By: Tanika Mally
They say to shoot for the stars, but Katherine Johnson shot for the moon instead.
Breaking through the gender and racial barriers in the segregated South during the early 1960s, Johnson was responsible for the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, as well as its safe return. Equipped with her exceptionally adept mathematical mind and desire to go above and beyond, Johnson racked up an impressive amount of accomplishments. From calculating trajectories and launch windows for the first American in space, to computing emergency paths for the first American to orbit the Earth, Johnson has numerous, remarkable achievements throughout her career. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom- the highest civilian award in America- by President Barack Obama .
Unfortunately, on Monday, February 23, the world lost one of its most accomplished mathematical geniuses. Katherine Johnson died at the age of 101 in a retirement home in Newport News, Virginia due to natural causes.
Despite her regrettable passing, Johnson’s legacy will not be close to forgotten. The 2016 Oscar nominated film, Hidden Figures, highlighted Johnson’s achievements, which, until recently, were hidden in the dark. That same year over 200,000 women graduated from STEM-based fields. Despite the gap with the amount of male graduates- over 450,000- it certainly is an improvement to the number of women who graduated with a STEM related degree in 2009 (143,081 graduates).
In spite of the ongoing gender gap in STEM fields, the amount of women in the STEM workforce has considerably grown throughout the past decade. In 2018 alone, approximately 50% of all bachelor degrees in the science and engineering field were earned by women. The major disparity between genders, however, is more prominent through the specific occupations under the STEM field. Statistics show that women are more prominent in social and life science professions (such as psychology and biology) than they are in computer and mathematical science and engineering. According to Pew Research Center, approximately 14% of women are in the mechanical engineering field. What’s surprising, however, is that female upperclassmen at High School North also seem to choose their course selection similarly .
Currently at North, the majority of high-level science courses have a greater female than male student population. With the exception of Advanced Topics in Physics (a more mathematical based subject), the classes AP Environmental Science, AP Chemistry, and AP Biology are all classes that have a significantly larger female presence.
The problem, however, lies in mathematics. In the 2019-2020 school year, there are currently 104 students taking AP Calculus BC.
And of that, only 38 students are female.
When observing the male to female ratio in these high-level mathematical courses, it’s easy to notice the disparity between the male and female student population. With the Multivariable Calculus Honors and AP Statistics students combined, there are 109 male students, in comparison to a diminutive 61 female students. The only high level mathematical class with a marginal male to female difference is AP Calculus AB, with the male population being greater by only 2 students.
The female presence in computer engineering courses is also rather sparse, with only a total of 27 girls taking an engineering based course. This is in comparison to 87 boys who are enrolled in the course.
But why exactly are women not moving towards the mathematical and engineering fields and courses of STEM? What seems to be the underlying cause for all these major gender gaps?
“Definitely, I think our society enforces this idea that boys are better in math, and that girls are better at basically any other subject,” says Senior Manya Zhu.
“From an early age, girls tend to think that they’re not as capable in math or science, whereas boys are really encouraged in these types of things. That’s probably a reason why we see such a skewed [female to male] ratio possibly,” also comments Senior Akanksha Tripathy. “I think people tend to assume that a boy knows more and is more educated in certain topics than how girls are.”
Both Zhu and Tripathy are highly passionate and involved in STEM subjects. They have taken a variety of high-level STEM courses such as AP Chemistry, AP Computer Science, AP Biology, and Multivariable Calculus Honors.
While there are still significant gender differences within these classes, there has been encouragement for girls to pursue STEM. With the creation of extracurriculars such as Girls to Code, the WW-P district has been encouraging female students to delve in the STEM field.
“Our district and just people in general have been doing a good job of involving girls in STEM,” concludes Tripathy. “The number of women entering this area has definitely improved over the last four to five years.”