Women in STEM: Still a Packer Issue
In the professional and academic fields of science, the deficiency of female representation is one of the most worrying controversies to date. At Packer, the trends in demographics of high level science classes in recent years have prompted similar anxieties in the community.
This year, there are nine male students and three female students enrolled in Advanced Topics Physics. Last year, there were 11 boys and 1 girl. Five years ago, there were 12 male students and 4 female students. In Advanced Topics Chemistry, the gender ratios are a little more reasonable: there are 10 boys and 7 girls in the class this year, and last year there was an equal number of girls and boys. In the past five years, however, there has not been a single AT chemistry class with fewer male than female students. AT Biology, with a steadily equal gender ratio and five more girls than boys this year, tells a different story. On the other hand, Nuclear Physics, which is not an AT but is an advanced science elective, consistently has far more male students than female students—this year, there are 17 boys and no girls enrolled in the class.
It is very difficult to pinpoint the reasons for these numbers; every student has a different reason for signing up for the electives they do, and the numbers don’t all demonstrate concrete trends. However, the disproportionate ratios in the physics department reflect a reality of science beyond the shelter of high school.
“When you look at everything in the bigger context, biology tends to be more female heavy, and physics and chemistry more male,” said Ali Iberraken, who teaches AT Physics. AT Chemistry and Nuclear Physics teacher Allen Ruch said that this was in line with his experience in college, adding that there tended to be significantly less females majoring in engineering-based physical sciences. Alice Lurain, who teaches advanced experimental chemistry and organic chemistry, had an insight about why girls may be more driven to the “softer” sciences.
“Regardless of how smart you are as a young woman, regardless of how assertive you are, there are all these societal messages that are telling you the ways that it is okay for you to be smart and assertive in the world, and those, I think, typically push you in one direction versus another,” said Dr. Lurain.
All students work differently; it is impossible to make a generalization about how every girl acts in a male-dominated class. However, those who teach AT science classes have noticed some general patterns, with exceptions, of course.
“We as a department discuss this a lot. I think that it is not just in the sciences,” said Mr. Ruch. “I think that there is a tendency for the boys to answer more quickly and not care if they are right or wrong. They don’t seem to mind to think in public as much, where girls tend to take more measured responses.”
However, it is not that female students are not up for the rigor of a high level science class.
“I really like how fast we move and how challenging it is,” said Kaitlin Flores (‘19), who is in AT chemistry this year after excelling in accelerated chemistry last year. “I feel like there is a lot more trust given to us in this class than in 10th grade chemistry, and there is just so much more freedom in the class.”
One may wonder what the Packer community can do to rectify this issue, especially given that it is a wider societal issue. Mr. Ruch stressed how critical it is to expose students to disciplines like nuclear physics in their normal courses so all students have an introduction to these concepts before they have to select high level classes, given that the gender ratio in nuclear physics shifted drastically when the curriculum shifted to stop introducing nuclear physics in chemistry.
Ms. Iberraken emphasized the importance of supporting female voices, as well as discussing the problem. For instance, Becca Horwitz (‘18) and Hawthorne Ripley (‘18) are the leaders of the Women in STEM club, which discusses the experience of girls in STEM fields and facilitates projects to help combat this inequality, and Natasha Brecht (‘18) created a project in AT Statistics comparing the gender ratios in various Packer classes, including STEM classes, in the past few years.
“When we talk about [this problem] as a whole community, it really brings some issues out,” said Ms. Iberraken. “Once it’s on our radar we can start discussing, once we start discussing we can start understanding it more, once we understand it more, then we can try to take action and change it. I do think we are looking at some big societal issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change things in our own community and in society.”