New female NASA leader defies gender gap in field, inspires women

Elisabeth Siegel

In 1898, Marie Curie discovered two new radioactive elements: radium and polonium— elements that contributed to finding treatments for cancer. In 1957, Jane Goodall traveled to Africa and began her renowned work with chimpanzees and animal rights activism. In 1992 Mae C. Jemison became the first black woman in space. And in 2022, Laurie Leshin will be the first female director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the country’s most distinguished research and development labs.

Despite the feats of many famous female scientists, women make up only 27 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers, according to the United States Census Bureau. This gap has started the conversation on its root causes and how it affects female students and the science industry as a whole. Some attribute this void to natural inclination for women to choose different career paths than men, yet others attribute it to systemic issues.

“I think historically women were discouraged from participating in STEM fields, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” senior and potential engineering major Camille Greening said. “That being said, the AP and honors science classes that I’ve taken at ESD have all been boy-heavy. I think the gender gap used to be a greater problem than it is now, though.”

While there are disproportionately more men in STEM in general, women are leading some branches yet lagging behind in others. They only represent a quarter of the jobs in mathematical sciences and are 13 percent of engineers, yet they dominate subjects like statistics, botany and healthcare, according to Fast Company.

One of the biggest issues in science as a whole right now is the lack of female representation and the lack of people who would be minorities in whatever respective communities.

Matthew Varvir

“I think a lot of it comes down to what type of STEM you’re talking about because STEM is very broad,” upper school science teacher Matthew Varvir said. “For instance, in physics, it is overwhelmingly male from the college standpoint, I think to its detriment… There are actually more women than men getting undergraduate biology degrees. Physics and computer science are very mathematical sciences, psychology and biology less mathematical, and you definitely see a separation.”

Some attribute the disparities in fields that men and women go into based on differences of innate capabilities between gender, while others attribute it to stereotypes and bias in education.

“I think there’s unquestionably a lot of biases at play,” Varvir said. “Possibly people who are male students are more likely to be encouraged to continue going, whereas female students are not. There are also possibilities of, to a degree, what is the goal of that particular student? What does that student think they are capable of? And what does the institution make them think they’re capable of, for instance, is a female student stopping because she does not think she’ll be successful [or] because the institution has, maybe not even on purpose, made them think they will not be successful? Because there’s probably a lack of professors who are women and things like that, that’s gonna basically disturb them as well.”

In 2015, only seven percent of female 15-year-old students were expected to pursue a career in STEM compared to 26 percent of male 15-year-old students, according to Some point this contrast to unhealthy class environments and unfair treatment toward female students. When Varvir was studying physics at University of Texas at Dallas graduate school in 2014, he was part of a class of around 20-30 masters and doctoral students, and about two of them were women.

“It’s kind of hard to notice discrepancies when there is no one to basically have a discrepancy happen,” Varvir said. “A lot of societal [stereotypes] are built in that [women] have a hard time getting past, and so being aware of that and trying to strike early [is important.] By early I mean at a young age, like lower school.”

According to an March 29 poll of 109 female students, 42 percent have felt overshadowed by other men in a STEM class.

“I think sometimes boys can be louder in science and math classes than girls, which can make girls quieter,” Greening said. “Overall, I don’t think there is a major issue at ESD, at least.”

While the differences between genders in classes can be unequal, some believe that the competitiveness in these higher-level classes isn’t gender-based. Senior and potential STEM major Gabe Kozielec, for example, has noticed this in his STEM classes.

“I think that for computer science and the other classes that we’re taking, people are judged on their merit and how good they are with computer science,” Kozielec said. “So I don’t think that [gender] is really the issue. I think that a little bit of healthy competition isn’t bad, but I think just having students work together more and trying to cooperate could create a healthy class environment.”

Some teachers try not to have lab groups with the majority being male and only one student being female, for example, in order to curtail that student getting overpowered or ruled out. Varvir tries to set up his class this way so that everyone is being heard appropriately and that everyone’s doing their job.

“Being just knowledgeable about research, regarding it, and being very open to changing practices if research indicates that certain things need to happen is a big factor,” Varvir said. “These conversations were not as prominent [when I was a teenager] as they are now, and I’m a younger teacher.”

But today, more women than ever before are going after their STEM passions. More and more women, like Leshin for example, are becoming leaders of their disciplines and have hope to change the future of the workforce.

“One of the biggest issues in science as a whole right now is the lack of female representation and the lack of representation of people who would be minorities in whatever respective communities,” Varvir said. “So for instance, in the United States, people of color would be the minority. And I think that we’re missing perspectives by not having that there. And we have made progress because historically, this would have been even worse, but it has barely taken the first steps.”

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