By Meredith Moore
When I was in college, Larry Summers – then the president of Harvard University – suggested that one reason there are few women in the top science positions is a lack of aptitude compared to men. As a woman majoring in science, I was outraged. Almost a decade later, I am outraged again that Google engineer James Damore tried to use biology to explain the lack of women in the sciences. Larry Summers was reprimanded and James D’amore was fired from Google, but their opinions help perpetuate stereotypes about women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and have a powerfully negative impact on women and girls.
Research by the American Association of University Women shows that prolonged exposure to stereotypes eventually become self-fulfilling prophecies. A female student might worry that she isn’t as good at math as male students, which leads her to study math less, believing the effort worthless, or she panics during the test and ends up with a bad grade. The bad grade fuels her belief that she’s bad at math and creates a self perpetuating cycle.
An internalized negative opinion of herself, hearing stereotypes on the news or in her culture has hindered women’s pursuit of STEM careers. A Georgetown study quantified the results: for every 100 men who get a bachelor’s degree, 28 graduate as a STEM major; for women that number is only 12. And 10 years later only three of those paltry 12 female STEM graduates will still be working in the field due to an attrition rate double to men in STEM. As a scientist, I cannot claim that negative stereotypes and exclusionary cultures are the main cause of this leaking pipeline, but they certainly don’t help.
When I was in high school, some boys made me feel inferior when taking physics. They might not have explicitly said “girls cannot do science” but the sentiment was felt. But I was lucky: I had mentors who countered my peers’ taunts and made me feel confident in my ability to do science. My high school teachers, Claire VonSecker and Donald DeMember, helped me secure an internship at the National Institute of Health. In addition to gaining incredible research opportunities, I was surrounded by scientists who saw potential in me and encouraged me to hone my craft. Those scientists, Nadim Majdalani and Craig Gruber, fanned the science spark in me that has become a lifelong passion. When I got to college, I was again fortunate to have mentors like my thesis advisor Paul Neuman who helped me become the science teacher I am today.
Young women who love STEM need mentors like I had to overcome the bombardment of negativity about women in STEM. As a high school chemistry teacher, I still hear girls talk about what science they can take instead of what science they want to take. I try to mentor these girls, help them see that they are scientists no matter what someone says. But in college they will need other mentors to reinforce these beliefs. Until cultures change and everyone is viewed as equal regardless of gender, women need mentors and advocates. Such a need is why I’m so proud to have co-founded the B. A. Rudolph Foundation, which provides scholarships and mentors to women during the summer. Larry Summers and James Damore might gain notoriety for their opinions of women, but I – alongside so many others – am going to guarantee that the next Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, or Rosalind Franklin gets the support she needs to make a difference in the world.
About the author: Meredith Moore is a co-founder and board member of the B. A. Rudolph Foundation. In addition, she teaches high school chemistry and psychology at the Washington International School. She holds a masters in education, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and minors in chemistry and education.