October 25 2011

The Importance of Good Role Models in STEM Professions

Libby Jacobson

A Huffington Post feature last week profiles the chemistry lab of the College of William and Mary’s Dr. Elizabeth Harbron. Dr. Harbron’s lab is unique because it has become a 100% female space.  

"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.

I’ve commented before about my skepticism toward the idea that women and men have innate differences in their respective aptitudes for the hard sciences. Yet while women are closing the performance gap in math and spatial ability, there’s still a noticeable difference in the way girls and boys behave in class.  Much research exists on the subtle biases on the part of educators that influence the behaviors and performance of their students, as well as students’ own expectations of themselves. And the anecdotal evidence of gender and classroom behavior paints a familiar picture to which many of us can relate:

Harbron and other professors say there's an interesting dynamic they often see in coed labs. Women tend to hang back, they say, and let men take the lead role.

"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."

What’s so inspirational about Dr. Harbron is that she’s serving as a great role model for her students, the importance of which is greatly understated. Even if girls do unconsciously learn from a young age that they’re not cut out for science or quantitative/spatial thinking, female role models like Dr. Harbron can challenge those assumptions. The happy accident of having an all-female lab means that her students get to see that they don’t have to carry the banner for All Female Scientists Everywhere, and can gain the confidence to go out into the field after graduation and kick butt.

Women are graduating college in larger numbers than men. The number of women acquiring STEM degrees has slowly risen over the last decade. More women in undergraduate STEM programs will undoubtedly have an effect on the larger industry, as well. While many professional women have chosen to temporarily drop out of the work force or cut back their hours after having children, it’s unlikely that the science and engineering professions simply would let talent go to waste in the non- STEM job market. I’d bet that as more women obtain degrees in the sciences, we’ll see them negotiating for more flexible STEM jobs in the next decade or two.

Addendum: Here’s a list of female scientists who have blogged about their experience.

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