Where are all the Women? Local Researcher Addresses STEM Statistics

Roxanne Hughes, Ph.D.
Posted at 5:01 PM, Mar 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-16 07:24:45-04

Tallahassee, Fla. (WTXL) - "What do you picture, when you think about a scientist?" Roxanne Hughes asks, standing beside the poster of "Rosie the Riveter" that hangs proudly in her office. She is the diversity programs director at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, at the Center for Integrating Research and Learning.  

"For most people, it's Albert Einstein... But in general, you picture science as mainly male, mainly middle class and mainly white." Hughes says.

 In many ways, Hughes explains, it is the way that we think about scientists, that shapes the way the field looks demographically. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2011 women only made up twenty six percent of the workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (commonly known as STEM). 

 Hughes studies STEM identity, she looks at the factors that make people believe that they are able to "fit in" to those career paths. If society impresses on women the idea that scientists are men, or mathematics are masculine, by the time a young girl reaches high school she may not enroll in the right classes to put herself on the path to success in a STEM field. 

 Hughes has a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from FSU. She was motivated toward that doctorate program by her experience as a high school teacher. 

 "What I saw in the classroom was a differentiation by gender. Even at the age of sixteen, the young women in those classes, even if they were the top performer in the class didn't see themselves as a scientist, or didn't see themselves at being good at chemistry when they were getting 100's on all of the tests." Hughes recounts. 

 Sixteen isn't the youngest age for girls to doubt that they fit the STEM mold. "There is a type of research called "Draw a Scientist" that they give to elementary school kids and they typically draw white haired men or crazy scientists blowing things up."

 She says media representation is at the heart of those early perceptions. While Hughes admits that in recent years, television and films are peppered with strong female scientists, technology gurus and engineers, they're often riddled with quirks. While there's nothing wrong with NCIS' Doc Martin clad Abbey Sciuto, or Criminal Minds' Penelope Garcia, women in STEM can hardly be boiled down to such socially singular personality types.

  "The more we can expose young people to the different types of people in science, the more they can see, 'Oh! That could be a cool career for me. I get to be creative, I get to think outside the box.'" Hughes explains. Not all Scientists are nerds. Or men. Or white. What a scientist can be is a much broader idea. 

 To expand the way Tallahassee's youth think about STEM professionals, WFSU has partnered with the "Mag Lab" to found a two week summer camp. 

 Powered by community partnerships, "SciGirls" introduces middle school girls to role models from the FSU marine lab and FAMU school of pharmacy, as well as local engineers and researchers. 

 The camp has been connecting girls from 5th through 8th grade to professionals in stem fields for twelve years. The goal is to empower them to see past their first impression of who or what a scientist might be.

 "We focus specifically on those grades because that's when you really start to see differences, when women really start to lose interest in STEM fields. They might see it as too masculine, or unwelcoming place for them. If you decide you're not good at science as early as middle school, you're not going to take the right classes in high school, and then you're a step behind. You need those classes." Hughes explains. 
Applications for SciGirls are available online, and can be submitted until April 8th.