for girls, a career fair in the fall for middle school-aged girls, and a “scavenger hunt” at the Connecticut Science Center in which participants learn about women’s roles in the various exhibits.
Dr. William Petit, in explaining his support of the pilot program, asked “Why should we not reap the potential of half of society?”
He acknowledged that women are well-represented in the biological sciences, but not so much elsewhere. Huerta Migus echoed this with data showing how few degrees were conferred to women in computer science, physical science, and engineering. “Homogenous thought,” she said, “is not conducive to a diverse future.”
“What we’re still living with,” after the structural barriers have been removed, after schools have shown that they know how to create gender neutral experiences in science classrooms, are “cultural beliefs about who belongs,” Huerta Migus told the predominately female audience.
Dr. Theodore Sergi, the retired President & CEO of the Connecticut Science Center, said “you can’t live in that old failing culture and tradition.”
Besides providing girls and women with hands-on opportunities outside of the classroom, Huerta Migus said there are effective ways to address the issue of self-selection: counter-stereotypic imaging, self-affirmations, and growth mindset focus.
It’s important, she said, to not tiptoe around the issue with girls. Huerta Migus explained that they are aware, and when the issue of under-representation of females in science and engineering is brought up to them, many — especially adolescents — are propelled by their sense of justice and driven to stick with it.
Along with the new programs and scavenger hunt, the Connecticut Science Center will be adding a section to its website providing information about the initiative, along with resources that may help address these disparities.