Some news from last week: the American Association of University Women has released a report discussing the persistant underrepresentation of women in science and engineering fields. Despite the increasing prominence of women in fields such as medicine, law and business, women remain remarkably underrepresented in science, technology, math and engineering. This issue, and how it could be resolved, has enjoyed much discussion, and now the American Association of University Women (supported by the National Science Foundation) weighs in with their report that highlights the role of environmental and social barrier in discouraging women from entering "hard science" fields. The report also includes up-to-date statistics on the participation of women in scientific fields, and concludes with some recommendations for how to entice women into science.
One main finding is that women are particularly sensitive to external suggestions regarding their ability to do well in science fields. The report cites research showing that womens' performance suffers following a suggestion that they are not good at math. On the other hand, the report finds that teaching women that such stereotypes will affect performance, will by itself reduce those effects.
A good summary of the report can be found at the NYTimes. Also of note are several letters sent to the newspaper which comment of the article; authors include the President of Mount Holyoke College, who comments on the success of women's colleges in supporting the entrance of women into science. As she points out, women's colleges generally have twice as many women majoring in math and science than at comparable coeducational institutions. As a graduate of another women's college (Bryn Mawr College), and as the sister of a Mount Holyoke student who recently chose to major in Computer Science and Math I can personally attest to the powerful role institutional culture can play in encouraging women to enter and succeed in scientific fields. And while attending a women's college is not the solution to the society-wide issue, the success of these institutions could inform how coeducational institutions can encourage women to study science.
For those of you interested in the report, it is available for download from the AAUW website.