From analyzing influences on young children to encouraging freshmen college students, two guest speakers at BU this month focused on getting more women in to science and engineering fields and then keeping them there.
Rosalind Chait Barnett, research director of the Community, Families & Work program at Brandeis University, spoke about early childhood influences affecting whether girls choose science careers on Oct. 5. Beverly Brown, chief development officer at the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, spoke to women freshmen about the practical aspects of careers in science and engineering on Oct. 9.
Barnett’s appearance was sponsored by BU’s Women in Science and Engineering group.
“I believe that girls’ lack of confidence in their ability to succeed in math and science has its roots in their very early years,” she said.
Certain early childhood influences — parents, teachers, toy marketers and the media — have a great impact on shaping girls’ academic and career choices, suggested Barnett.
“The main media message is that boys and girls are different. This message is so omnipresent it’s often accepted as fact, but numerous empirical studies indicate these conclusions are erroneous,” she added.
One study found parents less likely to provide science-related experiences to daughters than to sons. According to the study, boys were three times more likely to receive explanations on science exhibits in a museum from parents, giving them earlier familiarity with general scientific concepts and causative relationships.
Another study revealed that elementary school boys had stronger beliefs in their mathematical abilities. The difference in confidence, even in the absence of a true difference in ability, can influence actual performance in class. Another study showed that mothers’ perceptions of their daughters’ math and science abilities in grade school influenced the daughters’ later career choices.
“Parents and teachers are the key players. Preschool and the primary grades are most important,” said Barnett. “Once aware of the subtle ways in which their beliefs may color their actions, teachers and parents can begin to monitor their own behavior and begin to make the needed changes.”
Young women who have already persevered through the gauntlet of early childhood with their passion for science intact gathered for a discussion with Brown. The students are freshman residents of the new women’s science and engineering floor in Warren Towers. Brown engaged them in a frank and informal conversation on topics ranging from their first impressions of BU and surviving cold Boston winters to following their passions and facing the future challenges of balancing motherhood and scientific careers.
Brown said her passion for science started with a $2-an-hour summer job washing glassware and dissecting rats in a laboratory conducting a nutrition study. She looked beyond the daily grind of these tasks to realize where a career in science could lead and decided to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry. She likened her career path to hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
“You start out and think the top is right there, but then you get up there and realize that’s not the top,” she said. “There are a lot of plateaus with beautiful views, but you realize you don’t want to stop there, but keep on going up. You have to have that first experience to see what’s beyond it.”
The group discussion also touched on the challenges that come with a career in the sciences, including maintaining a balance between work and life — whether that means having children, a significant other or passions for another field such as music or art, beyond science.
“It’s always a balancing act. Welcome to life,” said Brown, who is married to University President Robert Brown. “But I really think you can do it all.”
She encouraged the freshmen science and engineering majors to follow their passions for their chosen disciplines but also stay open to new opportunities.
“When I started my career journey, the word biotechnology hadn’t been invented yet,” said Brown. “You have to be open to the whole world changing.”