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 the number of seventh-and eighth-grade
boys who scored more than 700 on the SAT math exam, compared with the number of 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.
Leaks in the pipeline
Some would argue that the pipeline is still too leaky in the STEM
fields. “In an ideal world you’d expect that it would 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 such fields as chemistry, engineering, and math, the
percentages of women who received doctorates still has steadily
increased over the past decade, according to the Council of
Graduate Schools report.
Rebecca Allred’s path to a doctoral program provides a
glimpse of how it’s happening— and how crucial access and
support can be.
Some would say there was no way Allred— who was known
as Rebecca Mikulas before she married her college sweetheart
in 2009— could have failed. She had educational opportunities
that many do not, including attending a private school in rural
Virginia where classes were small and where she was given the
chance to study at her own pace. She also had the smarts, skipping kindergarten and second grade and taking college classes
by the time she was in middle school.
She finished her high school requirements by age 16 but then
decided to take more math and science courses at a public high
school, where she also excelled at volleyball, basketball, and
She had supportive parents, both of whom were trained as
engineers. Her parents always worked to integrate math and
science into everyday life on their family farm and during dinner-time conversations.
But she also had teachers who encouraged and challenged
her— another key, experts say, in keeping girls engaged.
Her mother remembers how Rebecca’s high school chemistry
teacher put off retiring for a year so she could have Rebecca as a
student in her advanced-placement class. The teacher was certain Rebecca would be her first student to receive the top score
of 5 on the AP chemistry test. And Rebecca did.
Rebecca was considering colleges, including Harvard, around
the time when Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Summers,
made controversial comments questioning women’s aptitude
for top-level science and math. He later stepped down.
scholarship. There, she took a chemistry class with Harbron—
and applied for a spot in Harbron’s lab.
She quickly realized she had found her next mentor. “She was
so animated and funny — and into what she was doing,” Allred
says of her professor. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
Becoming a part of it When she joined Harbron’s lab, Allred was the only female stu- dent. You might not think that would matter much. But Harbron and other professors say they often see an interesting dynamic in coed labs. Women tend to hang back, they say, and let men take the lead role. “They’re so afraid of being wrong. I don’t think guys have that fear,” Harbron says. “If [women] are admitting they don’t know something, then they are admitting a vulnerability. But what hey don’t realize is that other people don’t know, either.” Increasingly, some institutions are finding value in all-wom- en’s programs in the STEM fields. Smith College in Massachu- setts, for instance, bucked its liberal arts tradition and started an engineering program 10 years ago— a decision other all- women’s schools are following. Some students come to Smith knowing they want to be engineers. Others are drawn into the program by an introductory class called “Engineering for Every-
Another interesting result: most of the students in the Smith
program have ended up choosing mechanical or electrical engi-
neering— specialties within that field that women have tended
to avoid. Some academic institutions have also taken note of
important extra-academic issues. Yale, where Allred is balancing
parenthood with her studies, now provides parental leave for
“I think it’s being driven by doing the right thing as opposed
to being used as a recruiting tool,” says Pollard, the dean who
oversees Allred’s program at Yale. “But we all know that if you
have good practices, you attract good students.”
Pollard also concedes that he is particularly sensitive to
family-life issues because his own daughter, a junior professor
at another institution, just had twins. Among other things, he
hopes the university will improve its daycare options.
And he says Yale just completed a report that examines
how departments can make sure their students— female and
male— finish their programs.
Once again, Allred says she feels that crucial support, from
her advisor and also her fellow students. Her husband also has
agreed to stay home with their daughter, Anna, until Allred gets
her doctorate, maybe by the time Anna is in kindergarten.
Allred jokes that she’ll then take on the title of “Dr. Mom,”
certain that she will be able to add her name to the list of
women with a Ph.D. in the STEM fields, a list that is growing,
slowly but surely.
“I’m not sure where this is going to take me,” Allred says. “I’m
just so grateful that I’m here at a time when I can do this.”