Women In Science: The (Low) Numbers Don’t Lie

on Wednesday, Jun. 1st

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and President of the Thiel Foundation announced the first class of 20 Under 20 fellows last week. Each under-20-year-old receives $100,000 to leave school and pursue their visions in science and technology for the next two years.

But interestingly enough, only two of the 24 fellowship winners are women. Jonathan Cain of the Thiel Foundation said they did not take gender or ethnicity into account when considering applications for the fellowship.

Eden Full, one of the female winners, received a Thiel Fellowship to pursue her research into solar energy. At the age of 19, she is “stopping out” of Princeton University to take this opportunity, but has every intention to return to school after the fellowship. Full is concentrating on how to make solar energy cost-effective. Full thinks it is unreasonable to put a $600 motor on a rotating solar panel if you want it to be widely manufactured. “You need to find a way to rotate the panel without a motor, using sustainable materials,” she said. This is what her SunSaluter technology does. She has already deployed this technology to Kenya. She plans to alter the design and apply for a patent during the fellowship.

Full was tinkering with technology at a young age. “My dad would bring home lots of magazines about different careers, but what spoke to me was building something, robots, space shuttles, cars… Growing up I entered lots of science fairs. I built a lot of my own prototypes. It was junior or senior year of high school that I realized that what I was doing mattered,” said Full.

When she came to San Francisco for the finalist round of interviews for the fellowship, there were five girls out of 40 finalists.

Laura Deming, also a female fellowship winner, feels completely different about the lack of gender diversity.  She is adamant that gender doesn’t matter, and thinks it’s a great sign that there was no affirmative action in the Thiel Fellowship. Deming began doing anti-aging research at the age of 12 at in a lab at UCSF, and matriculated into MIT at the age of 14. At 17, she is dedicated to curing aging.

“Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a biologist. I idolized scientists like Nikola Tesla and Micheal Faraday. But I didn’t know I wanted to focus on curing aging, until one night when I was eight years old. It suddenly hit me that we were all going to die – I and everyone I knew – from a horrible, painful, degenerative disease that nobody could cure. Ever since, I haven’t been able to imagine anything more important, or interesting to work on,” she said.

Female Scientists Weigh In

Alice Popejoy, a Public Policy Fellow from the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) was disappointed, but not surprised by the ratio of men to women in the fellowship pool. She believes that unless the Thiel Foundation makes a concerted effort to reach out to young women, the stereotype will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Research has shown that unless women make up at least half the nominee pool for an award, a selection committee is not likely to give it to a woman – for fear that it would be perceived as an act of affirmative action. So any way you look at it, this is an unfortunate situation for young girls,” she said.

Her research at AWIS suggests that our society is more likely to perceive men as risk-takers, and this competition calls for a risk-taker to leave school. “That’s not to say that the young men who received the Thiel awards are undeserving, and indeed the winners seem highly accomplished. However, I was struck by the two young women awardees, one of whom matriculated at MIT by the age of 14…and it left me wondering if the female candidates had to be just that much more amazing to even be considered for the award,” she said.

Jane Stout, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the unconscious bias against women in science and technology was also not surprised to see only two female names on the list, but think it may be a positive move to pull out of school. The winners of the fellowship commit to leaving school to pursue their projects and plans. “To the degree that many academic STEM settings (high school, college) tend to still showcase bias against women, it might not necessarily be a bad thing to remove burgeoning female scientists and innovators from standard academic settings — especially if traditional academic settings do little to promotes female students’ sense of fit.”

However, the visible disparity of women in the winning pool could discourage other women from applying. “Such a fellowship could be alienating for people who already doubt their place in technology and innovation fields (women and other minorities) – particularly because, as the press release indicates, the fellows’ peers will be primarily men,” said Stout.

But for Deming, none of this matters.  She’s had both female and male role models, including Professor Cynthia Kenyon, one of the world’s top anti-aging scientists. Deming wants gender-less attention. And maybe that’s the new perspective that science has been waiting for.

Full believes, “You’re going to be miserable if you don’t pursue your passion. College can wait, or you might not need it. Be true to yourself.” These two young scientists received $100,000 to make breakthroughs in their field of expertise, so don’t tell them they aren’t breaking down barriers for women in science.

For more information on women in science and technology fields check out these resources:

- Gender Composition of Academic Disciplines: PhDs in 2009

- National Science Foundation: Breakdown of bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and PhD’s in all fields

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