Young girls and women are making inroads in science but not enough — and who’s to blame?

Teacher with students in elementary school science class. Getty Images

Earlier this summer, the head of the National Institutes of Health made headlines by saying it’s time to end the tradition in science of “all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels.’”

“Too often, women and members of other groups underrepresented in science are conspicuously missing in the marquee speaking slots at scientific meetings and other high-level conferences,” NIH director Francis S. Collins said in an online statement in June.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. NIH Photo.

“Starting now, when I consider speaking invitations, I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities. If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part. I challenge other scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to do the same.”

The comments came after a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequence in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The report “identified the critical role that scientific leaders must play to combat cultural forces that tolerate gender harassment and limit the advancement of women,” according to Collins’ statement.

He added, “The diversity of bright and talented minds engaged in biomedical research has come a long way – and our public engagements need to catch up. Breaking up the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bias that is preventing women and other groups underrepresented in science from achieving their rightful place in scientific leadership must begin at the top.”

The comments raised questions about why females in science haven’t been on panels and why their voices have not always been heard, even as women continue to get doctorates in the high-level fields of “STEM” — science, technology, engineering and math, according to a Los Angeles Times story.

Florida data on state and national exams also show what’s happening when it comes to performance in science, indicating girls made inroads in the early grades and through high school but still fell behind boys in terms of proficiency and mastery in science.

In Florida’s elementary and middle schools, students take state science exams in 5th and 8th grades.

In 5th grade, boys performed better than girls across all years from 2014-15 to 2018-19. That data is based on a level of achievement considered “passing”, according to the Florida Department of Education.  But in looking at students who were at a higher levels of performance, called proficient and mastery, 5th grade boys always did better than girls.

By 8th grade, girls did better than boys in 2017-18 and 2018-19, based on passing the state science exam. But in the categories of proficiency and mastery — the higher levels of performance — boys across five years still did better than girls.

When Florida students moved on to the state’s biology exam, usually taken by 9th and 10th graders, girls in 9th grade performed better than boys across the board, based on passing rates. But boys still did better than girls when it came to proficiency and mastery.

For 10th graders, it was a mixed bag for girls and boys, but boys always did better than girls in the proficiency and mastery categories.

When it came time to take a college entrance exam for college admissions, student results on the ACT science exam for Florida’s Class of 2018 showed boys did better than girls.

Boys scored an average of 19.6, while girls scored a 19.5, both below the national average. An ACT score for STEM, which describes overall proficiency in math and science, showed that boys scored 19.9 while girls scored a 19.5.

Meanwhile, girls scored higher than boys on the English and reading sections of the Class of 2018 ACT exam.


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