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Lack of Role Models, Interest and Encouragement Forces Girls out of Science 'Pipeline'

10 October 1995


f.gif (1005 bytes)rom seventh-grade to graduate school age, many girls and women lose interest in science for reasons ranging from belief that the field is "for nerds" to a conception that balancing family needs with a science career is too difficult, new research has found.

Sandra Hanson, associate professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America, studied girls' and boys' attitudes about, achievement in, and access to math and science and determined where loss of talent occurs over several years.

Almost half the women who had shown signs of promise on indicators of math and science achievement in 1980 were scoring significantly lower by 1986, the final survey year, Hanson discovered.

Even though young women are more likely to enter and graduate from college, they are less likely to have a job in math or science, Hanson said. Science is still presented as a male domain. Without a strong family and peer feedback system, women opt out of science in greater numbers than do men.

Hanson studied data collected from 30,000 youth. She found that girls lose interest in science as early as seventh grade. Their achievement also begins to lag behind boys' during that year, before girls begin to show lower scores on standardized mathematics tests.

By seventh grade, girls are less convinced they need science and math for future jobs and are more likely to describe mathematicians and scientists as "nerds."

By 10th grade, when girls begin to opt out of higher level courses such as trigonometry, physics, and computer education, a high percentage of girls who had shown promise in science leave the science "pipeline," the talent pool of people who are being trained for science jobs.

Tenth grade is a big turning point, Hanson said. Women in math classes at this level do as well as their male counterparts. But girls are more likely to be scared or tense about math class, and fewer girls than boys expect to study math or science in college.

Many men and women exit the science "pipeline" in college and graduate school, but again, the loss of women is disproportionate, Hanson said. Because science careers often emphasize a need for early achievement, many women are discouraged from choosing them if they want to marry and raise children.

Women who consider a career in medicine anticipate the implications for later: Will they be able to balance career and family life? Some people are telling them that they can't, Hanson said. Some of her students have been steered by parents or peers to other careers seen as more compatible with family life.

Women who stay in science persevere for many different reasons, Hanson found. Positive role models are one important key, she said.

Women who end up in science are more likely than others to have parents who are more involved in their children's social and academic lives, she said. Behaviors, such as monitoring homework, also mattered more than parents' attitudes and encouragement, Hanson said. Access to computers, calculators and other resources also is a factor, Hanson said.

In her study, Hanson found some women may leave the science "pipeline" at one point in their education, but find their way back in later. Schools need to be aware of this flux and make it possible for students to re-enter the "pipeline." They shouldn't write off those students who aren't doing well in math and science," she said. They may show interest later.

Among other findings of the study:

For more information and for interviews, call Sandra Hanson at Catholic University's Life Cycle Institute at 202-319-5999.

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Revised: 27 October 1997

All contents copyright 1997.
The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.