Nature vs Nurture: Women & STEM

I studied chemistry at Furman University. As you can imagine, I got to know a bunch of talented people, both men and women who were much smarter than I was. It was while I was there that I first began hearing about initiatives to encourage more women to enter fields related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Sounded like a good plan to me, especially considering that only one of my tenured chemistry professors was female.

But then I had a bigger question: Is there really a need to encourage more women to pursue STEM? And if so, why haven't more women done so?

Was it an issue of nurture, where our culture and environment discourages, or at least fails to encourage, young women to pursue math and science? Or was it mere nature, where the male and female brains are, in general, hard-wired differently? Or was it a mix of nature and nurture?

image courtesy of vierdrie via
In our culture and history, I would agree that men have had better opportunities to pursue careers in STEM, whether in government, industry, or education. And without sufficient role models, it is difficult for the next generation of girls to pursue those endeavors. I am thankful for people who are trailblazers, those who are willing to forge ahead not for their own gain, but to make a well-worn path for others to follow.

If we "stack the deck" solely in favor of boys pursuing science, we may miss out on some great talent and contributions. This could be seen in the balance of employment and promotions along gender lines, as well as how topics are presented. As shown in one study in Europe, the context of the topic studied helps determine the level of interest for girls and boys. That is, when discussing the science of cosmetics, girls tend to be more interested; boys are more interested in rockets. Just a stereotype? Maybe, but interesting nonetheless.

Could it be true that a big factor is that men and women are made differently? As a biochemistry major, I was fascinated to learn about how our body is programmed to produce all kinds of chemicals from the DNA in each cell. And even more amazing is that the males and females only differ by only 1 chromosome (a specific structure containing DNA).

Source: Access Excellence
See the image to the left? That is the image of the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a human male. A human female has two X chromosomes, instead of an X and Y. But that slight difference means a lot in terms of anatomy and hormones. In particular, the two most common gender-associated hormones are testosterone and estrogen. Both males and females have both of these, but men have much more of the former and females more of the latter. It was long-doubted, but recent evidence shows that these hormones have a significant effect on brain function.

So, since gender (determined by the 23rd chromosome) affects hormone activity, and since hormone activity affects the brain, it would seem logical that gender can play a role in how are brains are hard-wired towards specific talents and strengths.

Even when I was in college I wondered, "What if boys and girls were, in general, better at different topics? What if boys were naturally better at topics like math and science?" Of course, I usually kept my mouth shut, especially considering how many female classmates and friends I had.

Nature + Nurture (With Caution)
It is evident that both nature and nurture affect the opportunities for success in STEM-related fields, or any other, for that matter. We need to make sure we allow for and encourage success in any field, whether it's girls pursuing science, or boys pursuing the arts.

However, I am worried about how strong this "encouragement" can often be, and maybe unnecessary. I saw data in a chemistry journal years ago that showed that there are more women than men who are graduating with chemistry degrees. But even more, are we (as parents, educators, and culture) pushing young women into a field that they might not be best wired up for?

I saw this a lot of Furman, a school full of passionate and stressed-out overachievers, where it is more common to study on a Saturday than to attend a home football game. I saw students (especially female science majors) bear this weight of feeling like they had to succeed in their majors, for the sake of what was expected of them.

Joanna, valedictorian of her high school class, started out school as an engineering major (like just about everyone else from Clemson), but switched during her first year. While she could have done well as an engineer, she realized that was not the core of who she was, and she knew that the sacrifices it would require would not be worth it in the long-run.

What do you think? Is this an issue of nature versus nurture? Do we need to do more or less to encourage girls to pursue STEM-related fields?

*** PS -- If you haven't done it, please take the poll, as I described here.

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  1. As a female engineer, I'll put in my 2 cents. I was never really encouraged one way or the other, but my brain just functions as an engineer. My guess is that the Y chromosome (or lack thereof) affects the percentage of girls and boys that process knowledge a certain way, but more specifically some people (girls and boys) are fact people and some people (girls and boys) are problem solvers. And as you well know, even scientists and engineers are VERY different. Interests of boys and girls run a complete spectrum for both. My parents encouraged me to try a lot and through that I just sort of figured out how I was wired and what I like. Should girls be encouraged to try science and math? Absolutely. Forced to continue when they've figured out they hate it? Yes, but only through graduation.

  2. Totally agree that personality traits can run a spectrum across each gender, regarding fact-loving, creativity, problem-solving, etc. The same would be for physical attributes, such as height, weight, immunity, etc. The question is where we actually fall along that spectrum, and what is that due to. Not sure there's an easy answer to that one.

    I am guessing that your last sentence was written with a smirk.