Girls, Science Is Not Just for Nerds

University programs aim to head off science gender gap.

In an office at Weizmann Institute of Science, Ofri Kahana, a pleasant high school student from Netanya, gave a short lecture recently on her final project, which earned her first place in the national science fair. The Weizmann Institute's official announcement noted that Kahana, a 12th-grader at the Shai Agnon High School, did her project on "trapping ions, atoms or molecules with an electrical charge in a defined place in space for an ongoing period of time." When Kahana patiently explained the purpose of the study and the methods used, the audience seemed supportive. The teenage girls who had made it to the advanced stage of the competition nodded understandingly. I, on the other hand, started sweating lightly while listening to the explanations, despite the air conditioning, and couldn't comprehend it. I felt like a tourist in a foreign country, completely lost.

After Kahana, Shai Kiryati from Ramat Gan's Ohel Shem High School talked about her research on computerization. "I tried to use computer code to find simple ways to build computer tools with the aid of a quantum computerization tool," she said. Her command of the material was impressive, but to me it was still incomprehensible.

Things changed when Michal Tavrusky of Rehovot' Katzir High School and Noam Shalev of Reut and a student at Jerusalem's High School of the Sciences and Arts offered brief explanations of their biology projects. And when they reported that the studies are likely to one day contribute to curing cancer and easing anxiety attacks, it even sounded interesting. Of the 120 final projects in science submitted this year to the Weizmann Institute competition, 12 of them made it to the final stage. Of these, 10 were submitted by young women.

The success rate among young women in the competition merits attention, given that it is unusual in a world where the percentage of teenage girls and women majoring in the sciences in high school or university is low and does not at all reflect their proportion of the population. So it is interesting to try to understand what motivated at least some of the teenage girls who reached the final to choose science, and also how they explain that most of their friends prefer, like me, subjects that do not require knowledge of science or math.

It turns out these girls don't accept the assumption that there is a problem. They chose science disciplines because "it's just interesting," as Kiryati says. She is mainly interested in physics. In her spare time, she has discussions with scientists on producing fuel from seaweed.

For the others, the paucity of girls and young women in science isn't even an issue. Those who avoid science "aren't interested in learning in general," explains Kahana. "Girls can also do science," says Tavrusky with striking self-confidence. She believes the claim that girls are put off by science is a stereotype of its own. "All the efforts to promote [science education among] girls mark them as different and that's harmful," Kiryati says. "The fear of the sciences is common to all. They are harder subjects. People go for the easy option." Shalev agrees: "It annoys me that gender is even mentioned. We are here to show that not only boys are capable of real thinking. In general, it bothers me that boys are presumed to think differently than girls. And that they are better in the sciences. We are here. We have the same abilities and women don't need to be empowered."

Like grandma and mom

Contrary to Shalev's fervent belief, over the years and as a result of various studies, the position of education researchers and sociologists was that women needed to be empowered to overcome their low representation in the sciences. Many of these efforts show that teenage girls did not have successful female role models in these disciplines. A look at the family backgrounds of the teenage girls in the Weizmann competition reveals that most are from homes where the sciences were an integral part of growing up. For example, Tavrusky's grandmother is a biologist and her mother works in molecular biology at the Ministry of Agriculture. Kahana's mother is a mathematics coordinator and instructor of math teachers. Perhaps this shows that because of the role models they had at home, they were spared being afflicted by a common high school stereotype: that students who take science classes are nerds.

"The stereotype that understanding science makes you a nerd is passe, just like saying that a woman's place is in the kitchen," says Kahana. "In our schools the nerds are the smart ones. They are envied and kids want to get close to them. The stereotypes no longer influence the girls. They aren't a factor anymore." Asked if she had hesitations about taking physics when only one other girl is in her class, Kahana admits: "I was a little concerned. But I trusted my mom, who helped me decide to take this class, and I'm not sorry." Prof. Orit Hazan, head of the Technion's department of education in technology and science, says women's hesitation about the sciences is not apparent at the edge of the curve of outstanding women in science. "After all there are also women recipients of the Nobel Prize," Hazan points out, saying the aversion is seen mostly in the middle of the curve, among average students.

She tells of a program in which teenage girls in Haifa participated in a program in electrical engineering labs; after a few years, the percentage of girls taking this course jumped from around 10 percent to 20 percent. Hazan is now overseeing a new long-term project in Haifa to encourage girls to study sciences whereby the Technion, widely considered a male bastion, is encouraging young women living in the university's vicinity to join its ranks. "Movilot L'Technion" (Leading Women to the Technion ) ran this year at Ironi Gimel High School and in the Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood adjacent to the Technion, and is scheduled to expand across Haifa. A six-year program, it is also supported by the Haifa Municipality, the Neveh Sha'anan Wizo branch and high-tech companies such as IBM and Intel.

The specific goal, said Hazan, is to encourage young women to study engineering at the Technion because there is a shortage of engineering professionals in the Israel Defense Forces and in industry. A secondary goal is to encourage the them, with the help of a Technion grant, to remain in Haifa, which is experiencing negative migration. This year 39 eighth-grade girls took part in the project, which included supplementary mathematics classes in small groups, Noar Shoher Mada (Science-Oriented Youth ) programs at the Technion, visits to high-tech companies and meetings with women researchers at the Technion and successful women in industry, and not necessarily those from backgrounds that forecast success. The girls will continue their activities next year, a new group will open for seventh-grade girls, and along the way other Haifa schools plan to join the project.

The boys are complaining

In the science classes at Ironi Gimel High School in Haifa, which emphasizes the science, girls have a large presence. The physics classes are divided almost equally. Why did this school insist on empowering girls?

The principal, Rivka Ginzberg, says: "There really are girls studying sciences in the school, but the question is: What are they doing afterward? Do they stick with these subjects, and especially engineering? The studies show otherwise. There are women who do study it, but their presence in industry is relatively low; around 15 percent of engineering students. We want to find the hidden potential." She says the student body covers "the full spectrum of Israeli society, from kids whose parents work at the Technion to kids for whom who we are all they have." She believes that "the timing of girls' successes is important. In the wake of their success in their studies, they will be able to express ideas, participate and ask questions in class, without thinking they are damaging part of their self-esteem. They will believe they can do whatever they want, even get past the glass ceiling."

Ginzberg says the boys were upset about what they referred to as affirmative action for girls. "They asked: Why are you giving preference to the girls? We also want empowerment. They argued that if you give preference to one gender, then you are undermining equality. We explained that we believe that women have equal analytical abilities to men, but they don't choose these subjects. The main reason is that even with the whole socialization process, girls don't enter the science market, which is masculine, but choose, as I did, fields that are considered more feminine, such as teaching, communications and others."

Dr. Asia Levita of the Technion's department of education in technology and science, who is among those steering the project, believes there has been substantial improvement in grades due to the project, and much more so in classes other than science. Also, about 10 percent of the participants switched to science classes as a result of the project, Levita noted. An assessment study found that elements of the program which contributed most to raising the girls' grades was the extra classes and close mentoring of students. The study also found evidence of an enhanced self-image and self-confidence among participants. Given the project's success, next year new features are likely to be added, such as emotional support for the group and the training of teachers who may also be affected by stereotypical thinking.

Girls in the project spoke of the stigma that keeps so many of their peers away from the sciences. "It's because they always said that girls should be at home," said one. "It's because girls just don't believe in themselves and are more scared and don't strive enough. You have to encourage girls, like in this project," said another. "You have to show them that engineering is something that girls can also make their mark in. And it's not enough to encourage them. You also have to provide them with tools, such as the extra classes we have at school. This way more girls will join; this is how to break the stigma."