I’d like to take the occasion of the International Women’s Day to share one thought that has stuck with me since I heard Alice Huang’s presidential address at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science and Science Careers) in Washington D.C.
One of the points Huang made during her talk was that one can help women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated disciplines by “understanding the diverse motivations that make a student commit to a life in science.” Huang described in particular how faculty at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Computer Science were able to solve women-retention problems in a course on algorithms by reframing it.
“The faculty initially did not think that the students who dropped out could hack it,” Huang said. “But, on closer examination… they found that women had lost interest because they did not see what algorithms were good for or why they needed to learn how to design a variety of complicated algorithms.” The faculty decided to focus the first session of the course on how algorithms may be used to help social causes. “Once this began, the retention rate for women increased so much so that now all professors spend the first class introducing their courses by discussing the applied relevance of the material that will be presented,” she added. “I admit, I was really relieved to find that the women could hack it.”
Huang’s example of how important it is to tap into women’s interests was echoed by a research paper published earlier that month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. In one of the studies reported in the paper, first-author Sylvie Kerger of the University of Luxembourg asked 134 boys and 160 girls, aged 14, to rate their interest in different applied topics without being told that they pertained to scientific fields like IT, statistics, and physics. “There was clear evidence that applying female friendly topics” — specifically, providing a real social context or relating it to a real issue, like forest decline — “increased girls’ interest in these scientific disciplines,” Kreger said in a press release. In contrast, boys’ interest decreased when this was done.
Assuming that men and women continue to have predominantly different interests in how their research is applied later in life, here’s my thought: There are differences between individuals of the same gender of course, but couldn’t women scientists use these differences to find a niche for themselves that their male colleagues may not necessarily have thought of? It is still difficult for women to work in male-dominated fields in many ways, but the culture has changed drastically in the last several decades and there is now more space for new ideas and individuality. Couldn’t what has traditionally been a disadvantage — being a minority — be turned into an untapped source of creativity at the time of developing a rewarding research career?
One example that jumps to mind is Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (whom I’ve profiled previously on Science Careers). Of course Vitoriano has male colleagues, but she’s developed an unusual career for herself designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations and volunteering in university cooperation and rural development projects.