Soviet Russia Had a Better Record of Training Women in STEM Than America Does Today

Perhaps it’s time for the United States to take a page from the Soviet book just this one time

Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, and Yuri Gagarin
Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, and Yuri Gagarin Courtesy of Flickr user Carpetblogger

Russia and the United States have long been trying to one up each other, whether by way of weaponry, space travel or social policies. While Soviet Russia was, by most accounts, a pretty miserable place to live, the Soviets did beat the Americans at one thing: women in science and engineering.

Between 1962 and 1964, 40 percent of the chemistry PhD's awarded in Soviet Russia went to women. At that same time in the United States, that number was a measly five percent. In 2006, that number was still lower than the Soviets' from the '60s—just 35 percent, according to the American Institute of Physics Research Center. In 2012, still only 37 percent of chemistry PhDs in America went to women.

Roshanna Sylvester, a writer at Russian History Blog, has some thoughts as to why Soviet Russia might have succeeded where the United States is currently failing:

Analysis of pedagogical journals suggests that girls’ quest for advancement in the 1960s was aided by the USSR’s standard school curriculum, which privileged the study of math and the hard sciences. There are also hints that girls benefited from generalized efforts by science and math educators to identify and mentor talented students as well as to improve the overall quality of instruction in those fields. As far as influences beyond the school room, sociological studies (particularly those conducted by Shubkin’s group in Novosibirsk) offer support for the notion that parents played key roles in shaping daughters’ aspirations. But those results also suggest that girls’ ideas about occupational prestige both reflected contemporary stereotypes about ‘women’s work’ and offered up challenges to male domination in science and technology fields.

The first woman to go to space was a Russian woman, Valentina Tereshkova, and she inspired Russian girls across the country to aspire to space. Take this letter from a girl from Ukraine to Yuri Gagarin:

I have wanted to ask you for a long time already: ‘is it possible for a simple village girl to fly to the cosmos?’ But I never decided to do it. Now that the first Soviet woman has flown into space, I finally decided to write you a letter….I know [to become a cosmonaut] one needs training and more training, one needs courage and strength of character. And although I haven’t yet trained ‘properly’, I am still confident of my strength. It seems to me that with the kind of preparation that you gave Valia Tereshkova, I would also be able to fly to the cosmos.

Sylvester contrasts that letter with this one, written by a fifteen year old American girl to John Glenn:

Dear Col. Glenn, I want to congratulate you on your successful space flight around the earth. I am proud to live in a nation where such scientific achievements can be attained. I’m sure it takes a great amount of training and courage for you to accomplish such a feat. It was a great honor to witness this historical event. I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15 year old girl I guess that would be impossible. So I would like to wish you and all of the other astronauts much success in the future.

So perhaps the United States should take a page from the Soviet book, just this one time.

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