by Mary W. Hodges, DCRT

A recent mailing reminding me of my 45th class reunion from the University of Pennsylvania did not exactly stir up fond memories. Instead, it dredged up recollections of the blatant gender bias that deterred me -- and my female classmates -- from attempting advanced science and math courses during our undergraduate years, even though many of us would have liked to pursue careers in those fields. Although major strides toward reducing gender bias in education have certainly been made since my college days, much still remains to be done, as the following article illustrates.

"If the cure for cancer is forming in the mind of one of our daughters, it is less likely to become a reality than if it is forming in the mind of one of our sons. Until this changes, everybody loses."

Armed with data to back up rhetoric like that, David Sadker, who is a professor of education at The American University in Washington, D.C., is waging a campaign to show how gender bias in the U.S. educational system is depriving our nation of female scientists. In a presentation at NIH on Feb. 6, Sadker outlined results from four years of social science research in hundreds of American classrooms from elementary through graduate schools.

As part of those studies, classroom observers trained by Sadker and his late wife Myra counted and timed situations in which male and female students were called on, praised, disciplined, or given individual assistance. The Sadkers' data showed, for example, that teachers tended to wait at least three times as long for male students to answer -- 3 to 5 seconds -- as for female students -- 0.9 seconds. When female students were allowed the same amount of time to respond as males, they gave more complete responses, more accurate answers, and volunteered more often. This, says Sadker, strengthens self-confidence, which in turn works to encourage females to elect the more advanced math and science courses required by many professional careers.

The Sadkers' recent book, Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994), also presents a disturbing picture to those looking to expand tomorrow's pool of scientific talent:

"Teachers' beliefs that boys are smarter in mathematics and science begin in the earliest school years, at the very time when girls are getting better grades and equal scores on the standardized tests. Many adults think that boys possess innate mathematical and scientific ability. ... Girls, especially smart girls, learn to underestimate their ability."

"When girls lose their confidence in their ability to learn math and science, they avoid these subjects. When they believe they can't succeed, they become less willing to attempt new science and math tasks. As they have fewer and fewer experiences with math and science, they become less capable. As their comptence withers so does their self-esteem, and the vicious, connected cycle continues...."

Interviews with NIH female scientists lend support to many of the Sadkers' hypotheses. For example, despite their generational differences, both Jacqueline Crawley, who heads the Section on Behavioral Neuropharmacology in NIMH's Experimental Therapeutics Branch, who entered college in the 1960s, and postdoc Jennifer McDowell of NIDDK, who entered college in the 1980s, agreed that in their high schools, it "was not cool to be smart" because boys did not like smart girls.

Fear of being socially shunned as a female "brain" is one reason that many girls opt out of advanced math and science courses in the middle and high school years, according to the Sadkers. Such a decision may later block a girl's access to careers in science and technology because she lacks the preparation needed to take college-level courses in those fields.

When female intramural researchers were asked what encouraged them to pursue advanced science during their high school years, Crawley and McDowell singled out two main factors. First, their parents encouraged them to view any goal as attainable. Second, starting early in their school years, they were put in an advanced-placement track, where they were grouped with students of comparable abilities and where gender did not matter as much.

Susan Shoaf, a senior staff fellow who is acting chief of the Unit of Pharmacokinetic Studies in NIAA's Laboratory of Clinical Studies, underscores the importance of an instructor's attitudes and actions. "Teachers must emphasize that when it comes to learning, girls can learn anything a boy can. They just sometimes need to learn it differently."

Contact with female scientists and other research-oriented women also helps to cultivate girls' interest in scientific careers. McDowell notes that this need does not disappear when young women enter the lab: "I think we need more role models/mentors -- which would mean changes in tenure systems, etc., which make it more possible to combine a career and family."

Although they acknowledge that the gender lines guarding the traditional male domains of mathematics, science, and computer technology are gradually vanishing, the Sadkers caution that "harmful remnants remain."

For example, although today's science textbooks are less sexist than in the past, the Sadkers contend that they remain subtly biased. Their research found that modern texts usually have a special page, insert, or section on "Women in Science," but female contributions to science are rarely mentioned elsewhere in the books. Such token attributions send the message that women's ideas and work do not share equal footing with men's in respected scientific literature, according to the Sadkers.

Those who question whether females still face significant, gender-based hurdles on the pathway to a research career may want to consider the case of an NIDDK medical technician. The technician, who graduated from an upstate New York college in the 1980s, says she was told by her mother that if she went to college to train for a career, she would be taking jobs away from men.

For a videotape of Sadker's presentation, which was sponsored by the NIH Women Scientist Advisors, the Office of Equal Opportunity, and DCRT, contact the DCRT Information Office (phone: 496-6203, fax: 402-007; e-mail:

Susan Shoaf

Jennifer McDowell

Widening the Scientific Circle
Facts on File: Resources for Women Scientists

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