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Friday Roundtable: Closing the gender gap in STEM

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The work of Rosalind FranklinHenrietta Swan Leavitt and Lise Meitner was crucial to some of history's most important scientific breakthroughs: understanding the structure of DNA, determining how to measure stellar distances and articulating the theory behind fission. 

But for many years, their work on those discoveries was overlooked.

Their male counterparts -- Francis Crick and James Watson, Edward Charles Pickering and Edwin Hubble, and Otto Hahn, respectively -- were recognized instead. 

The problem of failing to equally recognize women for their work is pervasive enough that it has its own name: The Matilda effect.  

There are signs that this is beginning to improve, but there is still a long way to go. After all, this is only one of many barriers facing women in science. 

Despite a growing number of women earning degrees in science and engineering, women continue to be , are paid less than their male peers and are less likely to receive a glowing letter of recommendation in certain fields and less likely to be asked to review an article for a scientific journal.

The hurdles are even higher for women of color in scientific fields.

"Girls and women get messages that they aren't expected to be as good as men and boys at science and math," said University of Wisconsin River Falls physics professor Rellen Hardtke. She spoke on this week's Friday Roundtable, which featured a panel of three female scientists.

Men are more likely to overestimate their abilities in disciplines like math, and there's a growing pool of research that shows they are more likely to stay in the field. 

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to switch tracks when they begin to get B's in school. 

That was true for another roundtable guest, Fivethirtyeight science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker. Koerth-Baker told MPR News host Kerri Miller she started college with the intention of later going to medical school, but decided she wasn't cut out for the sciences when she started getting B's in math. "I considered that my bad subject," she said.  

University of Minnesota chemistry professorErin Carlson, put it this way: "You can kind of  think of your ability to withstand that kind of input as our armor, and eventually there's enough chinks in it that you just break and think internally that those messages are true."

Last year Carlson was recognized by President Barack Obama as a recipient of a PECASE award, but she was bombarded with negative messages while applying for jobs. "I cannot count the number of times someone said 'Oh, wow! You have a lot of interviews; it must be because you're a woman.' I was just so insulted." 

"It's important to note that implicit bias happens in the context of a really, really competitive field," Maggie Koerth-Baker said. 

Hardtke said one of the best ways to close the gender gap is to talk about it. "It's really important to have discussions like this because a lot of people aren't aware of this research," she said. "so whenever I mention it you can see light bulbs go on and the young women in the room start nodding their heads." 

She said seniors who take her course on gender issues and science,often tell her they wish someone had told them about these problems when they started college. 

Listen to the full conversation at the audio link above.