How Stereotypes Can Drive Women to Quit Science

by Richelle Teeling-Smith

I am a graduate student at the Ohio State University, currently working on my Ph.D. in physics.  I still remember the first time I really felt the impact of being a minority – a woman in science – at school.  Luckily for me, this didn’t happen until I reached graduate school, though for some, they experience this much earlier on, in high school or in college.  When I started classes at Ohio State that fall, I was a member of a class of 42 people.  We had 12 women in our class.   This was an amazingly high number for physics!  As it turns out, I am really lucky that there were so many women in my class because it ended being a vital support system throughout that first year of graduate school classes.  We were assigned these tough assignments that took us days to complete.  All of it was much harder than anything I had experienced in high school or even through most of college and it really threw me.  I struggled… and I really wasn’t used to struggling.  I was used to working hard, understanding things really easily, and getting excellent grades…. So therefore I panicked.  The strangest part of the whole thing was that most of the guys in my class shrugged the whole thing off like it was easy.  They bragged about how quickly they could solve the problems or how easily they figured it out.  Within a week, I was absolutely convinced that not only was I probably the dumbest person there, but also that admissions must have just made a mistake and sent me the acceptance letter that was supposed to go to someone else.  How long would it take them to realize I was too stupid for physics and I did not belong in graduate school?

But as the days… weeks… went by, I began to talk to some of the other female students.  I started to realize that I was not the only one who was feeling this way.  I was not the only one
hesitating to speak up or challenge somebody on a problem because of my own insecurities.  And then, when midterms finally hit, the playing field was leveled.  Once those grades were
posted and I found that not only was I doing just fine, but I was doing better than the average, I realized that it was all for show.  That was the first time that I realized the huge impact these types of social interactions can have.  I had wanted to quit.  I actually thought about it seriously several times. I had convinced myself that I was stupid and out of place all based on the way I perceived the interactions with my fellow students.

I recently read an article entitled ‘How stereotypes can drive women to quit science’ by Shankar Vedantam, originally published by NPR on July 12, 2012 and it got me thinking about this problem.  It’s not news that there is a gender disparity in most STEM fields.  Fewer women go in to science, technology, engineering and mathematics than men.  I’ve seen statistics on the low number of girls majoring in STEM fields in college.  And few of these women continue on to graduate and school, fewer yet complete their Ph.D. and so on.  The result of this is that even some major universities, like the Ohio State University physics department, for example, has only 3 full-time female faculty members out of approximately 60 (quick head count).  That’s what…about 5%?  Other universities do better with some reaching almost 20% female faculty members.  When 20% seems like a big achievement, it becomes obvious that there is a problem.

In this article, they discuss a study using an electronic recording device to record day-to-day interactions of male and female scientists at a research university as they go about their work.  They found that as male scientists talked to other scientists about their research, it energized them.  As female scientists talked to other female scientists about their research, it energized them.  But as female scientists talked to their male colleagues, they became more and more disengaged.  This was due to something they called ‘stereotype threat’.  What is stereotype threat?

“When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become
self-fulfilling.  Steele and his colleagues found that when women were reminded — even subtly — of the stereotype that men were better than women at math, the performance of women in math tests measurably declined.”

My experiences in graduate school have shown me that this stereotype threat thing can be a very real problem.  You spend your energy worrying about whether you appear competent and you’re not spending it focusing on the problem at hand.  It is a very real problem that minorities in these fields have to face daily.  When women look around departments, labs, and companies in STEM fields and see very few (almost no) women, it activates the stereotype that women aren’t good at these fields.  This creates a feeling that the job or lifestyle is uncomfortable or not a good fit.  This implied stereotype can make women or other minorities want to quit.  It makes us feel as though the path will always be rocky and steep and that we will always be fighting the battle not only to progress and be successful in our field, but also constantly prove that we belong there. It can be overwhelming and exhausting.

The solution? It’s obvious. We need more women in science. When women are no longer a minority, this stereotype will be lifted. But how do you actually get more women to go in to
science and stay in science?  Maybe it’s time to have the scientific community do a little soul searching and find ways to actually make the path easier for minorities in STEM fields.  I’m
not referring to the training or coursework needed to get scientific degrees – I do not consider that to be an issue.  I’m referring to the more subtle social issues related to interactions with colleagues and balancing life, classes and work.  How can you have a happy and fulfilling life and still be successful in a demanding job?  How can you have hobbies and interests outside of science?  How can you have kids (this is the big one!) and still expect to progress in your career and put in the hours needed to keep up with your colleagues?  We need role models in leadership positions who are willing to take a stand to defend their decisions to have children and hobbies and interests outside of work and support their employees and colleagues who do the same.  It is a tough road to a Ph.D. in the sciences and we need to not only provide support for our young female and minority students, but also demonstrate through example that having balanced life and a healthy mental state will allow you to accomplish all of your scientific career goals and be happy too.  What an idea!  A shift in the culture of scientific training could be the key to increasing the number of women who come in to science and stay there.

