Are Parent Attitudes Keeping Girls from Science Success?

Are Parent Attitudes Keeping Girls from Science Success?

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Updated on Dec 22, 2010

Actress or engineer? What would you rather your daughter grow up to become?

According to a recent national survey of youth and their parents conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Society for Quality (ASQ), more female students ages 8 to 17 say their parents encourage them to become actresses (21 percent) than engineers (10 percent). Surprised? This compares to the 31 percent of boys who say their parents have encouraged them to think about an engineering career.

The National Science Foundation estimates that the shortage of U.S. engineers will reach 70,000 by 2010—a troubling estimate that prompted ASQ to initiate the survey as a means of understanding students’ perceptions of the field. The survey also found that both male and female students are not interested in the field of engineering because they don’t know much about it (44 percent); they think they would prefer a more exciting career (30 percent); and they don’t feel confident enough in their math and science skills (21 percent).

 “There’s a big sense right now that we need to grow the American pool of individuals who are prepared for the fields. There are a lot of people speaking out for this right now,” says Dr. Jolie Cizewski, Dean of the Graduate School for Rutgers University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. In fact, Rutgers has an office dedicated specifically to promoting women in these fields; Rutgers’s Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics serves as a resource to women in science fields and also describes the status of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at Rutgers.

Cizewski says providing mentorship is a critical component to recruiting and supporting young women who want to enter STEM fields. Cizewski, who has a PhD in physics, explains that nationwide about 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees in physics are given to women; 15 percent of PhDs in physics go to women; and only 6 percent of physics faculty members are women.

“High school preparation is no longer the barrier that is was 20 to 30 years ago,” Cizewski says. “But I think a lack of role models is a barrier to success. There are so few women—maybe 1 or 2 percent of the PhDs go to ethnic minorities, and when I listen to younger women, they worry about how to juggle career and family issues. But by meeting lots of role models, they can see how you do balance these things. They can say, ‘Oh, that’s a model that maybe I can follow.’”

Patricia Campbell, founder of Campbell-Kibler Associates, has been doing research and evaluation to increase gender and race equity in math, science, and technology education for more than 25 years. Initially a professor of research measurement and statistics at Georgia State University in the early 1970s, Campbell began her research company after receiving tenure. “This was something I really wanted to do,” Campbell says. “It’s research I believe in, and I believed at the time that I could be most effective in this role.”

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