Friday, September 22, 2006

Girls, science, and Girls Doing Science

I haven't been very assiduous about keeping up with blogs, since I'm sort of doing two jobs right now; when I was just doing writing/research/legwork for the marketing team, I had some free time at work, but now my free time is taken up with managing the bookstore. But I did read Janet's post about women in science (and why there aren't more). (Janet's post was sparked by a heated debate/flamewar between Chad Orzel and Zuska, which I have not read yet, because secondary sources imply that it would exceed my preprandial vituperation tolerance.) Having seen the accusations of privilege and hysteria flow freely, I think this is a good time for a long-gestating post on women, scientists, women scientists, little girls' birthday parties, academic attrition, and how we're going about some bits all wrong.

No better time, in fact, because on my desk is a prepublication copy of Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, a new Academies report developed with the aid of (among others) our beloved Ruth Simmons. (No Smith alumna from the Ruth era is immune to a deep and feverish admiration for our erstwhile president.) In other words, we have some very solid and authoritative evidence that we are not living in a Larry Summers fantasy world, where only the best thinkers get into science and those just don't happen to be ladies. The people who worked on this report (and it should be mentioned that they are almost all women) have examined socialization, cognition, and evolutionary biology in their search for explanations and recommendations. This is not some kind of hallucination caused by a wandering uterus.

I got into some of my feelings about patriarchy and male privilege in my comment on Janet's post, so I'm not going to recap that here. (The short version is "I agree with Janet"; the slightly longer short version is "male privilege exists, and no matter how personally benign you are, nothing's going to change until you acknowledge that male privilege exists.") It does bear repeating, however, that the crisis of women in the sciences is not one that's constrained to the sciences; rather, more than anything else it is a symptom of a larger problem. I've been thinking a lot lately about why I didn't get into science -- read Philip Larkin's "On Being Twenty-Six" if you wonder why -- and in my own experience, it had nothing to do with discouraging teachers or administrators or advisors or even fellow students. I had a great physics teacher in high school and another in college, for instance, and both thought quite highly of me. But somehow, even with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and rocks and stars and the brain, even while going to a math/science magnet for high school and part of junior high, even while suddenly realizing during my high school geology exam that I was enjoying taking an exam, it just never occurred to me that I could be a scientist. The thought never crossed my mind. Even if I had been seriously considering it, I certainly took every less-than-success -- poor grades in chemistry, for instance -- as evidence that I wasn't smart enough, while successes went basically unnoticed. I wasn't brilliant in science, especially compared to some of the other magnet kids, but I assumed that not being brilliant meant not being good enough. I got an 89 on my physics final, so why would I ever imagine that I could succeed? But it wasn't a matter of having my dreams shattered; it was a matter of it never dawning on me that I could have the dream in the first place.

We'll still have a "pipeline problem" if we get science careers onto girls' radar. There will still be massive attrition at every level, just like there is all over academia, for the simple reason that women are socialized to give up. You may bounce in your playpen listening to 5000 Sesame Street muppets sing to you about how you can do anything you want, but from kindergarten through menopause, everything else in your life will tell you to back down from competition. That's my theory, anyway, and as with any theory, there are ways in which it's insufficient -- the girliest of girls, for instance, the absolute wet dreams of the patriarchy, are pushed to compete as hard as possible (for spots on a corps de ballet, say). In both cases, though, the sense is that if you can't dominate, you shouldn't play. ("Little Miss Sunshine," among its other merits, gives a great illustration of this phenomenon.) So there's an attrition problem, and there will be an attrition problem until there is absolute gender equality, which probably means "until men can give birth." (Episode 2.6 of "Red Dwarf," among its other merits, gives a great illustration of this phenomenon.) Plus, of course, there are absolutely still teachers who don't take girls seriously as science or math students, and who drive women out of these disciplines before they're even old enough to choose a career path. But the attrition problem doesn't even matter if girls don't think of science as a realistic choice from day one.

