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Herstory of Science November 8, 2011

Posted by kyliev in Gender differences?, girls in science, women in science.
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In 2005, Harvard University President Larry Summers suggested that women may be underrepresented in the higher tiers of STEM fields due to a limited aptitude for those subjects. So, what is some of the research that President Summers might have skimmed over too quickly?

In high school, girls take more advanced placement classes and get higher grades in these classes than boys. In college, women are over 50% of the student body, as well as those majoring in biology and biomedical fields. In the work place, women make up the majority of financial specialists and health diagnostics positions. With this evidence, it’s hard to conclude that inherent differences between women and science are to blame for the female underrepresentation in STEM. So, where does the stereotype come from?

The School of Household Sciences and Arts at Pratt University (1933)

The current science gender gap is a development of the twentieth century.  Up until the early 1900s, science and math were, in fact, “women’s subjects.” Men were the overwhelming majority of university students. To get in to college at that time, one had to be well-educated in the humanities and classics. Women were largely excluded from attending college. Instead of “wasting time” with the classics, they were expected to study those subjects deemed more practical to them, such as math and sciences. They learned “applied sciences” such as how to remove stains (chemistry) and how to treat burns (medicine).

By the 20th century, progressive and liberal movements were championing new educational philosophies that emphasized scientific thinking and egalitarian access to education. At the same time, technological advances become an important aspect of the economy. The combination of newfound appreciations for educational equality, and the scientific and mathematical fields would seem fertile ground for women to make significant contributions through science and technology. But it didn’t happen that way.

Men were trained as future scientists and businessmen and women as future wives and mothers.

Yes, attitudes towards science and technology were changing, but social structures were not. Women were still excluded from the high-paying, high prestige positions. They were still expected to be primarily homemakers and caregivers. Up until the age of 14, men and women were both trained in practical sciences. After that, men began a track of chemistry, physics, and biology classes to prepare them for the academy while women were taught hygiene and home economics. Only occasionally were women allowed to take biology courses, but only to prepare them for careers in nursing. Men were trained as future scientists and businessmen and women as future wives and mothers. In time, as in the past and in other subjects, “innate inaptitude” was used to account for low rates of participation of women in formal STEM fields, rather than a critical examination of prevailing societal attitudes and practices.

American women protest for equal job opportunity

But such blatant discrimination did not persist for long. By the 1970s, though, women’s movements in the United States and Europe had exploded. Women organized against discrimination and oppression in all aspects of their lives, including the exclusion they had experienced in STEM.  Institutions were pressured to include same opportunities and a more equal representation of women in education, training and careers. Many are beginning to realize that a pro-active approach towards equity not only enriches the respective fields. It also improves the bottom-line.

We’re grateful that countless women, teachers, and groups like AAUW, AWIS, and National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity have and continue to advocate for equitable education and training in the most effective way, but obstacles, like the immortal gender stereotype, challenge this goal. The following posts will discuss these obstacles and how they can be challenged.

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For a concise overview, check out this Interactive Time Line of female scientists at iwaswondering.org!

To learn more about the forces that shaped women scientists in the US in the late 1800’s to 19oo’s, and their role in reshaping society, don’t miss Margaret Rossiter’s two-volume work: Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 and Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972

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