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About Richelle Teeling-Smith

I grew up in Akron, Ohio.  I am the first woman in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree in any field.  I went to college at Kent State University in Kent, OH and didn’t decide to go into physics until my sophomore year.  I graduated in 2009 with my B.S. and now attend the Ohio State University.  In 2011 I earned my M.S. in physics and I am now working on my Ph.D.  I do research in experimental condensed matter physics and biophysics.  I study the dynamics of bio-molecules, like DNA, using impurity centers in diamonds.  I am also the undergraduate/graduate mentoring program coordinator for the graduate women in physics group here at the department of physics at OSU.  Feel free to contact me by leaving a comment.  I am happy to talk!

Sally Ride

by Nancy Santagata

I was sitting in my office on the night of Monday, July 23rd, when I received an email from my father asking if I had read the news that Sally Ride had passed away.  I hadn’t yet heard and was completely shocked and immediately saddened.  “People like Sally Ride aren’t supposed to die,” I wrote in an email to fellow female scientist.

Sally Ride has been an inspiration to me since I first saw her photo in one of my elementary school textbooks.  The instant I laid eyes on that photo, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up: I was going to be an astronaut like Sally Ride.

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Sally Ride’s historic 1983 flight aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
Credit: NASA

As a young girl, I couldn’t fully appreciate the sentiment that the photo conveys to me today because I didn’t understand that women faced these things called “barriers.”  But if you think about it, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the pint sized version of me understood the existence of barriers.  What I saw in my textbook then was a poofy haired woman smiling as she floated around the innards of a space shuttle, surrounded by weightless calculators, flying manuals, a jillion buttons, and some unidentifiable specimen of astronaut food.  To me, this particular photo indicated that women hanging out in space were a totally normal sight.

When I was in my early 20s and studying toward a PhD in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I realized that Professor Sally Ride worked just a few buildings away in the Physics Department.  I excitedly asked my academic advisor if we could invite her to make the long and arduous journey over to the chemistry building and tell us about the scientific research that she carried out at UCSD.  He was enthusiastic as well, but soon informed me that Prof. Ride had shifted her focus away from research to start a company called Sally Ride Science that encourages young women to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.  Coincidentally, around the same time an opportunity to volunteer for that very company landed in my lap.  I jumped into my little white VW and sped up the coast to Los Angeles for the day long festival, which was held on the Pasdena campus of the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

At CalTech I had an absolute blast using gummy bears to demonstrate the inheritance of genetic traits, like tongue rolling, to eager and intelligent young girls.  During a break in the activity, I was introduced to the real live Sally Ride and thanked her both for being an inspiration and for taking up such an important cause.  She graciously autographed my name tag.  Over the years I’ve met and chatted with several astronauts, a few of them household names.  But this particular encounter by far outshines the brightest stars in the sky because, as we chatted, I realized that Sally Ride wasn’t just the poofy haired pioneer from my grammar school text book.  She was a humble, compassionate peer who sincerely appreciated that we walked together in pursuit of gender equality in the sciences.

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My little piece of history.

Thirty one years after Sally Ride earned her PhD in physics at Standford University, I successfully earned my PhD in chemistry.  I haven’t experienced zero gravity in low Earth orbit (yet!), but it turns out that Sally Ride and I have more than just PhDs in common. Like her, I adore interacting with aspiring young female scientists and actively devote my time to events similar to those like the one at CalTech.  In the Physics Department here at Ohio State, where I am currently employed as a Postdoctoral Researcher, we host a week long interactive summer camp called GRASP, or Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics.  Before a lecture on the physics of gymnastics at last year’s camp, I donned a bright blue NASA flight suit and asked the campers one very important question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  To my absolute delight I was barraged with answers that varied from chef to archeologist and that included every imaginable profession in between.  They were admittedly a bit confused by my dramatic wardrobe choices until Dr. Nancy explained what she was going to be when she grew up and that she wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stand in her way.

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Dr. Nancy, aspiring astronaut, lectures on the physics of gymnastics at GRASP.

 It is now a few weeks later and I’m sitting in my office again, the dreary skies above echoing my somber mood.  Some time has passed since I heard the news, but it still brings tears to my eyes to think that the first American woman to fly in space has succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

People like Sally Ride are supposed to be invincible and unstoppable and are supposed to live forever.  People like Sally Ride aren’t supposed to die.  But with her death this week a torch was passed to the next generation, a torch that was lit nearly three decades ago aboard the Challenger.  And although we may feel unprepared to accept this mountainous responsibility on such short notice, it is the least we can do to honor the women who paved the road before us.  Because in carrying the torch we keep people like Sally Ride alive.  Because people like Sally Ride aren’t allowed to die.

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Credit: Getty Images

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About Nancy Santagata

I obtained my PhD from North Carolina State University in 2009, MS from University of California, San Diego in 2003, and BS from Monmouth University in 2001.  Although I am a chemist by training, my research lies at the intersection of chemistry and physics.  I use cryogenic scanning tunneling microscopy to study the properties of atoms and molecules at surfaces and interfaces.  Basically, with my microscope I can “see” atoms and molecules, it’s pretty cool!

Outside of the lab, outreach is a personal priority.  In addition to lecturing at GRASP, volunteering for Sally Ride Science, and helping to create this blog, I have participated in Expanding Your Horizons conferences for girls.  I hope that you might also volunteer, attend, or encourage an aspiring young scientist to participate in these or similar events in your own community.