When Hannah Davinroy ’17 was in elementary school, she hated science.
“You had to draw a lot of pictures for science, and I was never good at drawing,” she said.
By the time she graduated from her high school in Lafayette, Colo., however, Davinroy’s attitude toward science had been transformed by one of her teachers, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration employee who taught Davinroy AP Physics B, general chemistry and AP Chemistry.
“[She] convinced me I was good enough in science to pursue it,” Davinroy, an intended physics major, said. “I really liked that it became more of a puzzle to figure out science questions than it had been before.”
Physics, math, philosophy and B.S.E. computer science are the majors at Princeton with the highest percentages of male enrollees. For our issue about women at Princeton, Street spoke to six women who are current or intended majors in the departments to get a better sense of what it’s like for women to study in male-dominated majors.
Like Davinroy, many of the students Street interviewed had similar formative experiences in high school. Though she did not have the opportunity to study it formally in high school, Natalie Hejduk ’16, a philosophy major, did some introspection and decided in 11thgrade that studying philosophy in college would allow her to combine her love of both humanities and science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.
At her high school in Belmont, Calif., intended philosophy major Laura Ong ’17 founded a philosophy club because she wanted to learn more about the subject, which her high school didn’t offer. The club still exists today.
Kasturi Shah ’16, a physics major from Mumbai, India, knew she was inclined toward the sciences as she saw news footage of rockets going into space as a small child, but she also spoke about the influence of the chemistry and physics department heads at her all-girls boarding school in the U.K.
Both B.S.E. computer science major Stefani Karp ’15 and math major Isabelle Nogues ’15 concentrated on math and science in high school. Karp went to a science and technology magnet high school in Alexandria, Va., and Nogues was on the mathematics and science track in her latter two years at a French international school in Bethesda, Md.
Currently, according to numbers provided by the respective departments, 70.6 percent of undergraduate concentrators in philosophy are men, as are 73.5 percent in B.S.E. computer science, 78.7 percent in physics and 83.8 percent in math.
That is perhaps why Nogues, Ong, Davinroy and Karp said people are sometimes surprised when they first tell them what their majors are.
“One of the first questions I do receive is, ‘How many women are in the department?’” Nogues said. “Once they really discover your passion for the field, all those questions somehow fade away.”
Ong said that sometimes people are surprised she is more interested in analytic philosophy, which she described as more math-like, than continental philosophy, which lies somewhat closer to the humanities.
“I started to suspect that maybe that’s because [analytic philosophy is] more like math than like English, and there’s the expectation that women would be more into humanities subjects,” Ong said. “That’s the only thing that seems to me like it’s a sort of gender-related thing.”
In the classroom
In the classroom, however, the students’ experiences have been more varied. Both Shah and Nogues took the Integrated Science Curriculum when they were freshmen, and Shah said that experience encouraged closeness with her peers who are also now physics majors.
“Maybe when I was younger, I did care about what people thought,” Shah said, “but I don’t anymore.” She asks questions in class, she said, “no matter how stupid my question is.”
For Nogues, ISC sharpened an abiding love for math. She decided at the end of her freshman year that she wanted to be a math major.
Of her classes, Nogues said, “The atmosphere has been quite open and prone to questions.” The fact that she might be one of two girls in a class of 20 has “been more of something amusing and something that I’ve just noticed. It’s never been a true obstacle to my performance or experience," she said.
For Karp and Hejduk, gender has not played a substantial role in their classroom experiences, but it has been something of which they’ve taken note.
Karp offered as an example the group of undergraduates with whom she worked in a graduate-level theoretical seminar she took last semester: “I was basically the girl with a group of guys, which is not uncommon at all given the classes I’ve taken,” she said. “It affected [my experience], but at the same time I felt very comfortable in that setting.”
“I’m taking a logic course this semester; it’s probably one-third women at best,” Hejduk said. “It definitely feels like if you don’t seek out the support system of other woman philosophy majors or other woman professors, who usually are very supportive, you definitely feel like a minority.”
On the other hand, Ong said, “I feel like I’m that one kid in precept who talks and talks and talks. … Maybe I’m breaking down other people’s gender expectations.” She added: “I think our department does a good job of not having gender feel like an issue in class.”
