Men still outnumber women in science and engineering fields. Would a science-loving “Hannah Montana” type change that?
At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit last week I facilitated a conversation called “Making Science Cool.” Specifically, we gathered to talk about making science cool for girls and young women as they contemplate areas of study and potential careers.
The discussion was led by Marissa Mayer, vice president search products and user experience for Google (GOOG), and Maria Siemionow, director, plastic surgery research at Cleveland Clinic. (Dr. Siemionow is perhaps best known for leading the surgical team that performed the first face transplant.)
For an hour more than a dozen women, including some pretty impressive scientists and engineers, shared their thoughts on how to make the sciences more appealing to girls.
It turns out girls, young ones at least, rather like science. Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, weighed in with some interesting statistics. Ride noted that in fourth grade 68% of boys and 66% of girls report that they “like” science. (Many of the stats used by Ride, and citations, can also be found in this handbook, produced by Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science.)
Yet by eighth grade, twice as many boys as girls show an interest in science careers.
The reason, Ride and the other participants agreed, has nothing to do with aptitude — and everything to do with society’s attitudes. Girls get the subtle message that science is for boys, and that certain careers are more appropriate for girls.
Where are the role models in popular culture?
More than one woman suggested the lack of role models in media and entertainment didn’t help. Where, one asked, were the women scientists on television and in movies? If Disney’s Hannah Montana had a secret life as a physicist — or if Zac Efron’s character in the “High School Musical” movies had a crush on a girl in a lab coat — quipped another speaker, girls’ interest in the sciences would go through the roof.
What’s the big deal if science doesn’t appeal to girls? It means fewer adult women in science fields, of course. (I’m not a scientist, but I understand cause and effect.) According to Ride’s handbook, women make up 49% of the college-degreed workforce, but only 25% of the science and engineering workforce. Google’s Mayer said that as she prepared for the science discussion, she started taking notice of the number of work meetings she attended at which she was the only woman in the room. The answer? A lot.
The roundtable participants moved into solutions mode, offering examples of educational programs and mentorships aimed at helping girls and underprivileged kids get exposure to sciences and scientists. Ride’s company offers science camps just for tween girls. Exxon Mobil (XOM) hosts an annual Girls in Engineering Festival in Houston at which girls meet women scientists and participate in team- and skill-building exercises.
Some of the freshest ideas were more grassroots. Laurie Yoler, managing director of GrowthPoint Technology Partners, says she hired a scientist from a local science museum to teach a class and do experiments with her kids and their friends. Every weekend her garage becomes a lab, with 8 to 12 kids participating, she says. (“The kids in my garage ended up designing, testing and then building a huge trebuchet and launching watermelons in a nearby park,” Yoler tells me in a recent correspondence. How’s that for cool?)
After the roundtable discussion, Yoler confided to me that her son much prefers to hang out with the girls who come to the labs than, say, those who aren’t as serious about science. Sounds like a potential plot for the next installment of “High School Musical.”