First U.S. Spacewoman: Female Role Models Needed

October 23, 1985 3 min read

Washington--One way to interest girls in science studies, says the astronaut Sally K. Ride, is to introduce them to women scientists.

And Ms. Ride, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University, should know, since she herself served as a role model for young women as the nation’s first woman in space.

“It’s very important for girls in high school to be able to look out in the real world and see women scientists,” Ms. Ride said in an interview that occurred during this month’s National Forum for School Science, which was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ms. Ride is a member of the forum’s advisory board.

Opportunities for women to study science have increased over the past two decades, Ms. Ride said, but their participation rate is still a problem.

“Girls and young women aren’t going into science in the numbers women scientists think they should,” she said.

But Ms. Ride cited several programs that are not only drawing young women into scientific careers but also alerting teachers to the subtle prejudices that still face a young woman who wants to study science.

Workshops for Students

One such effort--the Expanding Your Horizons program, developed by the Math/Science Resource Center in Oakland, Calif.--brings junior and senior high-school students, parents, and teachers together with women scientists at weekend workshops on college campuses.

The program is aimed not at high-achievers in mathematics and the sciences, but rather at “the ones who are on the brink of dropping out of math and science altogether,” according to Jan MacDon-ald, director of the resource center. Student participants in the one-day program attend “hands-on” science workshops and career sessions run by women who use science and math in their professions.

Expanding Your Horizons workshops have reached 90,000 students, 15,000 parents and teachers, and 15,000 women scientists nationwide since the project’s inception in 1976, Ms. MacDonald said.

Program for Teachers

The equals program, developed by staff members of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, works directly with K-12 teachers to help them learn strategies for teaching mathematics to girls and young women, according to Nancy Kreinberg, the program’s director.

Follow-up studies with teachers who have taken the equals workshop show that their female students “tend to enroll in math courses, have a better attitude toward math and math-related professions, and have more skills in problem-solving,” said Ms. Kreinberg.

Since 1977, 10,000 California teachers have gone through the equals course and another 6,000 teachers nationwide have partici-pated in equals programs.

Ms. Ride attributes her own development of an early interest in science to strong support from her parents and the fact that she attended an all-girls’ high school.

Her parents never made her feel that she was “unusual” for wanting to study science, she said. And at her high school, she recalled, she experienced neither peer-group pressure to drop her science studies nor competition from male science students.

“In high school, I had women scientists encouraging me to go into science,” said the astronaut.

Partly because of her own experiences, Ms. Ride said, she believes parents and teachers have the most power to reverse the inequities in science and mathematics training.

But the primary problems girls and young women face in these fields are “cultural” rather than pedagogical, she said.

“One of the main problems girls face is the fact that nearly every place they turn they are still confronted with sexual stereotypes,” she said. In most advertisements, scientists, doctors, computer programmers, and computer hackers are all depicted as male, she noted.

Parents can “unconsciously” perpetuate these stereotypes by, for example, purchasing telescopes and computers for their sons and not their daughters, she added.

“Girls are smart,” said Ms. Ride. “They pick up on these things.” Peer-group attitudes that science is “unfeminine” combine with cultural symbols, she said, to “subtly convey the impression to girls that science is not for them.”

A reversal of such cultural pressures “won’t happen unless we actively work to make it happen,” Ms. Ride said. The position of women in science may have “changed dramatically,” she said, “but not as dramatically as it needs to."--sh

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1985 edition of Education Week as First U.S. Spacewoman: Female Role Models Needed