She should do science

So, as I mentioned in my introduction thread, I’m a chemist-in-training. Although science has made great strides in women’s participation, there’s still a definite gender gap. Not only that, but there are definite cultural problems in science that make it a less-than-ideal atmosphere for women. There’s sexual harassment. There’s devaluing of women’s work and research. There are few women professors, particularly in chemistry, physics, and engineering. And there’s the problem that equal representation still reads like overrepresentation. By that I mean, when there are equal numbers of women and men in a department or lab, people perceive the space as dominated by women. But, when people mention that there are “so many women here,” I often count and find that, no, there are still far fewer women at the conference or whatever than men, particularly at high levels.

So, this is one of my personal crusades. Get the girls in your life to do science. Take her to a science museum, get her science books from the library, get her scientist dress-up clothes, grow salt crystals, get a home chemistry book/set. There are so many ways to introduce science to girls, and that’s where it has to happen. Most scientists that I know became passionate about science from a really young age, and girls need to see that women can do science.

I’m actually off to do some demos at my local science museum, but I’ll leave you with an awesome link to and video about the Beauty of Chemistry exhibit in Dublin.

16 comments for “She should do science

  1. August 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    A former partner was very much interested in science. But this was largely in part that her father was a mathematician, and the two of the were very close. They bonded over science museums, routine car repairs, and marvels of engineering. Had she not had these childhood experiences, I doubt she would have been inclined to show that side of herself.

    I recall girls growing up who dumbed themselves down to not offend men. I always found it sad to observe the transformation from intellect to makeup and clothes.

  2. RT
    August 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Long post follows, phew…

    As a woman who is also a particle physics graduate student (current slacking off from working on my thesis, aargh), I both agree with this, but also want point out another part of the problem. I’ve been lucky enough to have personally never encountered any overt discrimination or sexual harrassment during my short time in physics. Experimental particle physics, like astronomy (and biology for a while now), seems to be becoming more and more gender-balanced (in America at least; Europe can still be kind of effed-up).

    At least as an undergrad, some of my biggest problems were self-doubt. Ironically enough, I feel like the whole “women in science” conversation sometimes contributed to that fear and doubt to a certain extent. You feel like you *can’t* fail, because if you do fail, you’re letting down your gender and the fight for equality. The thing which helped me in the end was exactly one of the things which you suggest: seeing other women working in science. My department had two really dedicated female professors who were both at the top of their research careers but also very involved in undergraduate education. They’ve been mentors to me even after graduating from college (one of them just had her THIRD BABY AAH). I’m not sure I would have gotten this far without them.

    The other half of the problem seems to be the “science lifestyle” itself, however. I’m getting married this fall, and I’ve been (extremely) lucky enough to have just gotten hired for an awesome postdoc position the same geographic area as my fiance. Other people I know have not been so lucky. Jobs are incredibly scarce right now. We’ll have to move again in a couple of years, however, and who knows what happens then? Will we manage to get faculty jobs together? No one is getting faculty jobs. Will one of us have to quit science? Will that person be be, if I’m more willing to compromise? There’s been a lot of talk about this “leaky pipeline” recently – we’ve been doing an increasingly better job getting women into science, but they drop out gradually at every single stage of the game. Forget having kids – I’m worried at the moment that our lives don’t have enough stability to get *cats.* This whole situation hurts men, too, of course, but it seems to disproportionately hurt women. The structure of scientific work and hiring is going to have to change if we’re ever going to achieve full gender parity.

  3. FYouMudFlaps
    August 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I concur fully. At USF, one of the Women’s Studies MA options is to focus on women in science. I just may choose that focus, especially knowing several badass girls in various STEM areas.

  4. Momentary
    August 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    I’m a scientist by training (computer science PhD) although these days what I do is more in the realm of tech policy, and funding research grants. One thing I think is often overlooked in the science gender gap, is how important it is for kids to get to take things apart, even if it sometimes means they break things around the house. I’m very suspicious that parental bias, even unconscious, discourages girls more than boys from that kind of exploration.

  5. Emelyn
    August 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. I was lucky enough to have a Mum who was a science teacher; and now I am an engineer. I am also a STEM ambassador, which means that in my spare time I visit schools to help kids (both boys and girls) get an idea about what engineers actually do and hopefully help some of them find out that it is the career for them. If I have kids, we will be growing crystals, whatever their gender. But I do worry about the “chilly” culture that is too prevalent when it comes to women in STEM. I live it everyday. Sometimes I feel bad about encouraging girls into this sort of environment. I still do it, I just tell myself that maybe it will be better by the time they are where I am.

  6. Iany
    August 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    My goal in life is to run my own lab one day. I often feel like I’m not good enough.

    And then I think, fuck that.

    I’m going for it anyway. Screw doubt. I’m going to be a professor.

  7. Complicated
    August 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    @RT those are all very good points.

  8. Shoshie
    August 7, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    RT: Ironically enough, I feel like the whole “women in science” conversation sometimes contributed to that fear and doubt to a certain extent. You feel like you *can’t* fail, because if you do fail, you’re letting down your gender and the fight for equality.

