Get more ‘girls’ in the lab

We need more young women, like Andrea Flores of Miami Lakes, Fla., taking an interest in STEM disciplines.
We need more young women, like Andrea Flores of Miami Lakes, Fla., taking an interest in STEM disciplines. MIAMI HERALD

The Nobel laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, recently apologized for any offense he may have caused after he made comments about the “trouble with girls” in science – but then went on to say he had “meant to be honest.” Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2001, reportedly told the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

These remarks, in addition to being unsubstantiated, are very damaging, not just to girls and women, but to scientific discovery in general. They perpetuate the myth that women have no place in the world of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) and dissuade girls from choosing careers in these fields. According to this dialogue, women apparently lack the brains, ambition and emotional fortitude to achieve success in STEM.

The data on the ability of girls to perform as well as, or even better than their male counterparts in the STEM disciplines do not lie. Standardized measures of math performance show no differences between males and females from elementary school through college. A 2015 study from The National Science Foundation reported that women have earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s. However, women’s participation differs by specific field of study. Women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, and over 40 percent in math, but fewer than 20 percent in the computer sciences, engineering, and physics. Published research has revealed that there are a myriad of reasons why these gender disparities exist, but I want to focus on why it is so critically important to narrow the gender gap in STEM.

Numerous studies have provided compelling evidence that diversity is critical for an organization to be innovative, which is a requirement to stay relevant in our fast-changing world. Indeed, a Forbes study recently identified diversity and inclusion as a key driver of internal innovation and business growth. Or to put it more simply: diversity breeds innovation. Imagine if we could look at the world’s scientific, medical and technological challenges through multiple lenses that reflect a diversity of perspectives, experiences, cultures, genders and age. Imagine what could be accomplished if we invested in this missing intellect.

President Barack Obama agrees. In February 2013, he stated, “One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”

Molecules vs. mothering

There are some individuals who agree with Hunt’s assertion. The most frequently uttered opinions I hear are a variation of, “You spend all that money educating these women and then they go off and get married, have babies and become stay at home moms.” Agreed, until we can figure out how to engineer men’s bodies to carry a baby to term (now there’s a great project for innovative female scientists to tackle), women in STEM disciplines who also want to have children will be forced to take some time away from their careers. However, there are numerous women in STEM careers who step away for a brief period to have children, but then return and continue to make important discoveries.

There are initiatives in place that are charged with reducing gender disparities in math and the sciences. For example, on the national level, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with the White House Council on Women and Girls, is dedicated to increasing the participation of women, girls and underrepresented groups in the STEM fields. The Association for Women in Science is dedicated to achieving equity and full participation of women in all disciplines and across all employment sectors. But attitudes like those of Hunt obviously still exist, and for girls considering a career in STEM, they certainly cannot be perceived as inspiring.

What can you as an individual do? If you are in a position of influence in a girl’s life, encourage her to pursue a career in STEM. If you hear somebody making ridiculous statements about “the trouble with girls in science” call them out on it. Instead, let’s start a conversation about “the trouble with the lack of diversity in science.” At least this statement is backed up with sound evidence.

Andrea Dulin has a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and is the Project Director of the UNC Charlotte Faculty Affairs and Diversity Office, which promotes the hiring and retention of a diverse faculty at the institution.