The Search for the Next Sally Ride

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Sally Ride, who passed away on Monday, inspired young women and girls across the country by breaking NASA's formidable glass ceiling and becoming America's first female astronaut. She worked to encourage female students who were interested in math and science to pursue their interests, despite those fields being largely dominated by men. 

While many women work in science and technology, including prominent names such as as M.I.T.'s Susan Hockfield and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, the numbers are still disproportionate. Women hold nearly half of the jobs in the American economy, but less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — are performed by females. This gender gap persists despite the fact that more and more women are graduating from college and entering the workforce. 

Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta and Jane Stout have written a research paper called "STEMming the Tide." They discuss some alarming trends when it comes to how women perceive themselves in their fields of choice. 

Dasgupta says that the problem begins with stereotypes about the "ideal scientist." 

"The ideal scientist, often, even in an unspoken way, is typically male, or is typically geeky, even though neither of these things are in reality true," she says. "But because the message is that science is masculine, and science is nerdy, what ends up happening is that girls and women who are very talented and have this knack for tinkering, this knack for science may not feel that this is where they belong." 

In the case of STEM jobs, the problem is not clear-cut discrimination against women, but rather, as Dasgupta puts it, a matter of "invisibility." 

"When you feel like people like you are not in those fields, and there are other options available to you, those women, especially when the material gets tough, I think [they] start to experience more self-doubt about whether this is their calling." Dasgupta and Stout found that women begin to drop out of math and science programs during the first year or two of college, when the material becomes more difficult.

"In our research, Jane and I found that women actually outperformed their male peers in calculus, in all of these engineering fields and physical sciences," Dasgupta says. However, the women displayed lower levels of confidence than the men in the study. 

"This divergence between doing well but feeling that 'maybe I'm not so good at this' completely goes away when the professor or the teacher [is] a women, rather than a man," Dasgupta says. "We found that female scientists and engineers who are more advanced in the field act as 'social vaccines.'" The presence of a female role model boosted female students' confidence in the study. 

Female students can also benefit from each other's presences, in that older graduate students can act as mentors for younger women who are studying in one of the STEM fields. "Mentors don't always have to be the superstars of the field," Dasgupta says.

"Sally Ride is a great example because one of the reasons she got really interested in physics is because in the 10th or 11th grade, she had a science teacher who was a woman," Dasgupta says. "That science teacher had a profound effect on her interest in physics and changed the course of her academic trajectory." 

Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, who found a very hostile environment towards women when she was studying chemistry at the University of Chicago in the late 80s. Several professors had hired a stripped to celebrate when one of their colleagues being granted tenure "I was in the chemistry library in the building at the time of the soiree," she recalls.