Breaking Down the Scientific "Boys' Club" Gender Barriers

Aug 25, 2017

Tallahassee’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory will again offer its popular “Science Café” series this fall. The first café takes place Tuesday (9/29) evening in the Backwoods Bistro on East Tennessee Street.


The Mag Lab’s Science Café’s are a VERY informal mix of easy-to-understand science talks and adult beverages. The topics vary and for this season’s first outing, the Lab’s STEM Identity Researcher Roxanne Hughes will take the floor. Her talk is entitled: “No Girls Allowed: Breaking Down the Barriers That Keep Women out of Science.”

“Some of the current research as well as my own that involves breaking down the barriers that continue to prevent women from either entering the science, technology, engineering and math fields, or staying in those fields.”

And Hughes said the obstacles can start going up surprisingly early in life. She cited studies in which little kids are shown pictures of boys and girls.

“They actually will identify boys as smart, but not girls when shown pictures, they’ll actually be able to articulate that and it starts as early as (age) four,” she recounted. “We used to think it started when they got to school, but now we’re seeing these socialization aspects starting as early as four years old.”

Hughes said there are ways to change girls’ self-image as being not-as-smart-as-boys.

“So one of the ways we can improve it is to improve interests and preparations starting as early as elementary and middle school.”

One result of this, Hughes said, is that fields involving science, technology, engineering and math remain heavily dominated by males. Although she notes the gender gap varies by discipline.

“Biology has a much better representation of women among their students and we’re beginning to see it at the faculty level as well and in the workforce. There are other fields that are significantly behind in terms of representation, like engineering, computer science and physics.”

For whatever reasons, Hughes said some fields are just more resistant to welcoming “non-traditional” practitioners, such as women and other minorities. So overcoming that resistance is another aspect of expanding diversity.

“Making sure we’re changing that climate so it is friendlier for women and other marginalized groups in STEM and learning what that looks like and how to do that.”

The whole idea, said Hughes, is simply creating more opportunities for everyone.

“It’s not a bad thing for girls to see men in STEM and it’s not bad for boys to see men and women as well. It’s just the potential of here’s what is a diverse field and here’s what it looks like and anybody who wants to put in the work can be successful in these fields.”

Hughes will have a lot more to say about all this during her Science Café talk next Tuesday evening at the Backwoods Bistro. There’s no charge for admission. It starts at 6:15 p.m. and ends at 7:30.