I've been heartened recently to hear tales of some girls who love science the way little girls usually love ponies. Dr. Free-Ride's kids never fail to make me optimistic about the new generation -- not only do they love all of science's grossnesses and weirdnesses and explanatory power, but they don't think there's anything particularly remarkable about reading up on cephalopods instead of dressing up Barbie. And yesterday a woman came into the bookstore to exchange some Giant Microbes -- her fifth grader had requested a science-themed birthday party, and she was giving them out as favors, but she had accidentally picked up a "gonorrhea" and a "mononucleosis" and thought they might be inappropriate. I like a little girl who wants a science-themed party. But these kids are remarkable because they are still exceptions.

And so the question is, how do you make girls think of science as something they can do? And even more difficult, how do you do it so it sticks, so that it's stronger than all of the negative socialization they'll get from other sources? Feminist Press, with help from the NSF, is hoping that all it takes is the right kid of book; they are offering grant money for writing books that will bring girls to science, books that kids will read voluntarily but that will teach them something and get them interested in the field. In theory, this is a nice idea (we tried it too, for all the good it did), but look closely at the description of one of the types of proposals they're requesting:
We envision a book or a collection of short stories, each one about a real girl who has the potential to become a superstar in her field – a field that usually is not associated with science and mathematics. Each already will have been identified by teachers and coaches as having such potential – think of Shannon Miller in gymnastics at 12 years old or the Williams sisters in tennis at fourteen. Each girl we write about will have a dream to excel in her chosen field, and each will require years of commitment and hard work, as well as knowledge of certain aspects of science and math, to achieve her dream.

For example, a young gymnast of great potential benefits from knowing the physics of motion, of bodies moving in a circle, and the concept of moment of inertia. A future champion skater understands about leaping against the force of gravity, the motion of her center of mass, and the properties of ice. A young ballerina has knowledge about forces, balance and the physics of jumping; a young jazz dancer knows about skeletal structure, metabolism and quick twitch muscles. Consider a highly promising young actor who knows about lighting, cosmetology, nutrition and voice; or, a talented young filmmaker who understands acoustics, optics and lighting. Another example might be a girl who excels in video game design and knows a great deal about computers and mathematics.
Gymnastics. Tennis. Dance. Skating. Acting. What do they have in common? They encourage poor body image, they trade on looks even more than ability, and they require you to wear extremely short skirts (except for gymnastics, where you don't get a skirt, and acting, where if you're good enough you can eventually put on a longer one). Frequently they involve sequins. They are, in short, Girl Things -- the things little girls are supposed to want to do, supposed to excel at. If you don't, you're a failure, and if you do... well, just ask a recovering ballerina what happens then. These are the most vicious, ruthless chop shops for girls' senses of self-esteem and self-reliance... and Feminist Press is suggesting we use them as hooks to get girls into science? Even The Science of Makeup or The Science of Perfume or The Science of Shoes would be less offensive. (Might be cool, too, especially perfume.) My boss and I looked at this CFP and decided to start a girl's magazine, with photos of hunky scientists and pieces on the chemistry of acne cream (I suggested we call it TIGR Beat). A joke... but not as much of a joke as "How I Used Science To Get Into The Kirov."

Where, in Feminist Press' list, are the girls who want to be scientists? Far from calling for a solution to the problem, this CFP just throws the problem into sharper relief. The problem isn't that girls aren't exposed to science; the problem is that they are prevailed upon to be Girls Doing Science. It's the same problem I used to have with English scholarship -- women scholars won't be treated equally until we can stop being Women Scholars and just be scholars. We don't have to write about feminist theory just because of our chromosomes and reproductive organs. And girls don't have to be coaxed into science via skating costumes and lipstick. That turns science into just another way to fulfill a patriarchal fantasy. But science is, on its own merits, cool. Don't tell me there's no way to sell kids on its sheer coolness.

What is that way? Well shit, I don't know, guys. I have some ideas, but I grew up in the American patriarchy same as y'all, and I don't have the market cornered on unclouded perspective. I do think that's the goal, though, and that it's a reachable goal, and that the compromise goal -- to sneak science into the Approved Girl Activities -- is more harmful than helpful. Got an idea of how? Apply for Femist Press' NSF grant... and send them a big, world-weary raspberry from me.


