Let’s Get Physics, Girl (and other sciences)

When I was ten years old, a boy in my class relayed a discouraging message from his parents. “Boys are better at math and science and girls are better at writing…and history I guess.” Funny how a seemingly innocent comment stayed with me. At the time, I did not believe him, but allowed the generalization to be an excuse any time I felt frustrated. Math and science never came as easy as writing, and when faced with complicated formulas and equations, I would assure myself: “You are a writer, have no need for calculations!”

Last year, I decided to try an additional, male-dominated major, and added a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design at JMU. Suddenly my class work involved making calculations in the wood shop, and scaling prototypes for presentation. While stereotypically masculine environments like the wood or metal shops can be intimidating, I never felt slighted or incapable. But I recognize this is not always the case, even across JMU’s campus.

Inspiration for this article came from a UAV systems conference held at X-Labs last week where Governor McAuliffe addressed the growing presence of drone technology and the increasing need for women in STEM programs throughout the country. He recognized a group member of mine, who is an Integrated Science and Technology major at JMU, and applauded her for “leading the future of science”.

Since then, I’ve wondered why there is such a gender disparity in the STEM fields, and there are plenty of researchers wondering why too. After reading several articles and studies, it all seems to revert to the cultural influence on young girls and women throughout their education. So I took to my female peers, many of whom are in the sciences, and asked them to describe their experiences.

Their responses were shocking, and frankly maddening.

Last year, a fellow senior and friend in the College of Integrated Science and Engineering found herself in the only all-female group for a thermodynamics lab. The female group was equally experienced and qualified to those groups with at least one male student, but faced almost daily condescension from the lab technician who did not trust them to work with the circuits and other materials. It was not uncommon to engage in verbal arguments with him about what they were doing.

Another friend and fellow senior in the College of Science and Mathematics often finds herself as one of three or four females in a class of twenty. She noted that she has “100% experienced sexism and it’s discouraging but if you like the subject you do it and it doesn’t matter.” Additionally, she noted annual women’s conferences around the country that provide both encouragement and support for the ladies of STEM.

Comments like those received from a professor in her department about women not belonging in the shop create an incredible amount of pressure for those who would feel competent otherwise. However, this senior makes the distinction that any form of sexism tends to be from older male professors, making clear that the discrimination is almost always generationally based.

While awareness of this disparity has contributed to an increase in numbers, women only make up 29% of the college and engineering workforce. According to the National Science Foundation’s Indicators of Science and Engineering in 2016, the breakdown of women in various STEM occupations are as follows:

  • 35.2% – chemists
  • 11.1% – physicists and astronomers
  • 33.8% – environmental engineers
  • 22.7% – chemical engineers
  • 17.5% – civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers
  • 17.1% – industrial engineers
  • 10.7% – electrical or computer hardware engineers
  • 7.9% – mechanical engineers

With none of these fields coming close to half, it becomes the responsibility of peers, educators, employers, and all with a hand in the STEM fields to see beyond biology, and work to cultivate talent. Change the culture, change the numbers.

featured image source

5 thoughts on “Let’s Get Physics, Girl (and other sciences)

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    Unfortunately, these attitudes are pervasive and it really does impact who can do science and who cannot. The very first letter I received after our very first space explorers camp included this anecdote of a young elementary school student right here in Harrisonburg:

    “In 3rd grade, a classmate told my daughter “science isn’t for girls”. From that day on, she had suppressed her love of science in front of her friends. While attending the camp, she was presented with many positive female role models who were not only interested in science, but excelled in it. What a huge difference that has made! She no longer feels the need to hide her enthusiasm. In fact, she recently listed science as her favorite subject on a biography project at school.”

    Every bit counts and every thing we do makes a small ripple in overcoming these biases and stereotypes. You can read the entire letter from this mom online at:


  2. “Let’s Get Physics, Girl (and other sciences)” on the Shout Out! JMU blog caught my eye. I appreciate the effort to raise awareness about supporting the success of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Nationally, less than 30% of the STEM workforce is women. And while women earn over half of biology degrees, they comprise less than 30% of bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences and engineering.

