Lately, I've been following an interesting conversation over at ScienceBlogs. In The Pipeline Problem, Chad Orzel, a college physics professor, argues that the lack of women in the sciences is not his fault. Sure, there are sexist pigs in every field, but he implies that the problem lies primarily in the grade school years where girls are discouraged from going into the sciences by disinterested teachers and peer pressure. Suzanne Franks posts a rebuttal: one cannot pin all the blame on elementary and high schools. Even university professors must shoulder some of the responsibility--their lectures may be turning young women off or their faculty ratio may not be so great. More subtly, they may not even realize that they've only invited male speakers to a seminar or show only pictures of guys on their recruiting website.
Although Orzel is a bit naive in his views (how can he be really sure his colleagues are not doing any harassment?), both do bring up good points. Science on a university level can be intimidating even if all the male professors are Very Nice People. Being a minority is both alienating and lonely and many people, whoever they are, cannot handle that kind of isolation for very long. I went to a science-oriented university as an undergraduate--less than 30% of my graduating class was female. It was not due to the admissions process, which was fifty-fifty, but the critical point when prospective students visited campus that severely skewed the ratio.
Elementary, middle, and high school weren't better--although, I wouldn't say the problem was with male teachers as much as with female teachers with low expectations and an ill-hidden distaste for the sciences. Physics teacher? She didn't think we could do the math. Biology teacher? She didn't believe in evolution. Chemistry teacher? She blabbed about how great her sons were instead of teaching orbital theory. With all that negative stimuli during my formative years, one could wonder how I retained any shred of love for science at all. I'm pretty sure none of my female classmates from high school have. They all wanted to become lawyers or psychiatrists or political activists or artists.
(Cross-posted at Syaffolee.)