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Gender and science: the push to diversify the ever-changing field
The gender gap in rigorous science programs at RV is reflective of larger trends in gender distributions among the sciences
March 6, 2023
A main aspect of the numerous diversity initiatives RV implemented is the prevention of gender inequalities within the classroom. Upper-level science classes, including AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Biology, AP Environmental and Honors Anatomy & Physiology, appear to be the most gender-segregated Honors-level classes at Rancocas Valley.
It is no secret there is a gap between genders in these classes. The gender makeup of AP Biology in the fall 2022 semester was 24 females to eight males. As for AP Environmental Science and AP Chemistry, the gap is not as drastic, with there being four males and seven females, and seven males and 10 females, respectively. However, like AP Biology, Honors Anatomy & Physiology has far more females than males.
AP Biology teacher Ms. Clymer-Smith notes that this is a common trend each year in these upper level science classes, especially in the AP Biology and Anatomy classes. When asked why this could be, she suggested Biology and Environmental may be viewed as “softer sciences.” For male students, they may be choosing an AP Physics class over an AP Biology or Environmental class because it is perceived as more rigorous, and therefore more favorable to a college they are applying to. Ms. Smith also revealed it is rare for her Biology students to plan to focus their careers in research. Instead, most of her students want to go into health sciences such as nursing or medical school.
On the other hand, each year, AP Physics is a predominantly male class; this year it is made up of 16 males and only four females. While AP Calculus BC is a math class and not science, it is important to note there are 11 males in that class and only five females. In this year’s senior class for Project Lead the Way, the engineering program at RV, there are only two females in the program and roughly 20 males.
Senior Kiersten Ebersole, one of the four girls in AP Physics and one of two in PLTW, explained why she wanted to enroll in these classes.
“Having realized during the seventh grade that I wanted to go into an engineering—or some kind of a STEM—field, I knew that going into high school I wanted to focus my course load around that,” she said.
She also noted that her enrollment was shaped by her career aspirations.
“I want to go into mechanical engineering, and with my mechanical engineering degree, I hope to either go into aerospace or automotive engineering,” she said. “I love cars, so I think that would be so awesome to do someday where I could design cars.”
Ebersole explained that engineering is a way for her to combine her love for art and design with her passion for mathematics and science. As one of the only females in her classroom, Ebersole reveals at times there have been situations where she has felt unheard.
My physics teacher actually said one time that he purposefully ignores the girls in the class when they answer questions because he wants us to speak up more.”
— senior Kiersten Ebersole
“My physics teacher actually said one time that he purposefully ignores the girls in the class when they answer questions because he wants us to speak up more. He read some kind of article [that said that] girls don’t talk enough in the class; they don’t have enough confidence so they don’t speak up enough as they should, so they don’t always give answers to questions that they know,” she said. “I’m trying to decide whether it’s helpful or not at the moment, because it kind of dilutes my confidence a little bit. After I say the answer and he doesn’t say anything, I just don’t say anything else. And being ignored over and over again makes me want to talk less in class.”
Rancocas Valley’s gender gap in these science classes follows a common trend we see today in America. Just over 13% of nurses are male. Women make up 70% of physical therapists. At RV, a majority of aspiring health majors are also female, therefore AP Biology and Honors Anatomy & Physiology are going to consist mainly of females. On the other hand, under 16% of engineers are women. This is the likely the same reason that at RV Project Lead the Way and AP Physics are predominantly male.
There has been a push to increase the number of women going into engineering, as well as other S.T.E.M. majors at RV. This year, Ebersole became the founder of RV’s Women in Stem Club.
“I started the club to promote more girls in STEM fields and learning about STEM,” she said. “In the club, we talk a lot about science, technology, engineering, and math. We just went on a Lockheed Martin field trip to encourage women in engineering and create connections between women actually in the field at the moment and show girls what it’s like to be an engineer.”
Ebersole believes that it is important to increase the number of women working in a STEM field to allow for diverse perspectives that lead to new ideas for innovation. By creating the Women in STEM club she is hoping to inspire more girls at RV to go into these fields. However, even with the formation of groups like Future Medical Professionals of America at RV, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a push to get male students to enroll in “softer science” courses like AP Biology.