Barriers continue to hold women back from technical careers

Author Eileen Pollack cites the subtle — and unsubtle — messages sent about a ‘lack of intrinsic aptitude.’

Cultural, institutional, and social barriers continue to stand in the way of women who are seeking entrance and advancement in technical fields such as information technology, engineering, and the sciences.

That's the troubling conclusion of Eileen Pollack, author of "The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys Club," and a keynote speaker at Health Data Management’s Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT conference held May 12 in Boston.

Pollack, a creative writing professor at the University of Michigan, contends that there are powerful forces at play in American society and academia that are responsible for the fact that there are so few women in the hard sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science.

“There are cultural differences between how we raise girls and boys that are very effective in steering girls out of science and technology,” Pollack told an audience of mostly women health IT professionals.

Part of what’s holding women back is a sometimes subtle, and other times not so subtle, message from America’s educational system that girls in middle school and high school lack the intrinsic aptitude for high-level math and science to excel in those subjects, leaving young women scarred academically without the confidence to pursue technical courses of study in college and beyond.
“It’s even worse for young women today than it was when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s,” argues Pollack, who referenced a number of studies supporting her claims. “We are seeing a subtle steering away of people from certain courses. And, parents themselves are much more likely to let their daughters drop out of an Advanced Placement course in calculus, computer science, or physics than they are their sons.”

By the time these young women start college, she believes they're often less prepared and less confident than their male counterparts. Making matters worse, many freshman courses at the university level in math and science are designed to “weed out” weaker students.

What’s sorely lacking and critically needed to counter this inherently negative dynamic is something very simple—encouragement, says Pollack. In her own experience in college, none of her academic advisors and professors provided that kind of moral support.

“I was terrible in lab but I was great in theoretical physics. And, no one ever said: ‘you’re good at this, look what you’ve done, you should go on,’” relates Pollack. “So, I assumed I wasn’t good enough to go on to graduate school.”

According to Pollack, a 2005 speech by then-Harvard University president Larry Summers suggesting that the shortage of elite female scientists stems in part from “innate” differences between men and women is representative of the kind of discriminatory mindset that only serves to reinforce gender-based stereotypes. Summers also infamously questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the scarcity of female professors in science and engineering.

“All of us have to look at our deeper biases and reactions.”Ironically, Pollack says, Summers’ ill-considered remarks actually led to the study of the phenomenon in academia. She points to a 2012 study by Yale University’s Jo Handelsman which found that a science faculty exhibited subtle gender biases that favor male students. The results of the study suggested that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

“We’re all raised in the same society. You pick these things up by the time you’re in second grade,” says Pollack. “All of us have to look at our deeper biases and reactions.”
But, this negative dynamic is also something that is found in technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. Pollack wrote an op-ed published in The New York Times in October 2015 arguing that vendors “know they have a gender and diversity problem in their work force, and they are finally taking steps to try to fix it.” However, on a very practical level, she asks: where are these employees going to come from if women and minority students aren’t studying computer science or engineering?

Pollack is encouraged by initiatives in higher education to do something about the problem. For instance, she says Harvey Mudd College has created introductory classes for students with no programming experience and new titles for courses that over four years have led to an increase in the percentage of computer science majors who are female from 10 percent to 40 percent.
“Just being aware of all these images, attitudes, and subtle biases does wonders in inoculating ourselves and our children against them,” concludes Pollack. “The future that we’re all going to live in is going to be designed in large part by computer scientists, physicists, and engineers. If most of the people designing that future are straight, white men, it’s going to be a world that is mostly designed for them.”

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