This year, young women won both the individual and team divisions in the annual Siemens Competition. This prestigious high school science competition awards scholarships to young people who undertake compelling research. Isha Himani Jain of Bethlahem, PA, won the individual grand prize for her research on bone growth. Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff of Plainview, NY, won the team competition for their research on tuberculosis. You can read more about the competition here.
It's always good to read about young people doing amazing things in science, period. But I found the news about the female sweep of the top awards particularly heartening, given the ongoing controversy about women's achievements in science.
A few years ago, former Harvard President Larry Summers made headlines with his statement that women were unlikely to be proportionally represented in the "most prestigious jobs" in math and science in the near future for three key reasons. First, Summers claimed that all prestigious jobs require complete devotion during one's younger years, and until women are willing to put in the hours (to the exclusion of all else) they won't gain tenure at the same rates, publish at the same rates, etc. Second, women may not be as well represented on the extremes of mathematical intelligence. This doesn't mean any one given woman is worse at math than any given man. But perhaps on the margins there's a difference which then results in low representation at the top universities. And finally, there may be discrimination. But he made very clear that he thought the first two were bigger factors than the latter.
There is definitely a problem in academia and elsewhere with the perception that getting anywhere in math and science requires devoting oneself, monk-like, to the lab. Many corporations are plagued by this same idea that people who have outside interests aren't "serious." Both men and women have outside interests. But women are more likely to put a premium on having balanced lives. Larry Summers seemed to think this inevitably meant women wouldn't be well-represented at the top. Personally, I think the institutions will change. After all, we have a female Speaker of the House who started her political career after her kids grew up. But anyway...
What the Siemens competition results are doing is putting the nail in the coffin on Summers' second point. When young men and women are given equal opportunities, and are equally encouraged to excel in scientific pursuits, young women are just as likely to achieve great results.