Monday, August 12, 2013

Chicken and Egg

I recently heard this story on NPR about why some schools have a higher percentage of girls taking physics than others (the story was also posted on the CSWA facebook page.
The study done by Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb sought to understand why there is such a wide variation in the number of girls taking high school physics across the country. After controlling for factors such as wealth, family educational background, and location, She says that: "What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely." Commentator Shankar Vedantam followed up, saying "what causes this effect? You know, high school girls don't hang out at the local tech company to see whether there are women working there or not. And she said it's subtler than that. You know, having more women in the local tech workforce changes local norms. It changes how the playing field tilts. You know, who do you see on television? You meet the mom of a friend at a birthday party and it turns out she's an astrophysicist."
And while I don't think Vedantam was intentionally particularly singling out women astronomers, I can't help thinking of myself as being that mom.
Vedantam referred to this as a chicken-and-egg problem, because "Fewer girls may be taking courses that lead to tech careers when they don't see female role models already in tech careers."
So, my takeaways on this story are these:
  • Having role model matters.
  • Being a role model matters.
  • What happens at one point along the the leaky pipeline affects other points of the pipeline. That is, fixing a leak for early- to mid- career level women can fix leaks further upstream.
  • Just being a woman in STEM in your community makes a difference. This is important for those of us who sometimes feel overburdened by the pressure to do public outreach, precisely because we understand the impact of having role models. You don't necessarily have to do formal public outreach. By being the friend's mom, the parent's co-worker, or the next-door neighbor, we make a difference.