Recently, I’ve overheard a lot of discussion around my water cooler concerning how to get little girls interested enough in science and math to pursue careers in those fields. There has been a lot of media attention on the issue lately: CNN Money published an article titled, “Why secretary is still the top job for women,” The Big Bang Theory aired an episode where the characters chair a committee to encourage women in science, and the science journal Nature ran an article highlighting the achievements of four women who are both scientists and mothers and have managed to juggle both. All the recent media attention spurred a myriad of suggestions from my coworkers on how to fix this problem. I heard all the standard responses: science toys should be marketed to girls as well as boys, girls need better role models, and girls need to be reminded they aren’t naturally bad at math and can do anything. As the only scientist and engineer of the group, they all naturally expected me to nod my head and agree with all these ideas. I didn’t. I don’t necessarily disagree either, but I’ve seen the attempts at fulfilling these suggestions and have concluded: if this is how we’re approaching this problem, we’re doomed.
I absolutely think science toys should be accessible to girls, and not only because I want to buy all of them for myself. But I’m fairly dubious today’s manufacturing giants can do that in a way that isn’t… 1) insulting, 2) condescending, and 3) utter nonsense. Take, for example, the new ePad Femme and the girls Lego line. These “female friendly” gadgets just make me want to catch girls as they run screaming from the toy store and remind them that science can, in fact, be fun and cool. Companies would be much better off toning down the marketing they’re doing to target boys directly, focus more on marketing those same products to a mixed gender group, and quit sprinkling everything with fairy dust, adding a kitten to the label and thinking they’ve completed a successful marketing campaign. As an added bonus they would only end up having to market one product instead of two separate products. Do I think girls need to have played with techie toys to eventually pursue science as a career? No way. I didn’t have any of that. I had just as many Barbies and My Little Ponies as I had Legos (the old school versions that were… blocks). I never had a chemistry set. And most of my extracurricular activities focused on crafts and the arts, not robotics and model rockets. In the end, the toys I played with didn’t factor one iota into my higher education decision. Of course, I play with rockets now, but that’s definitely the subject of another article.
I also don’t believe there is any valid reason that girls can’t be perfectly competent in their math and sciences studies. It is completely unacceptable for girls today to be told they can never be good at math because: biology. But we seem to have gone from one extreme to another and I think it’s also completely unacceptable to shove math and science down their throats. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged to pursue science. And, really, when was the last time a teenager did anything an adult told them to do? Our children need to be encouraged to pursue all their interests keyword being their. If after being exposed to all the coolest science toys in the universe and watching every episode of Numb3rs the kid wants to learn to knit or be active in sports help them. Forcing a kid to memorize the Periodic Table and recite it upon demand is more likely to result in high therapy bills than a practicing scientist. At least, that’s not the kid I want calculating my future medicine doses or converting the amount of jet fuel needed on an interplanetary excursion. But, again, I managed to choose a science career without any of the advanced trickery schools are attempting today. I didn’t belong to any clubs or organizations that spent time focusing on scientific applications. My annual science fair projects were completed with the minimum amount of effort required and more often than not were subjective rather than objective (easier to fudge the results). While I was an avid reader, I wouldn’t characterize myself as being heavily into science fiction or fantasy. What I was encouraged to do was to pursue academic excellence in ALL my courses. There wasn’t any particular emphasis on math or science, In fact, I remember disliking my science classes in High School I can’t even remember who my chemistry teacher was. Yet I still managed not to let a poor (or at the very least “meh”) experience influence my future academic endeavors.
I also agree that female scientists should be proud of their achievements and do everything they can to help the next generation achieve more, easier, and faster. But I believe more often than not, we’re choosing the wrong women to act as role models and we’re celebrating their achievements the wrong way. Either choosing ‘superwomen’ who have had uncharacteristically hurdle free careers or glossing over the nuts and bolts of what hardships and sacrifices got them to where they are isn’t doing our young girls any favors. I agree with Erin C. McKiernan’s response to the Nature article that in attempting to highlight the achievements of spectacular women sometimes we completely fail and end up accomplishing the exact opposite. And sometimes, like with this European Commission video, the results can be downright terrifying.
Today’s strategy seems to be to tell little girls “you can do anything!” Then twirl them around fifty times, point them in the direction of a bunsen burner, and let go. People, you should be ashamed of lying to these girls like that. Because the truth is, science and math are hard. Overcoming the social stigma against becoming a female scientist is harder. And maintaining a career as a woman in science? Crazy hard. But for me, and for many of these women, that was the point. When I was making the decision about what I wanted to be when I grew up, the adults in my life were very honest about the challenges and the odds that accompany pursuing a career in physics. And, honestly, if they had told me it was easy, I wouldn’t have done it.
I didn’t decide to pursue a science degree because I had nostalgic feelings about a toy I had played with when I was a little girl, because a string of role models had been paraded before me, or because my parents threw a parade every time I got an A in math. I chose to pursue a degree in science because I wanted to pick the most challenging and interesting subject I could find. And even though I had never particularly enjoyed my science studies in the past didn’t mean I wasn’t smart enough to know it didn’t have to be that way. So, how do I think society can best get little girls to pursue science and engineering careers? By encouraging them to challenge themselves in every aspect of their lives and being honest with them about the challenges and rewards they can expect if they do choose to pursue science as a career. Besides, those are the girls I want to see across the lab one day: the ones who knew how hard it would be and wanted to do it anyway.