Want Your Daughter to Succeed in Science? Have Her Swim With the Sharks!

Teen scientist

In 2012, for the fourth year in a row, women earned the majority of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities—52.2 percent of the 67,220 doctorates, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Broken down by field of study, women surpassed men in arts and humanities (53.6 percent of doctorates earned), education (67.6 percent), health sciences (70.8 percent), public administration (56.4 percent), social/behavioral studies (61.1 percent), biology (52.4) and other fields (53.6 percent). However, men earned more than half of the doctorates in business (56.8 percent) and all STEM fields other than biology: engineering (77.8 percent), math and computer science (74.8 percent) and physical sciences (66.6 percent).

Why? And what are we going to do about it?

In her recent New York Times Magazine essay, Eileen Pollack examines the experience of young women pursuing degrees in the sciences dating back to the mid-1970s, when she studied physics at Yale and earned one of the first two degrees awarded to women there. She depicts a personal struggle to keep up with peers better prepared by their high schools for rigorous math classes, and remembers questioning her choice of major when she earned a 32 on her first physics midterm. Pollack also recounts advice she got from one professor to persevere by avoiding comparisons with others: “Just swim in your own lane.”

But that lane exists in a larger cultural pool that dissuades girls from pursing science and math. Pollack focuses on the need to encourage girls who hear negative messages in middle school that math isn’t cool, to bolster women in STEM doctoral programs who worry that they’ll intimidate potential dates and mates and to support junior faculty concerned about finding on-campus child care and spouses to share housework. She delineates both the mental barriers females report (“I’m not a genius, I’m not good enough”) as well as the institutional bias that mounts once they decide to pursue an advanced degree and career: less mentoring, advice, pay, lab space, awards, office support and money for equipment and travel.

In addition to the messages girls internalize from the larger culture, and the workplace biases female scientists face, what role do key individual traits play? Pollack’s method of inquiry—personal history and interviews with others—cannot answer this question, nor can the demographic data from the Council of Graduate Schools. But a scholarly article, “Gender, Competitiveness and Career Choices” offers some thoughts. Thomas Buser, Muriel Niederle and Hessel Oosterbeek studied 15-year-old boys and girls with very similar levels of academic ability to see why the girls were less likely to enroll in science- and math-intensive pre-university tracks and more likely to enroll in humanities and social sciences.

They found, not surprisingly, that the boys were more competitive than the girls. They sampled 362 ninth graders in Amsterdam, using a measure of competitiveness Niederle has been developing and validating since 2007, whereby students who perform equally well on simple arithmetic problems (adding up two-digit numbers for three minutes) are asked to choose either non-competitive piece-rate compensation for their work or a competitive tournament payment scheme. All students first performed under the noncompetitive piece-rate scheme, earning 25 cents per correct problem. Next they performed in tournaments of four, with the winner (most correct problems) earning one Euro. In the third round, students individually chose which payment scheme they would prefer: guaranteed piece-rate or entry into a tournament of four, where they could get paid nothing or one Euro.

The boys were twice as likely as the girls to jump into the tournament, a significant difference in competitiveness which the authors say replicates the standard gender gap in competitiveness reported in other studies. Next, the researchers examined which pre-university track the students selected and found that the girls, even though they had higher GPAs, were 21 percent less likely than the boys to choose the math/science track—a significant difference.

So did competitiveness explain the students’ academic track choice regardless of sex? Yes. Male and female students who selected the math/science option were the most competitive students, while those who chose humanities/social science were the least competitive. With competitiveness predicting  students’ choices, in part, and the girls being less competitive on average than the boys, fewer girls landed in the math/science track.

What does this mean for young women? If we want more girls and women in science, we should encourage them to persevere in STEM studies and work to fix institutional barriers to career advancement. But we should also acknowledge the importance of competitiveness and help cultivate it in young girls. (We should also determine if other individual traits play a role.) Some parents instinctively do this by placing their daughters in tournament-style competitive sports such as soccer rather than dance, or, for less athletic kids, spelling bees and debate. An important part of the experience is learning how to work in groups of highly competitive teammates as well as rivals—teaching females how to “swim with the sharks” because most of their coworkers will also be competitive. We also should make sure every parent and school has the resources to encourage a healthy competitiveness in kids—well before a graduate field, college major or even high school concentration is chosen.

Photo by Flickr user IntelFreePress under license from Creative Commons 2.0





  1. UGH! Yeah. NO. Not the way I want to create the world I want to live in. How about teaching boys that there are things much MORE important than competition!

    • We don’t have to think of competition as beating someone else; we can think of it primarily as always striving to be our very best. I used to play competitive recreational basketball with a philosophy professor, and she shared with me the notion of the positive nature of competition–how we measure ourselves with points and such. It’s always stuck with me and made competition very pleasurable.

    • I was the only girl (and 1st chair) in trombone section in 6th grade. Then, the only girl in physics class in high school, then, the only girl to win a 4-year AFROTC scholarship to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Then, I became one of six women nationwide to get selected from universities to go to military flight training as a pilot or navigator. In my Air Force training class, I was THE only woman of 25 students and in the top 12%. Competitive, HELL YES! Now, we run a family-owned publishing firm that’s published one business book that’s won 3 international book awards [Latinnovating] and created the first bilingual children’s book about why mommies serve in the military [Good Night Captain Mama.] I LOVE to be original, differentiated, unique and BETTER.

      Deny: you can’t “de-emphasize” the competitive spirit, encourage excellence and aim low. That’s NOT a world I want to live it – pretty lame it would be. We MUST inspire our daughters (I have two) to compete as much as we do our sons (I have one.) Great article – sharing widely!

      Graciela Tiscareno-Sato
      Chief Creative Officer, Gracefully Global Group LLC

  2. Ms.Feline says:

    Females’ lack of competitiveness is related to the famous success and likability problem. On observation, females are just as likely to be competitive as males before they were completely through socialization.

  3. I’m very confident & social now, but sometimes I wonder if my social awkwardness as a kid actually helped me not only pick, but genuinely enjoy STEM. I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering and after 7 years in industry I am suddenly teaching myself how to code for a new project (with the highly supportive and encouraging help from my male colleagues!). But growing up I wasn’t told STEM wasn’t cool for girls…I just knew it wasn’t cool *in general.* I was one of the nerds, even though I was usually the only girl. But my social awkwardness guaranteed my not having many friends (and when I did make girlfriends, the only good relationships were with other nerds. The social, “normal” girls were basically “putting up” with me to be nice…even though they weren’t so much). This meant that I wasn’t concerned with being cool because hey, I was already a weird outcast. So I was able to focus on STEM subjects without having to worry about social approval.
    Then I went to college, and found that all my (mostly male) peers were just as nerdy as me. It allowed me to open up socially and have been highly social since (but still a little “weird” lol!). I was also competitive, usually the 2nd or 3rd best grade in a class of 30+ students, so I was the go-to for help in most of my math, engineering, and physics classes. In fact, I was dubbed the “Physics Queen”! lol Yes, it was in a fond way, not at all meant to make fun.

    So I was always highly eager to make sure I had better grades than most of my peers (competition), but I suppose I also just wanted to point out that the need to fit in may also be a big part of what’s holding some girls back.

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