Pat McNees

Writer, editor, ghostwriter, personal historian

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? (Eileen Pollack, NY Times, 10-3-13). "Although Americans take for granted that scientists are geeks, in other cultures a gift for math is often seen as demonstrating that a person is intuitive and creative. In 2008, the American Mathematical Society published data from a number of prestigious international competitions in an effort to track standout performers. The American competitors were almost always the children of immigrants, and very rarely female."

Help girls get past the "yuck" factor. Science is messy, so put aside your desire for clean girls and surfaces. Girls who are afraid of getting dirty aren't born that way -- they're made. Let girls make big, interesting mistakes. -- Pat McNees, in "Why Janie Can't Engineer"

"I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

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Why Janie Can't Engineer: Raising Girls to Succeed

By Pat McNees (originally published in the Washington Post January 6, 2004)

Click here for more on why so few women work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs.

Would your attitude toward physics have been different if your introduction to it had involved devising a catapult to send the head of a Barbie doll over a castle wall during a mock medieval siege? Girls in a research project funded by the National Science Foundation learned through trial and error that a Barbie doll head is hard to catapult unless you make it heavier — for example, by inserting lead sinkers into it. They also learned that it was easier to catapult a potato. Then they learned about density and velocity, which were not presented simply as abstractions.

It's enough to make you want to go back to school.

Hands-on learning is one key to getting more girls hooked on science -- which is important for overcoming the national shortfall in scientifically literate workers. That point comes up in many contexts in a book I just wrote for the National Science Foundation -- New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering. In the book I summarize for parents and educators what investigators on 224 projects have learned about how to get more girls and women to study for careers in science, technology and engineering.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the things we do to our children in the name of education discourage them from taking the gateway courses required for many rewarding careers. Parents and teachers expect different things from girls and boys, for example, which affects how they perform and often limits what they learn -- and what they expect from themselves. Some of the best guidelines for working with young girls came from a Girls Inc. project called Teaching Smart:

Help girls get past the "yuck" factor. Science is messy, so put aside your desire for clean girls and surfaces. Girls who are afraid of getting dirty aren't born that way -- they're made. In after-school science programs, girls all over the nation are being encouraged to get messy, explore, analyze, dissect, hypothesize and make mistakes. (In middle school, when girls begin disappearing from the science track, single-sex science activities help them embrace the messiness and uncertainty of science, away from boys who tease them and hog computers.) As an adult, you can help girls resist the pressure to behave in "feminine" ways. Encourage them to get good and grubby: to dig in a riverbed, change a tire or explore an engine. Let them learn they have a right to be themselves.

Let girls make big, interesting mistakes. Girls who are overly protected in the lab or on the playground have few chances to assess risks and solve problems on their own. If teachers are doing things right, once-dreaded mistakes become hypotheses. Girls are urged to go back to the drawing board to figure out why their newly assembled electric door alarm doesn't work or why their water filter gets clogged. (Teachers tend to push boys, but not girls, past their initial frustration on such projects.) Supported by adults instead of rescued, girls learn to embrace their curiosity, face their fear and trust their own judgment.

Assume girls are interested in math, science and technology. Too many girls -- and children of color -- still get the message that math and science aren't for them. Given encouragement and the right setting, girls jump at the chance to dismantle machines, build rockets, care for and study insects and small animals, and solve logic puzzles.

Encouraging girls to learn and experiment -- to take risks and learn by doing -- helps them feel empowered and self-confident enough to try things they otherwise would not try. But many of the adults who help them must first overcome their own acquired resistance to, or dread of, science and technology.

Girls -- indeed, most students -- respond best to hands-on science. A great way to squelch their interest in science is to "demonstrate" it while they watch. Another is to play "guess the right answer," as if all they can do is master a completed body of knowledge (a useless quest as scientific knowledge routinely becomes outdated). In most schools, teachers need a chance to experience hands-on science education before they can figure out how to engage students in it. Hands-on workshops can give them, too, the chance to experiment, be messy, make mistakes and capture the spirit of scientific inquiry. And getting parents involved in hands-on activities (such as making two batches of ice cream, using different amounts of salt, and comparing the rate at which the batches freeze) helps them understand that engaging in science is much more than avoiding wrong answers on a test. Getting caught up in their children's science activities sometimes lights fires and opens doors for the mothers, too.

Girls of all ages like math and science to be useful and relevant to their everyday lives. A college course on how to take apart a computer and put it back together attracted 300 male students and no young women -- until the announcement describing the course changed, to say that the computers they worked on would later be given to needy schools. Then the women signed up.

Similarly, math problems on a computer program called Animal Watch engaged girls' interest because calculations involved saving endangered animal species from extinction. Most girls -- and minority students -- want to know how what they're learning can be applied in real life. Engineering takes on meaning when students have to navigate a campus in a wheelchair (or wearing spectacles smeared with Vaseline, to get a sense of navigating nearly blind) before being asked to design handicapped-accessible facilities.

Not all girls are alike. Some already know they like math and science and just need connections made and barriers reduced. Some have yet to discover that math, science, and technology are for girls. For them, it's important to arrange for exposure to role models they can look up to (the younger, the better), who convey how "cool" it is to do science -- and show them a possible future, in which there is more than one way to use a Barbie doll.

