Girls (also) wanna have fun in the lab! Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland dixit.

By Maria Vinas, OSA Ambassador, Institute of Optics, Spanish National Research Council (IO-CSIC), Spain

Celebrating #February11 International Day for Women and Girls in Science


Yes, girls are curious about science, the same way boys do too. Yet why are there fewer women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? Why are the numbers not changing as fast as we would like? Why, when women have accomplished so much, have we waited 55 years to see a third woman, Prof. Donna Strickland, win a Nobel Prize in Physics? Well, in the words of António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General's, "For too long, discriminatory stereotypes have prevented women and girls from having equal access to education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  They deny women and girls the chance to realize their potential – and deprive the world of the ingenuity and innovation of half the population.” [1]

Discriminatory stereotypes on girls and women expel bright girls from STEM, thus they do not allow girls to see themselves as bright individuals able to succeed in science and engineering. Therefore we are losing brilliant students even before the age of 13. The causes of these stereotypes are complex and not well defined. Some of them come from historical factors, as the fact that women were separated from the source of knowledge until the last century, that reinforce the fact that masculine qualities have been given more prominence over feminine ones. Despite their origin, what is clear is that they have an impact in the perception of our capabilities since our childhood.

At age 5 [2], when children are told a story about a very intelligent person, without specifying the gender, both boys and girls attribute their own sex to the protagonist of the story. However, by age 6-7, there were far fewer girls - barely two years apart - who believed that this "intelligent" character was a girl than what boys of the same age did. Girls become less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender and tend to avoid intellectually challenging activities. Girls don't want to look too smart, since society tells us that being smart is a male capability, and girls don't want to look like boys. Girls just wanna be girls. A clear example of these discriminatory stereotypes is the low number of girls participating in “higher capacities” programs in schools (less than 30%), not because girls are not smart enough, but because they are not encouraged as such by their families or teachers. Couple of years older, at age 11-13, boys and girls already show stronger influence of stereotypes in math solving problems capabilities [3]: girls have significantly worse results, when solving the same test, when they think they are doing a geometry test than just drawing. When asked, girls deny a general negative stereotype in terms of women's ability in geometry, but value themselves personally below their peers. Stereotypes impacting little girls might be related with the fact that female role models in text books are only around 7%, and 1-5% in science and technology high school books [4]. Showing them the existence of young women scientist, as those in the OSA student chapters, might help to fill the gap in terms of female role models. The impact of stereotypes is significant in the two moments in women career, which are known to be crucial to account for the low number of women in STEM [5]: first, at the end of the compulsory schooling, when girls are deciding their higher education and second, when they are finishing their majors or after their graduate studies, when students are considering a professional or researcher career.

IO-CSIC OSA student chapter (IOSA) outreach activity at the Institute of Optics of the Spanish National Research Council (IO-CSIC) in Madrid (Spain), organized in collaboration with the Girl Scouts Section of Madrid in March, 2018. A group of 20 girls (ages 8-16) visited the Biophotonics labs, participated in talks and outreach workshops about Optics & Photonics. IOSA is currently formed by 17 PhD students, 12 of them are women.

The United Nations (UN) #February11 commemorates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, in an effort to attract girls and women to STEM areas, so what can female scientist do to have a significant impact on girls to continue pursuing STEM? What can we do to change those stereotypes? First, we should encourage curiosity for STEM in childhood, before any gender bias stops girls from choosing science as a life option. This can be done through workshops at schools, public talks, outreach activities and seminars. It is amazing what an impact a 45 minutes talk can have on students. Second, setting mentorship programs that push forward early scientific vocations in high school girls, so that no gender bias stops them from learning science, maths, geometry, etc.  We should set female role models in STEM, which help to inspire young women to study STEM related careers, and encourage young women scientist to take on leadership roles. Female scientists have a responsibility to lead new generations of students towards a scientific society without any gender bias, and for that we have to inspire them, work as role models and make an effort to boost their curiosity for STEM.

The celebration of the #11F International Day of Women and Girls in Science shows that promoting females in STEM is still a challenge for us, as young scientists, for the scientific organizations, and for the society in general. The fact that we have a day to commemorate this topic shows how far we still have to go. We cannot afford to lose such amount of potential scientists. We need to find ways to involve girls more readily in conversations about STEM and get them excited in a future career in this area. Do you accept the challenge to do that? 


Special thanks to PhD students Francesca Gallazzi (IOSA) and Clara Benedi (IOSA) for their invaluable inputs, as well as to IOSA (IO-CSIC OSA student chapter) for the pictures and their continue effort in outreach of Optics & Photonics.



[1] The United Nations secretary-general’s message on international day of women and girls in science (11th, February, 2017)

[2] Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. L. Bian, S. Leslie, A. Cimpian. Science27 Jan 2017:389-391

[3] Counter-stereotypic beliefs in math do not protect school girls from stereotype threat. P. Huguet, I. Régner. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 45, Issue 4, 2009: 1024-1027,

[4] Analysis of the absence of women in the ESO textbooks: a hidden genealogy of knowledge. A. López-Navajas. DOI: 10.4438/1988-592X-RE-2012-363-188

[5] Women in science: physics and optics. M. J. Yzuel, A. Peinado. Proc. SPIE 9289, 12th Education and Training in Optics and Photonics Conference, 92892X (17 July 2014);



Posted: 12 February 2019 by Maria Vinas, OSA Ambassador, Institute of Optics, Spanish National Research Council (IO-CSIC), Spain | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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