by Denny Olson

“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (and still have a ways to go)”

Despite our recognition that women have played a very important role in our knowledge of science (see last month’s column), the background shows that cultures, and prevailing thought, do not change overnight. Gender inequality is still the norm in our country, and even worse in some others. In education and career choices, girls and women are very underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, with one interesting exception. (More on that in paragraph four, below.) In K – 12 education, girls achieve at the same or slightly higher rates than boys, and they enroll in STEM classes at nearly the same rates. But something begins to happen toward the later years of high school, and the trend continues at the bachelor’s degree level in college. The higher the level of STEM advanced placement or graduate school course, the fewer women participate in these subjects.

From the National Science Foundation: Women earned 57.3% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013 and 50.3% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. However, women’s participation in science and engineering at the undergraduate level significantly differs by specific field of study. While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43.1%).

In the workforce, the trend continues:

35.2% of chemists are women

11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women;

33.8% of environmental engineers are women

22.7% of chemical engineers are women

17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women

17.1% of industrial engineers are women

10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women; and

7.9% of mechanical engineers are women.

There is plenty of solid evidence that the physical, chemical, computer and engineering sciences do not have these disparities because of any ability difference between women and men. There is also plenty of evidence that traditional cultural differences (expectations, and varying degrees of outright sexism) have much to do with these statistics. But – and here’s where I may get myself in trouble — I also think that culture may only be part of the story.

The exception I mentioned above is that well over half the bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences (59%) are earned by women, but this dwindles to 53% for Ph. D.’s in the life sciences. Does this decline indicate cultural expectations about the higher levels of learning? (More than half of six-year-old girls think that the very brightest among them will be boys.) Further, over 70% of life science teachers in Jr. high and high schools are women, yet science teachers (big surprise) are among the lowest on the science-career pay scale.  Even in engineering fields, traditionally having the fewest women, environmental engineering (33%) is far and away the highest in women’s participation (compared to chemical, mechanical, electrical and other fields). These could also reflect cultural expectations. But, looking at those percentages, what if “life science” fields of study and work are simply more interesting to more (but not all!) women? For every Marie Curie, are there two or more Rachel Carsons? Looking back, is it coincidence that the old nature study movement was largely driven by women?

These are unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions. But they do present the possibility that nature study, in its modern ecological, bio-diverse, systems-oriented forms, presents a slightly more attractive and exciting learning and working opportunity for some women. Long-term, as we become a less prejudiced culture (ignoring the current temporary blip on the curve), perhaps we will increasingly be able to celebrate gender, racial, religious and lifestyle differences, while creating a world where equal opportunity to be anything we want is a given.

If we want answers to these questions, gender aside, we can start by getting children outdoors more. Much more. Male or female, kids who spend significant time outdoors in nature are healthier, happier and smarter. The new emphasis on integrated learning is not discipline-oriented STEM, but a 

ross-discipline methodology with reading and art included in intertwined content areas called STREAM. I like the concept, and I love the metaphorical acronym. We are moving along with the current. Life is interdisciplinary. No subject stands alone. There are some early indications that public education is finally putting the disparate disciplines back together, along with graduating from the abstract book and screen-learning model to direct learning in and about our place — our natural, social, political, and economic immediate surroundings. As it happens, Nature cares not a whit about male-female, skin pigments, differing physical and mental abilities, what we wear on our heads, or anything about our private lives that doesn’t affect other beings directly. Once again, Nature is the role-model and the teacher. At Audubon, we are doing our best to encourage, promote, preach and practice that.