    In JMU’s College of Science and Mathematics, faculty are working to improve the gender balance and diversity of our majors. Physics hosts a chapter of CUWiP, a national mentoring network for undergraduate women in physics. Chemistry offers academic support and mentoring to support entering students, including women and students of color who often find themselves in the minority in those courses. The Math department, with one of the highest percentages of female math professors in the country, hosts an annual conference for middle school girls. Almost half of Geology majors are women, and all participate in research collaboration with faculty. Biology, the largest department in the College, recently participated in SafeZone training so that their faculty are more knowledgeable about helping LGBT students feel supported in biology classes.

    While changing the culture of science is slow, these efforts help us better understand how student experience is shaped by identity and impacted by faculty attitudes and practice. These efforts reflect the commitment of our faculty to improve the learning environment for all students who come to JMU with an interest in STEM.

    Cynthia Bauerle, PhD
    Dean, College of Science and Mathematics


    1. As you said , “less than 30% of the STEM workforce is women.” This adds a certain urgency to the situation that a lot of leaders in the field aren’t taking seriously. As a woman in a position of power, you have the ability (and consequently, the responsibility) to play a role in changing these numbers. As the attitudes mentioned in the post seem to continue despite the conferences, trainings, etc. that you’ve mentioned, what do you plan to do to more directly intervene in this space?


  3. The need to address disparities in STEM participation is indeed urgent. Nationally, we know that of the approximately 1.5 million students who enter college each year intending to study in a STEM field, over half switch to another area within the first two years. For women and underrepresented minorities, the numbers are even higher. We just simply can’t afford to lose all that creative talent if we want to ensure a strong science enterprise in the future. Those statistics motivated me to move from national policy back into an academic position, and that’s why I’m at JMU. The statistic may be national, but the solution is local. We have to do a better job in the classroom, especially in introductory science courses, to engage students in ways that help them feel they belong. There are efforts underway in the College of Science and Mathematics – in Chemistry, Biology, and Physics – to do just that. Negative attitudes or stereotypes about who can “do” science have no place in the classroom at JMU or anywhere else. Faculty and administrators like me have the responsibility to respond when we observe detrimental interactions. I hope that students feel they can talk to me if they have concerns. Once I’m aware of what’s going on, I can take steps to address it.


  4. I want to echo Dean Baurle’s (excellent) response to HeroineAddict’s question about what “we” as an institution are doing to affect real change in the attitudes and stereotypes about who gets to do science.

    As Dean Bauerle said, while these are national problems, the solutions are local and begin right here in our communities. She identified efforts at the college level to fix the “leaky pipeline”. At the Planetarium, we’re focussed at the other end of the problem. We want to encourage all Americans — girls, boys, minorities, everyone — to be engaged with science, ideas about the cosmos, and how we’ve made the advances we have.

    This engagement has taken several forms. We started a summer space explorers camp, first for middle school students, but then added a half-day camp for elementary students and a residential camp for high school students, that leverage our state-of-the-art planetarium to provide hands-on, engaging, curiosity-driven, activities designed to inspire explorers and to get them to think about science/engineering moving forward. We’ve started a monthly “Science Sunday for Girls” program where we wanted to create an environment where girls can meet other girls interested in the same things they are, develop a community of like-minded people, have fun doing science/engineering, and meet inspiring role models (JMU students and faculty) who are on hand to help guide the activities. Our public science talks that take place twice a semester, are intended to provide “intellectual nourishment” for the general Valley community, but also to provide the audience with a direct visual of how science is done and who does it. I take great care in selecting whom we invite to JMU to ensure that the presentations not only present “cutting edge” science, but that the speakers also reflect our society. If you look at our list of invited speakers you will find men, women, and people of color in the 4 years since we started this initiative. Science is open to all and its important to me that our community see that.

    One of the guest speakers I invited to campus as part of our public science talk series was the former Chief Engineer at NASA/Langley — our NASA center here in VA. She’s now the lead manager for the Integration Office at Langley. She talked about the robotic and planned human exploration of Mars. While on campus I also asked her these same questions we’re now discussing, about gender equality, about how we encourage more young girls and women to consider careers in science and engineering. Here’s the link to her response: https://youtu.be/caFZsZcIiw0

    You can also see the video and find out more about our Science Sunday events via our website: http://www.jmu.edu/planetarium/sciencesunday.shtml

    Shanil Virani
    Director, John C. Wells Planetarium


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