Women in India have many issues to contend with, but one issue that we really have not had a problem with over the past three generations at least, is a social or professional bias against women entering the fields of science or mathematics. So when we do hear how widespread this bias is even today in the USA – it is always a moment to pause.
The idea that girls can’t do math is one that is still bandied around a little too widely for comfort in the USA – from American sit-com jokes to the infamous talking Barbie who found “Math class tough.”, (suitably lampooned on The Simpsons). Apparently, there is also a widespread belief amongst American teachers that boys are more naturally gifted towards maths, unlike in India where teachers inevitably say that since Indian girls are more 'studious' they tend to do better in subjects like science and maths. Studies in the USA show that while boys and girls exhibit more or less equal skill at the subject till 6th grade, the number of girls opting for science and math drops drops drastically after that. Seminars are even held on US campuses encouraging women to opt for science and mathematics, disabusing students of the notions that these subjects are somehow ‘masculine’.
One researcher into the issue of gender and science education has compiled the following explanations (some clearly disproved, others worth thinking about) put forward in research literature to explain the absence of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), :
1. Biological differences between men and women.
2. Girls’ lack of academic preparation for a science major/career.
3. Girls’ poor attitude toward science and lack of positive experiences with science in childhood.
4. The absence of female scientists/engineers as role models.
5. Science curricula are irrelevant to many girls.
6. The pedagogy of science classes favours male students.
7. A ‘chilly climate’ exists for girls/women in science classes.
8. Cultural pressure on girls/women to conform to traditional gender roles.
9. An inherent masculine worldview in scientific epistemology.
And it is in this context that the first-place sweep by American girls (two of them of Indian origin -- but that's anther story) across the age group categories at the First Google Science Fair, is an eye-opener.
“Personally I think that’s amazing, because throughout my entire life, I’ve heard science is a field where men go into,” said one of the winners, Shree Bose -- something she probably wouldn't have heard if Ms Bose had grown up in India.
The three winners are 17 year old 11th-grader Shree Bose, 14/15 year old Naomi Shah and 13/14 year old Lauren Hodge.
Shree Bose tackled drug resistance in ovarian cancer. Her research was named best in the age 17-18 category and best of show over all. Her prize includes $50,000 for future college studies, a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands and a separate trip to visit the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland.
Naomi Shah won the age 15-16 category with a study of the effects of air quality on lungs, particularly for people who have asthma.
And Lauren Hodge won the age 13-14 category for research on whether marinades reduce the amount of cancer-causing compounds produced by the grilling of meat. (She found that lemon juice and brown sugar cut the level of carcinogens sharply, while soy sauce increased them.)
More than 10,000 students from 91 countries entered the science fair, which was Google’s first. The entries, submitted over the Web, were winnowed down to 60 semifinalists and then 15 finalists who presented their findings to judges at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters last week.
Although competitors at science fairs are pretty evenly split between boys and girls, and 9 of the 15 finalists in the Google Science Fair were boys, girls swept all three age categories in the competition, a contrast to generations past when women were largely excluded from the science world. Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the judges, Dr Vint Cerf said that gender did not play a role in deciding the winners. “This was a gender-neutral evaluation of all the work that was done,” he said. Nonetheless, “I was secretly very pleased to see that happen,” Dr. Cerf said. “This is just a reminder that women are fully capable of doing same or better quality work than men can.”
Perhaps belying a bit the notion that American students are falling behind in science, the United States dominated the top slots. All three of the winners were American, as were nearly three-quarters of the finalists. About 60 percent of the entries came from Americans.
Dr. Cerf said that a common thread among the finalists was that they had explored science enthusiastically for years with the encouragement of their parents.
For Ms. Bose, it was the blue spinach that got her started. “I actually decided that children didn’t want to eat their vegetables because they were green, and so my fantastic idea for the science fair project was to turn a spinach plant blue,” she recalled.
She repeatedly injected blue food coloring into a spinach plant, and a few weeks later she took to school a shriveled, stained vegetable — she had forgotten to water it — and explained that children would happily eat spinach if only it were blue.
“Sounds like a weird beginning, but after that I just realized that science is cool, it’s something I want to do,” said Ms. Bose.
-- Based on First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair by Kenneth Chang, NYT, July 18 2011.