    Oh man, RT, your comment is spot on, especially this bit and the part about the leaky pipeline. Like, I do want to have children sometime in the near future, and I’m SO JEALOUS of the male grad students who have kids while in grad school because I know that, if I got pregnant, the judginess would just be too much to deal with, even though I do stupidly non-toxic water chemistry. It sucks, especially since there’s a chance that I’ll have fertility problems, so it probably would make sense for us to start trying nowish.

    Emelyn, co-sign on the feeling-kinda-bad-about-encouraging-girls-into-this-environment-but-hoping-it-will-be-better-someday.

    Iany- Ugh, being a prof sounds awesome, but I care too much about where I live. You should totally do it, though! We need more awesome women professors!

    On general self-doubt. It took me a long time to realize that the boys were mostly faking it. Like, really. Because when I didn’t know the answer I didn’t say anything, but they just talked like they knew what they were talking about even when they didn’t. I’ve talked to a lot of other women who said they experienced the same things. Makes me think a lot about that whole fear of failure thing.

    Also, this xkcd. Time 10^6.

  9. Casandra
    August 8, 2011 at 3:46 am

    As a female software developer, who was the only girl in her year to do all the science subjects in high school and the first girl to finish the computer science course I took in college, this subject is one of my pet peeves.

    I got through these years by effectively being one of the guys. Having always been a tomboy it came natural. Now that I’ve graduated and am working fulltime, I am scared to explore my feminine side. Afraid that if I show too much of it I’ll be seen as not as good or that I’ll loose the ease of communication I now have ’cause my colleagues will be aware of the fact that they’re talking to a girl. This fear gets reinforced every time I object to a generalisation someone makes about women (generally about how all they do is shop, etc). The standard reply being that I not a typical woman so it doesn’t apply to me.

    So I am left feeling that if I acknowledge my female side, I’ll no longer be taken serious as a software developer.

  10. RT
    August 8, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Oh man, adding the judgment factor of “dangerous chemicals + babies = oh noes!” would make everything even worse… I admit that I don’t know many chemists, but it’s my anecdotal experience that *overt* discrimination is much worse in areas of the physical sciences that have closer ties to industry and engineering (applied physics, material science, etc.). I think “guy culture” has lingered a lot longer there.

    Then again, there are still little moments that surprise you (in a bad way) everywhere. A professor friend doing some groundbreaking dark matter detector research at Major Research University A recently got told by one of the many old coots there that “One cannot do serious physics while bouncing a baby on one’s knee!” She is now doing her groundbreaking dark matter detector research somewhere else, thank you very much.

    That xkcd is the truest thing ever said. Thanks for the good article!

  11. Doc G
    August 8, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I think the leaky pipeline in science affects everybody, but since there are less women starting the pipeline, it’s easier for all of them to leak out. The best physics student in our class during my undergrad was a lady (this was at Tufts, a school that I’m sure would be mortified to consider itself sexist), and despite having to deal with professors that would routinely point out that she was one of usually less than 5 women in the entire physics program (one of them even took to calling her “the girl”, as in “what does the girl think about this problem”)* she did a consistently excellent job the whole time, did a senior thesis and graduated with highest honors, and got into a great graduate program somewhere in California, when many other students at that point chose to “leak” and not pursue graduate studies.

    Then she dropped out of the grad program, reportedly not for sexist reasons but because she just came to feel that the pace and potential rewards of science research weren’t for her (the idea that very few scientists produce noticeable gains in their field, whereas most scientists work equally hard for their entire lives and only incrementally advance science, and if she ended up as one of the latter types it wouldn’t be worth it, in her opinion). Anyway, the fact that she comprised 50% of the female Physics students during my time at Tufts meant that her choosing to leave the field (she still has a science-related job, but as a journalist) had a devastating impact on Tufts’ rate of success at moving females along the science pipeline, even though she left the field AFTER surviving the sexism at Tufts, for ostensibly non-sexist reasons.

    But I’ve always been really proud that I know her and had a chance to work with her, and as a science teacher when I think about how to present material in a way that makes it accessible to people of all backgrounds, it always inspires me to think about how the most gifted colleague I ever worked with was a woman – and to think about what little things I must avoid saying or doing so I’m not a giant dick like those professors she had at Tufts. There’s a lot of thinking in teacher education these days trying to get people to realize just how biased towards white males science education is (rough, since a very corrosive stereotype about science is that it’s impartial and therefore incapable of being biased) so I have a lot of hope that building over time and with more people like my friend to be positive examples (I’m planning on asking her to speak in my classroom this year) we can soon start to turn the tide on the white male domination of science.

    *As with many places, Tufts Physics was a mixed bag of patriarchal oppression: they also had a couple of non-dick male professors, and a super-awesome, no-nonsense lady professor who was an important member of the faculty and has been described by my friend as an inspirational role model for her during her undergrad years. No SOC though (scientists of color) if I remember correctly.

