Ali Bramson has always been interested in science.
At age four, she decided she wanted be an astronaut to learn about the universe. When she was in elementary school, she thought girls were better at math and boys were better at art and music.
In middle school, teachers commended her on her enthusiasm for science and how great it was for a girl to have such interest.
“Follow your dreams,” a teacher once told her.
Still, when Bramson got older and started to understand her surroundings, she started to become suspicious of these comments and questioned whether girls were supposed to be “science dorks.”
Bramson, now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, said although there is only a handful of females in her physics classes, she never questions her ability to excel in comparison to her male peers.
But despite her confidence, Bramson admits some people may think otherwise.
“I’ve been laughed at to my face,” Bramson said. “I’ve been told women in physics are ugly; I’ve been told I will never find a husband — all by a university faculty member — because I was a physics major.”
Thirty-six years after the passage of Title IX — an act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender in all federally funded education programs and activities — progress has been made in some areas but remains an issue in others.
While Title IX is normally associated with an increase in female sports in high schools and universities, it also applies to the academic world.
Women earn 20 to 25 percent of physics, computer sciences, and “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees nationwide.
Title IX has been proven successful in equalizing opportunities in athletics, but researchers are now attempting to explain the difference between the amount of men and women in STEM fields and whether this proves to be a factor for young women choosing to enter the workforce in STEM careers today.
Society Tells Us So
Before the passage of Title IX, some educators accepted the stereotype that girls would not succeed in STEM subjects and in turn should not pursue STEM careers.
But after Title IX, substantial progress has been made.
In 2000, 65 percent of girls and 58 percent of boys took chemistry in high school. Girls now make up 48 percent of those taking the Advanced Placement test in calculus, 47 percent of those taking the chemistry test and 58 percent of those taking the biology test.
UW psychology professor Janet Hyde led a study released this summer that found math scores through high school similar for boys and girls.
Despite the progress, only 20 percent of engineering and physical science degrees nationwide are earned by women.
Michael Apple, a veteran elementary school teacher who is now a professor of curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies at UW, said history causes society to believe in this division.
Apple said the education field was originally dominated by men but changed to a predominately female-driven field in the 1930s despite women earning significantly less than their male counterparts.
Men left the education field when they realized pursuing other fields, such as law and medicine, was an option, Apple said.
Since then, salaries have equalized in school districts across the country.
But with the paid labor market still favoring men in many fields, Apple said women are more likely to steer toward jobs that are guaranteed — education being one of them –rather than the STEM professions.
“In a declining economic situation, [women] know they have jobs that treat them with respect and is a fulfilling occupation,” Apple said.
While some of these differences could result from personal choices, the culture of STEM fields and the inequity in the labor market creates circumstances excluding girls and dissuading them from pursing these careers.
The Advantage and Disadvantage
Though career norms are shifting, women are still less likely to be scientists, and men are still less likely to teach kindergarten.
But in their nontraditional roles, debate exists over whether gendered minorities have an advantage or disadvantage within these disciplines.
UW junior Jane Kaczmarek, UW Physical Society vice president, said there are some perks to being a minority, adding it is easier for professors to get to know you because you are one of only few girls in any given class.
Although she wishes gender did not matter when it comes to graduate school admission, she knows it will and hopes to reap the benefits when she applies.
“They need girls in graduate schools,” Kaczmarek said. “The fact that I don’t have a 3.7 or a 3.8, but I am a girl, still might help me be considered.”
Kelly Gerfchke, a fifth-year senior and president of the Society of Women Engineers, said being a woman brings a different set of skills when applying for jobs.
But conversely, there are clear disadvantages.
Molly Carnes, a UW medicine and engineering professor, said when she graduated from medical school in 1978, the director of surgery rotation told her she was taking a job away from a man.
Things have changed over the last 30 years, Carnes said, as entry-level positions for women in science are fairly equal. But promotions get harder as women attempt to move toward top leadership positions, often having to prove themselves against traditional stereotypes.
UW medical student Lindsay Griffin said she hopes Title IX targets a wide variety of these upper-level positions, adding, “Women have done too much for too long to have so little lab space, so few tenure appointments and less publications.”
Griffin said even after Title IX, less associate and full-time professors are women in STEM specialties.
The Future of Title IX
The future of Title IX is still unknown, and whether it will bring disparity in educational choices and careers paths is yet to be seen.
Carnes said Title IX was critical for opening doors for women and should be applicable to all educational endeavors receiving public funding.
Apple hopes Title IX will continue to encourage crossover in fields dominated by one gender, hoping it will eventually open doors for all gender minorities and create more diverse disciplines.
Although no academic institutions are required to enforce gender quotas, some are skeptical if Title IX is just about numbers.
Even Kaczmarek, who sees her gender advantage in science, said there are so few people interested in physics and astronomy, it may actually hurt the discipline if talented males are taken out of the picture.
Despite the different views about Title IX’s effectiveness, the ultimate goal, UW nursing professor Patti Brennan said, should be establishing parity in an academic environment.