This article, adapted from the National Science Foundation publication New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering was first published in the Style Section of the Washington Post, Tuesday, January 6, 2004, Page C09. Copyright (c) 2004 by Pat McNees. For permission to reprint, contact the author at
[Go Top]

Why so few women work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
and what can be done to change that

Learning To Code; A Model Example (Career Foundry blog, 4-16-15) "Victoria’s Secret model Lyndsey Scott is a secret – and celebrity – coder, refuting the myth that all programmers are white, male, 20-somethings with a passion for facial hair. While traveling the world for huge fashion houses like Prada and Louis Vuitton, she also developed seven apps for the iPhone on the side, two of which have since been taken on by Apple."
Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? (Eileen Pollack, NY Times, 10-3-13). "Of all the data her study uncovered, Handelsman finds the mentoring results to be the most devastating. “If you add up all the little interactions a student goes through with a professor — asking questions after class, an adviser recommending which courses to take or suggesting what a student might do for the coming summer, whether he or she should apply for a research program, whether to go on to graduate school, all those mini-interactions that students use to gauge what we think of them so they’ll know whether to go on or not. . . . You might think they would know for themselves, but they don’t.” Handelsman shook her head. “Mentoring, advising, discussing — all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses that men get that make them feel more a part of the party.”
Why Women Might Be Giving Up On Math And Science (All Things Considered, NPR, 10-6-13 ) Science, math and engineering are still dominated by men, and few professors in those fields are women. Guest Eileen Pollack says researcher Jo Handelsman came up with an experiment using a made-up job application; the same job application was submitted with only one difference; one version came from someone named Jennifer, and the other came from someone named John. "And the results were astonishing. Jennifer was judged less competent, less hirable and less worthy of mentoring or being encouraged to go on in the field than John, solely on the basis of the name. And it was young women and men in the field doing this, not just the old guys."
Sex and science (Cathy Young, Salon, 4-12-01). Are women discriminated against in the lab? Or are gender imbalances due to intellectual differences?
The Reluctant Feminist (Kate Zernike, NY Times, 4-8-01)
Why Aren't More Girls Attracted To Physics? (Shankar Vedantam, All Tech Considered, NPR, 8-9-13). University of Texas sociologist says,"What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely." By contrast, girls growing up in communities where most working women are in jobs traditionally held by women such as child care or nursing might not see the possibilities that exist.
Exploring the Gender Gap and the Absence of Equality (NY Times, 8-25-98). Natalie Angier, a conversation with Virginia Valian
Research on Discrimination :: Bias Literacy (a summary digest of the evidence for discrimination, especially against women in science and engineering, by Ruta Sevo and Daryl Chubin) You can download the 25-page report, a reading list, and more.
Where Popular Science Is Called Women's Work (Samuel G. Freedman, NY Times, 4-27-05) About a private school that teaches smart.

eGFI Dream up the future. A site by American Society for Engineering Education and partners committed to promoting and improving K-12 STEM and engineering.
Ruta Sevo's 10 x 10 list (for students, parents, teachers -- a great guide to resources) (strengthening afterschool programs)
Advancing Women: Annotated Bibliography (pdf, Virginia Valian, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center)
Technology websites for girls and young women (Joan Korenman)
CyberPlayground for girls and young women. Do worry your pretty little head about it!
Online resources for girls in technology (University of Wisconsin, Whitewater)
Geek Girl
Using Title IX to get equal opportunities for girls in science and engineering (Ruta Sevo)

Books, articles, and more

Writing or telling life stories
Everyone has a story to tell. What's keeping you from telling yours? Become a storykeeper or personal historian or find one.
Read aloud at a memorial service decades later
A loving testament, or legacy letter, sharing your life experiences and lessons with the next generation
Learn to write articles, reports, ethical wills, or life stories (memoirs and beyond).
Mom — hardworking, sassy, and full of surprises
Mutual support and discussion
Social history through the life of an ordinary Midwestern businessman.
Dancing, food, good books, and other diversions
Favorites of several book groups
What is the single lunch-bag item most hated by all children?
What heightens the caviar experience is the price of those little gray or black sturgeon eggs.
Links to dancing venues and calendars for the Washington, D.C. area.
Midlife "first dates"
Did she fall in love with the man or the waltz?
Also related: jive, hustle, hand-dancing.
All the dancing your feet can take
Choosing a school of dance
Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish
The big ones, with dirty stems
"A rich, varied, and highly rewarding collection," says Joyce Carol Oates
Ceilis (Irish dancing)
Medical mysteries, patient stories, and practical links
John Travolta played the boy in the movie. The real story ended far differently.
Thin little Marian had a cholesterol problem most people have never heard of.
You've probably never heard of this national research hospital and clinic. But someone you know may be able to benefit from it directly and all of us do, indirectly.
Understanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the debate on health care reform. Avoiding medical errors
Dying, mourning, and other inevitable events
"This remarkable collection, coming from personal experience and wide reading, will help many find the potential of growth through loss." --Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement
For those dying, for caregivers, and for the bereaved
Listen to samples of popular songs and music
Girls and science
Cool science sites
Best practices for teaching science--to strengthen the science workforce.
Some links and a selection
Practical matters
Identify children's learning styles and improve their ability to learn.
Six weeks to hassle-free homework.
Why parents should be concerned.
Public speaking is a craft, not an art. It can be learned.
Can you wash it if it says "dry clean"?
Fact vs. fantasy
One woman's story.
Don't focus on the fabric.
Organizational histories
A frank history of the Young Presidents' Organization.
The little lift truck that could — a story of brilliant marketing in America's heartland.
Online Shopping
Best places to shop online