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Beautiful Faces, Brilliant Minds: Supporting More Women in STEM

“Why are there still so few women in science?” This is a question that should not exist in the 21st century, and it is one that Eileen Pollack seeks an answer to in her New York Times article. Pollack paints a surprisingly grim picture of the current state of women in STEM fields. “Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women,” she writes as an opening example, “and only about half of those women are American.” Even more surprising is the new evidence she cites that proves the fact that STEM professionals (both male and female) are more likely to favor a man over a woman in STEM fields, regardless if the woman has equal qualifications – “and if they did hire the woman,” Pollack writes, “they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s.” One could argue that such a stigma against women in STEM is reason enough to answer why there are still so few women in science, but in truth, it only scratches the surface of this multifaceted issue.

To truly explore the depth of the question at hand, Pollack draws upon her own personal experiences of being a physics student at Yale, as well as the collectedstories of several other women who pursued degrees in STEM. Her anecdotal accounts are tragic, yet they all relate back to one critical fact: women are not getting the support they need to be successful in STEM. This lack of support was exposed across a host of instances from a variety of women, and Pollack writes these stories in brilliant fashion. When it’s all said and done, NMSI believes there are three specific areas where women lack (and need) the most support:
◦Women need more support from their homes and communities. Family and community support are huge factors when it comes to encouraging girls to pursue STEM degrees. While Pollack doesn’t really touch on this area too much, we have read of other stories that do a better a job. Take  Samantha Marquez’s story, as an example. She is only 17, but she has already invented several patents for inventions that have the potential to dramatically and positively impact the world. She was able to do this because she comes from a supportive family; she admires her courageous older sister, and her parents have always encouraged her to keep her mind open and not be afraid of new experiences. In fact, her own story has gone on to inspire other female students to pursue STEM degrees and careers, so the benefits of just a simple word of encouragement from a family member can have tremendous and long lasting effects.
◦Women need more support from their school advisors and professors. This was, perhaps, the most glaring issue Pollack had in her article, simply because it hit so close to home. “I didn’t go in on physics [as a career],” she writes, “because not a single professor… encouraged me to go on to graduate school.” Despite excelling in all of her courses and graduating summa cum laude, she gave up on her dream because the lack of encouragement made her feel inadequate, as if she didn’t have the skills to go further – and she later discovered that she was not alone in feeling this way. In her article, she presents story after story of women giving up on their dreams of pursuing a STEM career because their advisors told them that “girls can’t do physics” or because their professors said that girls can’t compete “on equal terms with boys.” Instead of receiving support and encouragement, these women were met with roadblocks and glass ceilings.
◦Women need more support from our society at large. A major reason why these roadblocks and glass ceilings exist for women in STEM is because our very culture laughs at the notion that women can be successful in these careers. As we have touched on before, Pollack blames pop culture and media for perpetuating the notion that girls can be pretty and illiterate, or intelligent and awkward, with no middle ground to stand on. In a society that values beauty above all else, what girl wants to be smart if society will cast her aside as a misfit? Pollack recounts the story of one female student who was worried she would never get a date in school because she was majoring in physics. “The minute they find out,” she told Pollack, “I can see the guys turn away.” This is because, even in this day and age, society at large still hasn’t learned to appreciate and encourage women who want to become smart, intelligent STEM workers and innovators. Most people have absorbed the images of scientists as “geeky male misfits,” says Pollack (which these beautiful female physicists prove is simply not true), and she believes that this cultural stereotype has to be eliminated if we want the gender bias against women to stop.
These issues are certainly alarming, but not all is doom and gloom! There have been some great advances for women in STEM. More and more girls are taking and succeeding in STEM courses in high school – Pollack cites that the ratio of boys to girls who scored 700 or higher on the SAT exam was 13-to-1 in the 1980’s; today, that ratio is 3-to-1. In our own schools, we have seen phenomenal female student success in the subjects of math and science.
Inspirational women like Sally Ride and engaging student programs like Girls Who Code have also largely impacted the lives of girls and women across the nation, championing the idea that a woman can be more than just a pretty face; that a woman can achieve greatness.
“The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on,” says Pollack, and The National Math and Science Initiative couldn’t agree more. If all it takes is a simple word of encouragement to close the gender gap in STEM, then that is what we are offering right now to every single female student in the country.
To echo the words of one of Pollack’s professors, “You can do it. Stick it out.” We believe you can go on and do great things, discover incredible innovations, and inspire countless other women with your stories.
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