Although males outnumber females in the Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences program by 18 percent, few see need for change.
The Vagelos MLS program, like many STEM fields, has a gender ratio that skews more towards men than women — though it has remained remarkably stable. Incoming freshman since 2010 have had a 59 percent male to 41 percent female ratio entering the program, and the same ratio has applied to graduating seniors for the past twelve years.
Students acknowledge the gender gap, but say that it has not negatively affected the culture of the program.
”I’ve met great guys and girls in the program. If anything, racial diversity is much more of a problem and not representative of Penn’s population,” College freshman Hope Merens said.
College senior Jenny Yan agreed. “The ratio hasn’t really affected my experience in any negative way in the program because out of the people I interact with, there is a good mix of both guys and girls in our study groups,” Yan said. “And I actually haven’t thought that much or even noticed too much the gender ratio difference.”
College junior Sam Allon said that although men may outnumber women, the females in the Vagelos program hold their own. “As far as quantity goes, there are definitely more men than women in Vagelos, but as far as quality goes, women have men beat,” Allon said.
However, students pointed out that while the Vagelos program in particular may not be skewed in gender, STEM fields in general tend to be.
“There really isn’t a huge gap between the number of girls and guys in the program, as is the case most of the time in life sciences such as biology,” College freshman Margo MacDonald said. “However, I have noticed that it’s much more common for the boys in the program to choose the physics or biophysics side of the curriculum rather than biochemistry, and there is a huge gender gap in my honors physics class.”
Director of the Vagelos MLS program Ponzy Lu pointed to an article recently published in Science Magazine, stating that the gender ratio of the Vagelos program is not so different from that of the wider scientific world, and that demonizing STEM gender ratios might be an overgeneralization, when other academic fields have greater disparity.
Admission to the program is blind to race and gender, focused solely on academic ability and interest in science. “Everybody has a shot,” Lu said. “We say ‘Here’s an opportunity, if you want to, give it a shot.’“
The gender ratio of the Vagelos program, and in STEM fields at Penn in general, may have roots in nationwide trends among women pursuing science.
The question then becomes whether the program should strive to combat STEM’s gender gap.
Lu finds intervention unnecessary. “The male to female ratio, which I used to worry about when I first started the program, I’ve stopped worrying about,” Lu said. “To my surprise, no matter how I look at the numbers, it’s all the same. It’s not different from the whole field in general.”
Students echo his opinion, stating changes to the program’s recruitment would not be enough to counteract an issue that is prevalent across the nation.
“I think even if the program recruited more females, the resulting people who stay may still end up being more male dominated just by the nature of people who are interested in the Vagelos curriculum,” College senior Jenny Yan said.
Lu thinks those interested in gender gaps should shift their focus to another question. “I think people should be asking the question: There are lot of fields where there are a lot of females,” he said. “Why do males leave them?”
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