    **@ Shoshie on fear of failure – there’s also a lot of conversation about actually welcoming wrong answers in the science classroom (since all real scientists know that their most valuable research comes from noticing that you’re wrong) and structuring your class so that people who just talk out their ass like they know what they’re talking about can’t dominate discussion. I think there’s a lot to be excited about, if these trends can take hold.

  12. Shoshie
    August 8, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Hi Doc G- It’s interesting to hear your perspective as a science teacher. I’m really glad to know the whole right/wrong thing is being discussed in education, since it’s so important. I get so many students in college who are so frustrated when things aren’t just textbook –> answer, because that’s what they think science is!

    I will disagree with you about a couple things. First, I think you’re right that fewer women are in the pipeline at, say, a physics class in college. But what if we consider the pipeline even earlier? What if we look at a 1st grade class? How many 6 year old girls think that science is cool? How much does that nasty, patriarchal, atmosphere contribute to women just deciding not to major in physics at Tufts?

    Also, at one point I thought about leaving my graduate program. And I would never have cited sexist reasons. But there was someone in the program who made life very hard for me, and that was definitely a contribution. Whether he targeted me extra hard because I was a woman, I don’t really know. But he was kind of a sexist douchebag, so…

    But I would totally have cited the same reason as your friend. Research just “wasn’t for me.” I wonder how many other women decided that research just “wasn’t for them” after being harassed.

  13. lainen
    August 8, 2011 at 9:16 am

    To the already mentioned factors

    (1) self-doubt/impostor feeling
    (2) lack of mentors
    (3) “chilly atmosphere”
    (4) fear of failure owing to “letting down the gender”
    (5) “science lifestyle,” i.e.
    (5a) crazy hours/amounts of work
    (5b) having to move, little control over location

    I would add
    (6) the “two-body problem”: a (het) woman in STEM is very likely to be partnered with a man in STEM.

    To be honest, I think that being partnered with a man in the department helped keep me in graduate school. It made the social dynamic a lot more comfortable, and he was really supportive both academically (as someone to bounce ideas off of, and to explain things very very patiently, basically making up for (2)) and at home (understanding that before e.g. qualifying exams I had zero free time, and doing all the chores so that I could prepare (5a)). However, as soon as we need to decide whose postdoc to move for (5b)), I expect to dribble out of the pipeline. Between (1) and (3), I’m just not as committed to my career. Not to mention that (4) would surely be exacerbated by the pressure of my partner having sacrificed his career for mine.

    So yeah. I’ll be another ex-scientist, contributing to factors (2) and (3), trying to find a job with this awkward math PhD.

  14. August 9, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Sometimes I really wish I had stuck with my physics studies, like right now. I had a lot of good reasons for switching majors, but these days it’s in my head to go back when finances and parenting allow, and finish off that major.

    I do remember the sexism in that major. I had one lab partner who just could not concede that I was right about anything, ever. Not even when the professor said so. Every statement I made was challenged, every bit of setup I did on lab work was redone by him. Hated that guy, and no one would trade partners with me. On the plus side, I learned a lot about dealing with people like that.

    I feel very fortunate that my oldest daughter is very much into science. Who knows if she’ll go into it, but there are plenty of science and technology oriented family members for her to use as examples. My youngest is too young to know what she’ll like yet, but I fully intend that math, science, technology and all that good stuff will be open to her as well.

  15. Ran
    August 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    My mother (an engineering professor at a research university) used to do a lot of programs for girls in high-school, and to a lesser extent middle-school, trying to encourage them to get involved in STEM. A few years ago she decided that this was a bad idea: they will face so much sexism that she decided that if they’re not people who would pursue STEM on their own without outside encouragement, then outside encouragement will not be enough to help them overcome the sexism. (RT’s and other comments above make me realize that she’s probably saying this because of years of witnessing the leaky pipeline. Until now I’d somehow assumed she was thinking of the sexism that she herself had faced, and continues to face, but it makes more sense that she was thinking of the women she’s actually seen leave science.) She no longer does programs specifically oriented at girls, though fortunately she still does programs for high-schoolers in general, so at least girls interested in STEM will still see a potential role model . . . it still makes me really sad, though, and I assume it makes her sad, too. Does anyone have any magical arguments and/or motivational speeches I can pass on to her that will somehow instantaneously convince her to change her mind?

    -Ran (Squid’s Ran)

  16. Naru
    August 16, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I’m a psychology graduate. The gender dynamics I experienced as a student were very interesting. Women properly outnumber men when you look at student cohorts, to the point where it’s impossible to do gender related studies for assignments (since assignments always have students do the research on fellow students) because the ratio is at least 70-30. But when you look at the genders of lecturers and the top researchers, most are male. So more women are studying psych, but many don’t continue into post graduate study. Why is that?

    I had the opportunity to study honours, which includes an original research component. I started it, but then dropped out because I felt it wasn’t suited to me at that point in time, despite being single childless and financially secure. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who made the same decision for similar reasons. Why do more men continue on to post grad? I don’t really know. Are men socialised to be more determined or ambitious with their studies and careers? It’s possible, though there might be another answer.

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