Here are two things Pamela Cosman wants you to know: More girls need to pursue STEM careers; and the reason more young women are not becoming engineers or physicists has everything to do with society giving them the wrong message.
Cosman, who is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), and an IEEE Fellow, is passionate about gender equity. Her efforts to improve both the percentage of females in STEM, and their accomplishments, have brought her national recognition.
Now, she has written an enlightening — and unsettling — new e-book that hones in on the self-reinforcing nature of the gender gap. Free to Choose STEM: Data and Reflections on Girls and STEM Careers, is exactly what the title states. Partly driven by data, and partly Cosman’s personal recollections of her life in engineering, the volume provides an eye-opening look at the current state of females in STEM — and how society continues to propagate inaccuracies and myths that discourage girls and women.
“This short book is meant for young women going into STEM, and for parents of girls who may be thinking about STEM, as well as those not thinking about it,” the author says in the introduction. “Social science research on gender in STEM is a good deal richer and deeper than it was 40 years ago, when I started high school.”
For starters, Cosman offers a long list of reasons why she wants more girls in STEM, beginning with the need for more STEM professionals — regardless of gender — in the United States. “It’s not that I want boys to stop going into STEM careers,” she writes. “I don’t. I want the boys to stay in. I just want more girls to go in, too.”
Next, she points out that STEM jobs pay well and tend to be secure. Cosman notes that the so-called “gender wage gap” is partly calculated on women’s salaries in careers that pay less. “One way to close the wage gap is for more women to become engineers or chemists, rather than going into traditional, female-type occupations,” she states.
Among Cosman’s other reasons for wanting more girls in STEM, she believes females change both the work and the culture. For example, she notes that after Dr. Bernadine Healy became the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health in 1991, she ordered that its clinical trials had to include both men and women. As it turned out, the differences with how women metabolize drugs were hugely important. Further, in the academic world, she says women faculty are much more likely than men to attend events that support students or encourage departmental morale.
To what extent do social factors have a part in influencing gender in STEM? In three disturbing chapters, the author examines women’s participation by country, across time, and by socio-economic levels.
- A 2011 worldwide study of women in STEM fields revealed more than 20 countries where women earn the major of STEM bachelor’s degrees. Iran topped the list, with 68 percent of the degrees going to women; except for Italy, the next dozen nations were mostly less affluent and conservative, predominantly Muslim cultures. Cosman’s observations on why Iranian and other women from Muslim nations are attracted to technical degrees make for fascinating reading.
- Why, with such notable exceptions as biology and chemistry, have the graduation gender ratios for women in STEM not kept pace with women graduating from medical and law schools? The author suggests a variety of reasons that range from bias — whether conscious or not — among professors and fellow students, to women seeking out recession-proof areas during economic downturns.
- In a 2018 study at the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, boys outperformed girls in math in more affluent school districts — but girls outperformed boys in the poorer ones. Cosman suggests several possible reasons; for instance, in wealthier families, men have higher educational degrees and tend to earn more than women, but it’s the reverse in poorer families. So, affluent families might expect a greater return on investment for activities that promote boys’ learning, with the opposite true for girls in poorer families.
Elsewhere in this fervent case for why girls should become interested in STEM careers, Pamela Cosman probes other social influences. In a chapter titled “Believing in Difference Can Produce Difference,” she says that when stereotypes exist that one group does better than another, it’s been proved that members of the group ‘supposed to’ do less well will think of themselves that way–even when they’re doing very well, indeed.
Cosman points to a study that tested subjects on their so-called “contrast sensitivity” to whether more black or white was in a picture. The secret, however, was that the same amount was in each picture, so neither answer was right or wrong. Those who administered the project made up “contrast sensitivity,” solely for purposes of the study. However, those male subjects who were told that boys were better than girls at contrast sensitivity believed they had done well, and agreed they would like to work in a field that required such a “skill.” The study showed that believing — or not believing — in one’s ability leads to a difference in self-confidence and interest.
The author also discusses what she calls “imposter syndrome” — a false and sometimes crippling psychological condition. Individuals with imposter syndrome are convinced they are frauds, and they don’t deserve the success they have achieved. She adds that victims of imposter syndrome have included Albert Einstein, who called himself “an involuntary swindler,” and John Steinbeck, who attacked his own “ignorance and inability.”
Pamela Cosman’s interest in gender issues in STEM began more than 25 years ago. As a young professor teaching in a male-dominated field, she quickly became sensitive to the difficulties that both women faculty and students must deal with. Today, she is Faculty Equity Advisor for UCSD’s Jacob’s School of Engineering. Since her appointment eight years ago, almost a third of all new hires have been women. The number of underrepresented minority faculty has also increased substantially. She also serves as Co-Director of the UCSD Center for Research on Gender in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).
Cosman previously wrote a well-received children’s book aimed at exciting youngsters ages 9-12 about STEM. Available at Amazon, The Secret Code Menace teaches basic concepts about wireless communication. Almost unnecessary to note, one of the main characters is a girl — and her creativity and ability help to ensure a happy and successful conclusion.
Free to Choose STEM: Data and Reflections on Girls and STEM Careers is free to members in the IEEE-USA Shop. Non-members pay $9.99.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.