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Seemingly Redundant Title of the Day: Lab Full of Women Produces More Women Scientists

she blinded me with science

Let me explain: The Huffington Post has a very interesting article on the steady strides that the science industries have made on their way towards equal gender representation. On its way, it hits on the successful returns caused by the (sometimes accidental) implementation of nearly every suggestion made by women, scientists, engineers, and faculty to adress the gender gap in the STEM fields, from the need for more women in mentorship positions, to the availability of maternity leave, to the need to break the stereotype of the male scientist to children at a young age.

According to HuffPo, today women earned slightly more than half of all doctorates (of any discipline) awarded in the US from 2009 through 2010, while in the STEM feilds, most female doctoral candidates were in medicine and biology, and the least in engineering, math and computer science “But experts hope that, too, will change. A recent report from the American Association of University Women notes that, 30 years ago, the ratio of seventh- and eighth-grade boys who scored more than 700 on the SAT math exam, compared with girls, was 13 to 1. Now it’s 3 to 1.”

A very heartening statistic indeed. A good amount of the article is spent talking to a student of Elizabeth Harbron, of the College of William and Mary, who was a member of Harbron’s completely accidentally composed all-female lab group.

Though she was happy to help blaze the path for them, Harbron says she didn’t set out to create an all-women’s lab. It happened naturally. Students like [Rebecca] Allred sought her out because they liked her informal, lively teaching style.

“I don’t want to become a female ghetto of over-achieving white girls,” Harbron jokes, referring to the general makeup of her lab these days. Then she asks more seriously: “But am I just perpetuating the model that’s gotten us where we are?”

In other words, she wonders, has she inadvertently created the female version of the “old boys’ network”?

Whatever the answer, it’s hard to argue with her results: her lab has become a place where these young women gained confidence to match their abilities, she says.

Harbron and her colleagues say they have noticed that in coed classes women tend to hang back, and let male students take leadership roles, but not because they don’t know the material.

“They’re so afraid of being wrong. I don’t think guys have that fear,” Harbron says. “If they’re admitting they don’t know something, then they are admitting a vulnerability.

“But what they don’t realize is that other people don’t know either.”

As always, XKCD lays out this fear very nicely here.

The experiences of teachers like Harbron, whose undergrad lab has turned out a disproportionately large number of female graduate students in the STEM fields are getting notice, parallels the result of programs at historically Liberal Arts focused all-female colleges like Smith, whose engineering program has averaged 20 students a year until this year, when it doubled.

“Our teachers are stretched,” says professor Donna Riley, “But it’s a good problem to have.”

To read the whole article on HuffPo, go here.

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