Women, men split in science

Editor’s note: This article was revised for accuracy at 10:15 p.m. March 11. The caption for the article’s accompanying picture was revised for accuracy at 11 p.m. March 10.

Sophomore Elisa Elizondo said she noticed fewer women than men in her physics class when she was an astronomy major. The same thing happened when she changed her major to geology. When Elizondo chose environmental science as her major, she still noticed fewer women than men in her classes.

Although the College of Science and Engineering awarded more degrees to women than to men last academic year, figures show that women and men are divided in certain fields.

According to the 2009 TCU Fact Book, the College of Science and Engineering awarded 126 bachelor’s degrees to men and 143 to women in the 2008-2009 academic year. Fields like biology, nutritional sciences and psychology recorded more female enrollment than male enrollment. For example, 43 women graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, more than twice the number of men. Environmental science produced five male graduates and four female graduates the same year. Nutritional sciences tallied 25 female graduates from the undergraduate program and no men. Physics degrees were awarded to two women and one man.

On the other hand, six bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in engineering, compared to 17 to men, and no degrees were awarded to women in computer science or geology

Bonnie Melhart, associate provost and dean of university programs and associate professor of computer science, said that nationwide, the number of women choosing science majors who eventually go into a career in science is a cause of concern for many organizations.

The National Science Foundation reported that in fields like engineering, only 20 percent of students are women. Multiple causes, including time constraints, family responsibilities and cultural pressures, were listed for the disparity between the number of men and women.

Kelly Jackson, a sophomore physics and astronomy major, said her passion for science overwhelms any pressure she feels as a woman in her field of study. Jackson is currently the only female sophomore student studying physics and astronomy.

“It’s difficult, but it’s really not that bad,” Jackson said. “People think too much of it.”

Jackson said people are usually surprised when she tells them she’s a physics major and she thinks that’s partly because she is a woman.

“I’m the only female in my major so people kind of look at me like, whoa, when I tell them,” Jackson said.

At first it was slightly uncomfortable, but after a while, Jackson said, she got used to it. She said she doesn’t even notice it anymore.

Whereas few women may be found in engineering, geology or computer science classes, enrollment in health sciences continues to be predominantly female. The Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences awarded 200 bachelor’s degrees to female students and 22 to male students during the 2008-2009 academic year, according to the 2009 TCU Fact Book.

Pamela Frable, associate dean and director of nursing, wrote in an e-mail that because nursing is perceived as feminine work associated with compassion and nurturing, women are directed toward that career choice, but sometimes they don’t realize that science and math are required.

“Although nursing demands excellent scientific knowledge and skills, the general public does not recognize that nursing requires knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and math as well as the social sciences and humanities,” Frable wrote. “Consequently, women who seek a career in science may not recognize nursing as a option for a science vocation.”

Micheline Bejjani, a physics graduate student and researcher at the university, said the university has incentives to get more women into the sciences. Grants and research opportunities are made available for female students and other underrepresented demographics, she said.

One such initiative, the Research Experience for Undergraduates, is a summer program Jackson was selected to join. According to the university’s physics and astronomy Web site, the REU program specifically focuses on women and minorities interested in science.

Melhart said these programs encourage participation from women, but nothing has solved the gender discrepancy yet. She said one way those in science could learn from the law field is by making the time requirements more self scheduled. She said the ability to create one’s own schedule is important to women because they often have family obligations.

“Law used to be a profession for gentleman, now there’s more women in law schools than men,” Melhart said. “We should model what they did to get results.”

Melhart said the problem is generational and that a welcoming feeling can help until a permanent solution is found. She said part of making women feel welcome includes valuing differences and their contributions.

“There’s an obligation to make them feel like the collective vision is strengthed by them being there,” Melhart said. “You continue to value the difference not just the day you read their resume but every day.”

Melhart said female students with a passion for sciences should not let the difficulties they might face affect what they decide to study.

“Some of us really love this stuff,” Melhart said. “It’s an uphill battle, but if it’s not a welcoming place, it’s going to continue being that way.”


Bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008-2009

Engineering

6 women, 17 men

Psychology

43 women, 20 men

Nursing

200 women, 22 men