Anyone familiar with the cultural and environmental factors that make it harder for women to become scientists and engineers may not learn much from reading a new report, Why So Few?, by the American Association of University Women. That's because the report, out today, summarizes the findings of eight major gender equity studies of the past decade.
The repetition is OK with the National Science Foundation, which traditionally supports researchers trying to create new knowledge. That's because its $250,000 grant to AAUW was aimed at sharing that knowledge with people who can make a difference, says Jolene Jesse, who runs NSF's Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program.
"We want to get what we know into the hands of the practitioners," Jesse explains. "And our definition of practitioner includes teachers and faculty members, guidance counselors, parents, and anybody who can have an impact on a girl's choice of a career in science."
The new report analyzes several factors that can influence whether girls decide to study science and pursue it as a career. It summarizes recent studies on topics ranging from gender stereotypes and self-assessment of talent to how spatial visualization, an important skill for a budding scientist, can be improved with practice. It cites how small changes in the culture of some academic departments have been found to have a big impact on attracting and retaining women. And it notes an unconscious societal bias against women entering so-called "masculine" professions.
AAUW didn't want to simply document what are often called "best practices" and "hope for the best," explains Catherine Hill, the lead author on the 134-page report. "Part of the problem with looking at successful models is that it's hard to judge their impact," she says. "So we began by looking at what's new in the research, and thinking about what will help move the discussion forward."
The need "to distill what we already know," as Jesse describes the AAUW report, arises from what she and others see as the narrow perspectives of many scientists and engineers. "Most scientists don't read outside their disciplines," says Hill, who holds a doctorate in public policy and has studied gender policy issues. "And they are very busy people. Some of them may not even know how many women are in their department. In addition, there's something very powerful about documenting what exists, as well as knowing what your peers are doing."
Also today, an ongoing survey of U.S. science education sponsored by the Bayer Corporation reports that "significant numbers of women and underrepresented minority chemists and chemical engineers say they were discouraged from pursuing" a career in science and engineering at some point in their lives. The 14th annual survey polled 1226 female, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American members of the American Chemical Society.