Steve Helber, Associated Press
For many of the women, the chemistry lab was a home away from home — a sorority for nerds, of sorts, that hints at the slow but steady shift in technical fields that have been traditionally filled with men.
Rebecca Allred has fond memories of that lab at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She and her peers spent hours there. They worked into the night for their professor, Elizabeth Harbron, because they wanted to, blowing off steam by dancing to the soundtrack of "Mamma Mia" or taking a break on Fridays to play Putt-Putt golf together.
Harbron was not only their mentor, but often a confidante. They shared their frustrations. They celebrated their successes. Several published their findings with Harbron's guidance, a rarity for undergraduates.
"That lab was a refuge between classes. I loved being there," says Allred, now a second-year doctoral student in the Yale University chemistry department and one of a new generation of young women who are helping change the face of the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
Though she was happy to help blaze the path for them, Harbron says she didn't set out to create an all-women's lab. It happened naturally. Students like Allred sought her out because they liked her informal, lively teaching style.
"I don't want to become a female ghetto of over-achieving white girls," Harbron jokes, referring to the general makeup of her lab these days. Then she asks more seriously: "But am I just perpetuating the model that's gotten us where we are?"
In other words, she wonders, has she inadvertently created the female version of the "old boys' network"?
Whatever the answer, it's hard to argue with her results: her lab has become a place where these young women gained confidence to match their abilities, she says.
Many, like Allred, have gone on to graduate programs.
That's a big deal in the STEM fields, which have been slower than other disciplines to integrate women at the highest levels.
With two-thirds of all undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of master's degrees now going to women, many believe it's only a matter of time before that trend influences the upper echelons of the STEM fields.
Already, statistics from the Council of Graduate Schools show that women, overall, earned slightly more than half of the doctorates handed out in all disciplines in the United States in 2009 and 2010. When it comes to the STEM fields, women have been most successful in medicine and biology — and least successful in engineering, math and computer science.
But experts hope that, too, will change. A recent report from the American Association of University Women notes that, 30 years ago, the ratio of seventh- and eighth-grade boys who scored more than 700 on the SAT math exam, compared with girls, was 13 to 1. Now it's 3 to 1.
"You gotta fill up the pipeline and support these good people and, after a while, things get straightened out," says Thomas Pollard, dean of Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which includes Allred's program.
Some would argue that that pipeline is still too leaky in the STEM fields.
"In an ideal world you'd expect that it'd catch up, but it doesn't quite catch up because we're still losing women at every level," says Ted Greenwood, a former director with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds several STEM programs that target women and minorities.
That said, he and others note that women are still making more progress than minorities, particularly black men.
And even in fields like chemistry, engineering and math, the percentages of women who received doctorates still has steadily increased over the last decade, according to the Council of Graduate Schools report.
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