Heather: Having given a lot of thought to encouraging young women to go on in science and math, I've reflected on my own experience in school and read some of the current research on the problem. I've realized that you're exactly right. The fun of science has to be included, which requires excellent teachers. And if you're thinking about science as a profession, it has to be demystified and made available to those who aren't already exposed to it in their families. In the Canadian studies I've looked at, most of the people who choose science as a career have a parent who is a scientist or engineer. In 99% of cases it's the father.
Jan: Does that apply to you as well?
Heather: Yes, my father was an engineer. It was quite an influence. Another thing that comes up in women's studies courses when I talk about women in science, is the influence of an all-girls class. At Queen's there are several women scientists on faculty who were educated in all-girls convents (which by the way, they don't remember with much pleasure). But I wonder now if these all-girls schools made quite a difference to them. I went to a regular school in a small mining town and I was in a very small class. By some demographic quirk there were no boys of academic consequence in that class and so I measured myself against other girls, and I wonder if that has made a difference to me too.
Jan: I have great reservations about all-girls schools because my experience with them in England was not positive. I worry that it's stepping backwards, rather than changing the way science is presented to girls.
Ursula: When I began to teach engineering twenty years ago, my first female students all came from all-girls schools in the separate school system. What makes the difference in these schools is that math is treated like everything else. For example, like music. Some people make a career in music, but nobody is expected to do so. You just teach music to all, be it for enjoyment or a career.
I was so intrigued by my first female engineering students that I made friends with the woman most often mentioned when I asked my students about their schooling. Sister Mary Benedict was often either one of their teachers, or their teacher's teacher. The interesting thing about her was her attitude. She was surprised to hear that other educational institutions would think there was a problem with girls and math. Her attitude was that even though some kids may have a talent for, say, art or French, it is the purpose of the educational institution to encourage a certain level of literacy and fluency in all fields.
Then students can begin to see where their vocation might be. Nobody is excused from French, and nobody is excused from math. The students are expected to do as well as they can, at the same time it is clear that their interests will be different. This is the attitude we need to have in our schools, to say that there is essentially no difference in the inherent abilities of girls and boys but different interests among all students.
Heather: Before we leave you again to your Scholar's peace and quiet, I would like your reaction to something I find rather distressing. Apparently, in the last few years of grade school, students have started to see scientists as evil and socially irresponsible. Engineers are still considered people who wear hard hats and drive trains, and for some reason biology is considered a more socially responsible and acceptable career area. But I'm very disturbed by this perception of science as evil.
Ursula: As a very convinced pacifistic, I've always spoken to my students about the responsibility that scientists carry with their knowledge. If students going to university are suspicious of what's at the end of their studies in science, that's understandable, but one: must openly discuss it. The constructive use of science is a lot more difficult that many of us thought it to be.
Jan Clarke is the Guest Editor of this issue of Women's Education des femmes.