Blogger Laura said...

Hear, Hear!

Fantastic post. I have no answers, but thanks for writing this up.

9/22/2006 8:48 PM  
Blogger Lynne said...

I didn't know about that Feminist Press proposal, and it's appalling. The first sentence ("We envision a book or a collection of short stories, each one about a real girl who has the potential to become a superstar in her field – a field that usually is not associated with science and mathematics") says it all - why a field not usually associated with science and math?? That's ridiculously backwards.

As a counterpoint to your post, while I agree with all of it, I should add that for some reason I never felt most of the women-don't-do-science internalized thing that a lot of girls obviously grow up feeling. Maybe that's because I decided early that I was interested in humanities so I didn't really think about science, and when I decided in college that I wanted to study science after all, there was nothing standing in my way because I hadn't internalized much of the assumptions that could have driven me off. All I really needed was a really fun science class that made me rethink my old assumptions (that science was an important requirement but boring) and I just knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. (I think that anyone who finds themselves reading their intro geology textbook for fun late at night in their first year of college - on Friday and Saturday nights, no less - knows beyond a doubt that that is what they're going to do.) I suppose I was very lucky to have avoided most of the assumptions about women and science altogether by not being interested until I was at a place like Smith.

I've only read the summary of that report, but I don't think anyone really finds its findings surprising. It's depressing to be reminded, though.

9/23/2006 11:42 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

In some defense of the Feminist Press thing, this seems to be a more general strategy for getting kids interested in math, science, etc.: Find something that is popular among [demographic group of interest]. Now try to illustrate how [discipline in question] is integral to [activity under discussion]. Futhermore, imply (or state outright) and mastery of [discipline in question] will help one excel at [activity under discussion]. The activies they chose may be sterotypical, but they may also actually be quite popular among girls.

Actually, a problem I have with all this is that generally the claim that, say, knowing physics will help you be better at baseball (or gymnatics, for that matter) is largely false. I feel that lying to kids to try to recruit them is a strategy that is likely to backfire in the long term.

9/26/2006 12:17 AM  
Blogger jess said...

I feel that lying to kids to try to recruit them is a strategy that is likely to backfire in the long term.

Especially when there's so much legitimate coolness in science that we could be focusing on.

You're right about "you need [thing kid finds unpleasant] to do [thing kid enjoys]" being a time-tested strategy. I just think the priorities are all wrong here... they're assuming right off the bat that a) girls will enjoy mostly dance and competitive skating (and certainly some of them do, but how much of that is because people assume they will?), and b) science is something you have to trick kids into liking by associating it with something they enjoy, like putting castor oil in applesauce or wrapping a dog's pill in cheese. Neither one of these seems defensible to me.

I do like the idea of showing kids that science is useful for more than just running around in a lab coat a la Professor Frink. I'm kind of serious about how "the science of perfume" would be awesome, for instance -- you don't think of cosmetics as a scientific field, but it's all chemistry. Architects need to know physics, for another example, and kids might not have thought of that. But that doesn't seem to be what Feminist Press is asking for.

Lynne, yeah, I think you were probably lucky to start getting sciencey at Smith, where a lot of the stereotypes just don't exist in the same way. That intro geology class made a lot of converts who had never thought about being geologists. Way to go, Smith!

The results in Beyond Bias and Barriers wouldn't surprise any Smithies for sure, but I think there probably are people who would quibble with the idea that women still experience discrimination. In fact, I know there are because I've seen them do it. (Daily Show last night even had a kid on who was suing his school system for higher grades because he thought BOYS were being discriminated against -- that's how much some people can ignore how far we haven't come!) We're not friends with any of them, but there is definitely a "don't get so excited about it, little lady" contingent. That's why I'm glad we have this fat report written under the aegis of some 17 successful women (and one dude).

9/26/2006 8:32 AM  
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