The mentorship between female undergraduates and professors that Hejduk mentioned has become part of an organized effort in some departments. Ong said she regularly attends meetings of the Women in Philosophy discussion group, which is part of a department-wide initiative called Minorities and Philosophy. In an interview, Professor Andrew Appel ’81, chair of the computer department, pointed to the student organization Princeton Women in Computer Science as a strong source of undergraduate peer mentorship. On the physics department’s website, there is a page dedicated to the Women in Physics Group, though Shah noted that the group seems to be geared primarily toward graduate students.
On a more informal level, “There’s actually quite a push among graduate students and professors in my department right now to reach out to women and to become mentors,” philosophy professor Delia Graff Fara said during a Skype interview. Part of that stems from a larger conversation surrounding the underrepresentation of certain groups, not just women, in philosophy, she said.Fara is also the department’s equal opportunity officer.
“We’re very actively talking about these issues — broadly, not just at Princeton,” Fara said.
“Not good enough”
Research led by philosophy professor Sarah Jane Leslie has also recently pushed into the spotlight the topic of gender ratios in the country’s most male-skewing disciplines. Using survey data from 1,820 faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at schools across the nation, Leslie and her team found that the more a discipline emphasized the value of brilliance rather than hard work, the lower the number was of women earning doctorates in that discipline.
Davinroy seemed to echo those attitudes toward brilliance when she said, “I’m not a smart physics major. I’m not the best physics major — I put in a lot of work, and I care a lot about it, but it’s also not my life like it is for some people. … I do feel like I’m lost a lot in class and have to work really hard.”
She said of conversations she’s had with other female physics majors, “There’s also a lot of talk [about] what it’s like to feel like you’re not good enough.”
Hejduk also talked about not feeling “good enough.” She recounted how, in a philosophy course she took as a freshman, it took most of the semester for her to raise her hand in class.
“Probably some of that was I was a freshman, but some of it was, it feels like all these guys [are] just sort of going at it; I’m one of four or five women in this class, and I just don’t know what to say,” she said. “I felt like what I had to say had to be good enough in order to equal the other people’s comments.” The feeling has faded as she has integrated more into the department, she noted.
For Ong, philosophy feels like a natural fit, but she mentioned reading about research that indicates men are more likely to continue in disciplines like computer science even when they don’t get the best grades, whereas women are more likely to drop it.
She said of her own experience with COS 126: General Computer Science and her decision not to major in computer science, which she briefly considered: “That does resonate with me, like I do feel like that was part of the reason — I did okay, but I didn’t get a great grade. And I felt like I was just kind of out of my depth, which is not something that I’ve felt her with philosophy so far, although I imagine it’ll get harder.”
Davinroy, too, talked about reading about research regarding differences in how men and women approach science.
“A lot of it has to do with there’s not a lot of positive feedback in science — it’s kind of a punishing trajectory,” she said. “The way that the research that I’ve read says that girls handle that is that they find something they are the best at … And so whenever I feel like I should do something else because I’m not good enough to do physics, I think about that research, and I kind of talk myself into being good enough in it again.”
The bigger picture
Both Appel and Fara emphasized the importance of viewing the gender ratios within a larger context. The number of women in philosophy at Princeton reflects national averages, Fara said.
In Princeton’s computer science department, Appel said, there are actually proportionally more women than the national average. Additionally, Peter Bogucki, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, noted in an email containing information about the gender breakdowns in computer science that the percentage of female B.S.E. computer science majors has more than doubled in the past 10 years.
The undergraduates Street spoke to also said their experiences do not necessarily reflect a more general experience.
“All of what I’m saying … it’s coming from one person who’s had a relatively good experience in STEM,” Nogues said. “I don’t mean to generalize or speak for all women in STEM.”
An upward trend?
It does seem, however, that an overall upward trend in women majoring in disciplines where they have historically been underrepresented will lead to continued, if gradual, progress in improving gender ratios in academia. Hejduk, Karp, Nogues and Ong all plan to apply at some point to graduate school in their respective disciplines. In particular, Hejduk and Ong both said they would love to ultimately become professors.
When asked what advice they might give to other women considering majors in their fields, all six undergraduates urged students to at least give things a try, even in spite of potential challenges.
“[Philosophy] really is a subject where you can just pour hard work into it and be really excited about it, and that will make a difference, and I think that’s something that’s important to see,” Ong said.
For some of these women, the road has not been easy. For others, it’s been easier than they might have initially expected.
Ultimately, however, Karp said, “What’s important to succeed is really genuinely enjoying it. I think if you’re enjoying it, the rest will sort of flow naturally.”