Gender Gap Sampling
Women's Science: Learning and Succeeding from the Margins. Margaret A. Eisenhart and Elizabeth Finkel. 281 pp. University of Chicago Press, 1998. $15.
This book addresses an important topic. Despite a long period of gains, there continues to be a gender gap in the sciences, as clearly demonstrated by a 1996 National Science Foundation report, "Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering."
There are two aspects that stand out in Margaret A. Eisenhart and Elizabeth Finkel's book. The authors look at four places where women are succeeding in science—a nonprofit environmental-issues group, an environmental planning and management business, a discovery-based high school genetics classroom and a sophomore-level engineering class taught through work internships. Also, rather than making claims of overt discrimination, they ask how science is practiced at these sites as compared to so-called elite science and seek to examine more subtle power relations and social interactions that affect women's success.
Eisenhart and Finkel's findings indicate that women tend to perform better in science courses when applications are emphasized. This is an interesting result that science teachers may be advised to follow up on. In addition, it is suggested that women leave college science classes because of an increased emphasis on abstract concepts that are not easily shared with non-science peers. Because girls learn at an early age to gain prestige and status primarily through their ability to develop social relationships, college women look to other majors that are more likely to reinforce these norms. The temporal and spatial restrictions required by science majors, such as working for long blocks of time in laboratories, also detract from the ability to interact with peers.
The authors recommend several possibilities for helping women to realize equality in the sciences. Their suggestion that parents and educators should strive to help women understand how cultural forms can affect life decisions is certainly appropriate. Other suggestions are more naïve, such as the idea that the science curriculum should be "loosened up" at a time when science literacy is dangerously low. More teaching of applied science and inclusion of internship opportunities are beneficial and may be more likely to appeal to women. On the other hand, reducing course requirements will benefit no one in the long run. Finally, the call for decreased funding of basic science in favor of "culturally, socially and economically relevant science" reflects a lack of understanding of the current landscape of scientific research. The majority of research today is funded by industry and is economically and socially relevant; much of government-funded science also fits in this category.
The authors' unique approach makes this study valuable. However, the arguments set forth would carry more weight if conducted with larger numbers over a longer period. For example, the two classroom sites used data from only one semester each with a limited number of students. Also, study-site types lacked diversity. Only one business actually performed scientific investigations. The environmental-action group did not require scientific backgrounds of employees, who also did not carry out scientific studies. There were no sites performing studies in chemistry, physics or math. There are certainly more sites that have women successfully participating in science from which an intense study could be drawn. For example, many liberal-arts colleges have summer research programs involving large numbers of women. A more thorough study might prove more revealing.—Kate J. Graham, Chemistry, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University