Where are the girls?

Looking around the sixth period AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism class, something is missing. It’s not equations — the two whiteboards at the front of the room are scrawled full of Es and dqs. It’s not the students — all 17 of them are hunched over their desks, working to solve said equations. And it’s not the teacher — Antonio Nassar is walking between the rows of students, directing and helping them.

No — it’s girls.

Girls are conspicuously absent, outnumbered 14 to three. It’s a disparity not endemic to the single section of E&M: only one-fifth of students enrolled this year in the four highest science classes are female.

In those  classes, girls represent six of the 37 enrolled in AP Physics C: Mechanics, six of 23 in AP Chemistry and four of 19 in Studies in Scientific Research. The apparent underrepresentation of girls is not unusual, or part of any recent downward trend, dean Sharon Cuseo said.

“These numbers are fairly typical,” Cuseo said. “The numbers of girls in these classes wax and wane, but there definitely isn’t a decreasing trend.”

The second-highest tier science classes come far closer to equilibrium. AP Biology and AP Physics B split close to 50-50 any given year, with biology slightly more female and physics slightly more male.

It’s a situation that Nassar, who also teaches AP Physics B and SSR, sees as analogous to UCLA’s enrollment in its physics and astrophysics majors, he said. Would-be astrophysicists are required to take the same core classes during their first two years of study as the physics majors, and yet women account for a full half of the astrophysics group and only 20 percent of the more general concentration.

“In Physics B, there is not a huge discrepancy, but then you go into Physics C and it is a huge discrepancy,” Nassar said. “It’s puzzling: Is it perception? It’s always a puzzle, because of course you see that girls are as capable.”

Cuseo likewise believes in the equal abilities of the male and female student bodies.

“I believe a possible explanation is the allure of particular vocations, not ability,” Cuseo said.  “Female students who qualify for AP Physics C might choose to take AP Physics B instead because it is seen as more appropriate preparation for students on the pre-med or life sciences path as opposed to AP Physics C, which is geared more toward pre-engineers.”

Nassar believes one solution to the puzzle is a serious overhaul of higher-level science curriculums, an answer he acknowledges brings its own set of problems.

“I think cosmetic changes will never change this. We have to have changes at the core, at the curriculum level,” Nassar said. “But college dictates what we teach, whether you like it or not. In my view there has to be a national outcry.”

If the underrepresentation of girls in advanced science is viewed as an issue, then the country has yet another education-related problem to worry about. Walking into an AP Physics C class in New York or Illinois would likely offer a similar female deficiency: nationally, girls take 54 percent of all AP tests, but only 32 percent of AP Physics C students are female, while AP Chemistry is almost balanced, according a study done by the American Institute of Physics and the 2011 AP Report to the Nation.

In fact, science teacher John Feulner is firmly of the conviction that there is no additional science gender imbalance issue at Harvard-Westlake, beyond the problems that affect the nation as a whole.

“Do I think we have a problem at this school? No, not in the slightest,” Feulner said. “I have never heard, and I certainly hope I never hear, a young women feel that she was discouraged from going into these fields.”

Gender imbalance was a top concern in years past. In the years immediately after the merger of Harvard and Westlake, the school carefully tracked female enrollment in all AP sciences, Feulner said.

“We compared our numbers to the national averages over a period of three or four years, and I would say at that time we had either greater numbers of females or about the average,” Feulner said.

Twenty years later, though, the school no longer pushes to gender balance any of the courses it offers, instead encouraging students to take what interests them, regardless of their gender.

Science department head Larry Axelrod believes that the academic environment of Harvard-Westlake adds another layer of complexity to the gender imbalance debate.

“From the standpoint of sheer ability, I see no reason why women at Harvard-Westlake are underrepresented in these courses.  I just don’t see a gender difference in terms of intellectual capability,” Axelrod said. “And if it’s not an issue of ability, then what is it?  We have a unique group of female students enrolled at Harvard-Westlake, when compared to the larger U.S. high school population.  It might be too simplistic to just assume that all the traditional explanations which are given to explain low female enrollment would necessarily apply to our students.”

Chelsea Pan ’14 is under the overqualified-but-unenrolled umbrella. In spite of a junior year class load that included AP Chemistry and AP Calculus BC, Pan opted for AP Physics B this year over Mechanics, largely because of interests that include a potential career in medicine.

“I chose Physics B because it covers more, whereas C is only mechanics but just more in depth,” Pan said. “I chose B just mostly because it’s more breadth, and also because I’m not interested in engineering.”

School-specific problem or not, skewed ratios are a reality that’s noticeable to many students.

Divya Siddarth ’14 only began to notice the thinning ranks of her female classmates at the Upper School. Now one of the few girls in her Mechanics, E&M and SSR classes, Siddarth finds her academic environment more head-scratching than anything else.

“I’ve never felt like I’m in a hostile environment due to any reason really at our school, but it’s still kind of odd to be in such an odd representation of people because it’s not something you’re used to,” Siddarth said. “I think it’s strange.”

Like Siddarth, Megha Srivastava ’14 has been one of the few girls in a number of her classes during her time at the Upper School, and is currently one of the three girls in the E&M class.

Although Srivastava has felt peer-pressured into thinking math and science classes were “not girly enough,” she attributes these sentiments as coming more from girls than from boys. Most boys she’s encountered in classes don’t seem to think girls should not pursue math and science, she said.

On a broader level, Srivastava sees this as a prevalent problem, especially in how the media presents women in science.

“Whenever a magazine profiles Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the author just talks about how smart and innovative they are,” she said. “But when a magazine profiles Marissa Mayer, the computer scientist and CEO of Yahoo, the author always mentions ‘brains and beauty’ and the clothes she wears, as if being smart isn’t enough and unlike boys, who can just be smart, girls need to be smart and look good in order to be celebrated. And with so much emphasis on appearances, I think it is easy for girls to gravitate to fields where there are many more celebrated females to emulate.”

That explanation may extend, on a smaller scale, to Harvard-Westlake as well — of the AP Physics Cs, AP Chemistry and SSR, AP Chemistry has the sole female teacher in Krista McClain.

Having a female teacher may pull more girls to a given class. In the UCLA astrophysics example, the major includes classes taught by Andrea Ghez (Evan LaTourette-Ghez ’19), a preeminent astronomer.

Whatever the nature of the imbalance at Harvard-Westlake, and whatever its cause, Siddarth believes the fields of science and math would be made better by its corrective adjustment.

“It’s never been a problem to me personally, but I think it’s a huge loss to the field,” Siddarth said.
It’s a sentiment Nassar echoes.

“We need women in science, and there are just so few,” Nassar said. “I am hopeful that because we’ve had so many changes, maybe it’s time for this change as well.”

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