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Ada Lovelace Day: 7 Facts about Girls and Women in STEM That Need to Change


Ada Lovelace
Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840

Today is the day to thank Ada Lovelace for the device you’re using right now to read this. Born Augusta Ada Gordon in 1815, she is recognized as the “first computer programmer.” In the early 1840s, Lovelace translated and expanded on an Italian article describing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her elaborate notes included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, largely recognized as the first computer code. Lovelace’s notes helped inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers one hundred years later.

While Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements and contributions of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), science is still regarded as a boys’ club. Why is this? Even now in the twenty-first century, there should be more women in high ranking positions in the hard sciences. Novelist, essayist, and short story writer Eileen Pollack, who was one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science in physics from Yale in 1978, takes a long hard look at this question in her new book The Only Woman in the Room.

Had it not been for the isolation and the lack of encouragement she encountered while studying science and math throughout high school and college, Pollack believes she would have pursued her ambition to become a theoretical physicist. She took the hardest classes on the most accelerated track to prove her academic worth to her peers but was constantly confronted with the loneliness and pressure of being the only woman in her classes and labs. Meanwhile, toward the end of her undergrad career, she started exploring creative writing, which offered her the support and encouragement she wasn’t getting from the science department. Though her physics degree and the string of successes and awards she earned attested to her talent and hard work, she, like many other women, eventually turned away from science toward a career in the humanities. Today she is a professor on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.

Part memoir and part case study, The Only Woman in the Room compiles her personal experiences with those of young women today, and explores the most recent findings about why women often choose not to pursue careers in math and science. In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, we’re sharing seven facts that show the struggles and the changes women have seen on the road to a career in STEMs.

Fact 1: In the 1970s, Eileen Pollack was one of the first women to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at Yale. Overall, the percent of physics degrees awarded to women is about twenty percent. The percentage of women awarded Bachelor’s degrees in all STEM fields is about thirty-five.

Fact 2: Only one-fifth of all physics PhDs in this country are awarded to women.

Fact 3: Only about fourteen percent of all physics professors in the United States are female.

Fact 4: A 2012 study demonstrated that scientists at every level—old or young, female or male, in physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering—still view men as more hirable, more competent, more worthy of mentoring, and worthier of higher salaries than women with exactly the same qualifications, while women were viewed as more likeable overall.

Fact 5: In another study from 2012, the American Institute of Physics published a survey of 15,000 male and female physicists across 130 countries. In almost all cultures, the female scientists experienced discrimination in the allotment of funding, lab space, office support, and grants for equipment and travel, even after the researchers had controlled for differences other than gender.

Fact 6: At the advanced placement level in high school, only forty-one percent of the seats in Physics B and less than a third in Physics C are occupied by girls; only half the girls who take the Physics B course take the AP exam (as compared to sixty-five percent of the boys). Only half the girls who take the Physics B exam receive a passing score (compared to sixty-two percent of boys.) Sixty-one percent of the girls who finish Physics C take the test (compared to seventy-eight percent of the boys); only sixty percent pass the Physics C exam (compared to seventy-two percent of the boys).

Fact 7: In a 1999 study, a sample of University of Michigan undergraduates with equally strong backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups. In the first, the students were told men perform better on math tests than women; in the second the students were assured that despite what they might have heard, there was no difference between male and female performance. Both groups were given a math test. In the first the men outscored the women by twenty points; in the second, the men scored only two points higher.