Balancing the Ratio

In my last year of high school, like most other seniors, I did college visits  to numerous difference schools. Because I’m interested in Earth Sciences, I took a lot at several engineering schools, such as the Colorado School of Mines. That school was the one I was most strongly recruited at, but not because of my merits. The strongest emphasis was on how I was a girl, and therefore the school wanted me. Last year, according to the school statistics, Mines recieved 6,797 applicants: 4,885 male and 1,912 female. They accepted 4,180 students: 2,957 male and 1,223 female. The ratio is nearly 2.5 men to 1 woman. Only 30% of students are female. This is about equivalent to other technical and engineering schools, and also similar to the ratio of men to women in hard science and mathematics fields. It’s sobering. Why aren’t girls looking at these fields? And how do we fix the ratio?

First off, psychological studies have shown that there is an implicit association of men with science and women with the arts. Project Implicit, run by Harvard, has two tests on gender associations. I took the Gender-Science test, and got the result that I have a slight association of women with science. However, I am a woman in science, so that’s not terribly surprising. What is surprising is how rare that association is:

Gender-Science IAT Results

The Gender-Career test has similar associations, as well. Clearly, we’ve learned through our culture that school and science are for boys, and home and art are for girls. I ran across this myself, in my junior year of high school. I’d only just moved to a new town, and was attending public school for the first time science kindergarten. However, I’d taken multiple AP classes online, so my weighted GPA put me at the top of the class. There were three guys in my AP Human Geography test who had been competing for that first place spot for their entire schooling career; they were always ranked #1, #2, and #3 in the class. When transcripts were released, and suddenly none of them was #1, they were baffled. I listened to them talk; they never once even considered that any girl in the school could have outranked them, much less the “new girl”. I found it funny, but also sad. For both guys and girls at my school, the assumption was simply that the boys were better. The girls could take calculus and physics, if they wanted to, but the boys would dominate the class. They were also the ones with ambition; even the next-highest ranked girl in the class had little more motivation than to get a Bachelor’s degree, then her “MRS degree.” This trend shows up in many schools, across time, as this Washington Post article demonstrates.

Clearly, there’s a bias problem here, that most people of either gender don’t recognize. There is no reason for there to be “male-dominated fields” anymore. Yet, they still exist, particularly in mathematics and science. But improvement is definitely being made. A few decades ago, many women were limited to being a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, and would often quit working entirely once married. Today, that’s far from the case. More and more, women actually can do anything they want. But more girls are being encourage to explore their interest in science, thanks to parents, teachers and mentors at schools, and  organizations like Project Exploration and the NEA.  More people of both genders are becoming aware of the implicit biases, and are actively working to avoid them. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I’d like to think that, by the time I get my master’s or doctorate degree, I’ll be just as likely to get a paleontology job at a museum as my male colleagues. It’ll take time, and a lot of work, but the ratio can be balanced.

Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.


  1. […] XHTML ← Balancing the Ratio […]

  2. March 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm —

    You didn’t say where you ended up going. The Colorado School of Mines is a great school in a lot of ways, and I later found that it had a good reputation abroad as well.

    I returned there as a part time instructor briefly a few years ago, and there seemed to be a lot of women who were happy and enthusiastic about the fields that they were studying, and yet at the same time it seemed like a lot of them were taking circuitous educational paths that involved transferring to or from other schools. Often the reasons for this involved being able to pay for everything. But perhaps that has become the norm these days; there certainly were a lot of “non traditional” students when I was there as an undergraduate, including some who had to alternate between years of work and years of school.

    An anecdote from when I was there as an undergrad: One of the Tau Beta Pi inductees was a married woman with children, who gloated over the fact that she got to sand cast her own “bent” in the metallurgy lab–her husband had been issued a pre-made one when he had joined Tau Beta Pi at another school.

    Now, where did I leave that freshman hard hat?

  3. March 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm —

    I ended up eventually deciding to go to the University of Chicago. It has one of the top paleontology programs in the country, and also has some of the more liberal arts things I enjoy. I was just a lot more comfortable there during my college visits than I was at Mines. I certainly looked at it seriously, but between the lack of opportunities for me to continue seriously in music and paleoart and the fact that I didn’t feel I “fit” there as well, I decided not to attend. A close friend of mine, also female and young for a college sophomore, did end up going there, though, and is loving it. I agree, it is a great school; it just wasn’t right for me.

    The transferring thing is something I’ve heard of. I have a couple friends, actually, who have done similar things; some because of monetary concerns, others because they simply felt they didn’t fit well at their first college or because they wanted to explore a field that wasn’t offered. It does seem to be pretty common, though there are still many colleges and universities that retain nearly all students for all four years.

  4. March 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm —

    “For both guys and girls at my school, the assumption was simply that the boys were better. The girls could take calculus and physics, if they wanted to, but the boys would dominate the class.”

    I can certainly relate to this! My freshman year of high school, I decided to enroll in AP Computer Science A. Aside from being the only freshman in my class (not surprising) I was also the only girl for more than half of the school year. During the spring semester, another girl finally transferred in, but she was the girlfriend of a guy in the class and was more interested in flirting than in coding. I was very disappointed!

    Of course, I’m now studying for a degree in literature–as well as a teaching certification–so I suppose I’m perpetuating the whole girls-become-liberal-arts-majors-and-teachers stereotype. However, since I’m also taking upper-level math courses on the side, I’ve become especially interested in the Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College (http://www.math.smith.edu/center). I was surprised–but glad!–to see that there are still programs to help balance the ratio, even at the undergraduate/graduate level.

  5. March 10, 2011 at 9:02 pm —

    What a coincidence that I stumbled across this thread just minutes after fielding a phone call from a Mines student asking for donations to the alumni fund (I caved…).

    When I read that there’s a 2.5:1 ratio at Mines I almost fell out of my chair – when I was a student (and dinosaurs roamed the earth…) “the ratio” (I use scare quotes because that’s how we referred to it) was pretty steady at 4:1. I’m happy to see it’s trending in the right direction, although there’s still quite a way to go. I went on to grad school (on the west coast) at an institution that likewise had a 4:1 male:female ratio. Whenever I read that today 60% of all U.S. college students are female I can’t imagine what that must be like (could it be that the improving ratio at CSM is solely due to larger societal trends? Dunno…).

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