Girls and Science – Makers vs a Scientific American Blogger

So Verizon and Makers teamed up to make a great new video about the insidious ways that we push girls away from science.

I am always suspicious of corporations getting involved in social causes, as they tend to be followers rather than leaders. Still, Makers is pretty great and I think the video highlights some typical ways that we push girls away from science, math, and so forth.

The takeaway is that starting very early, mostly without meaning to, our society (and especially parents, but surely friends and school and media and commerce and so forth) lets girls know that their place is NOT in the lab or the workshop or the field. It’s socially constructed, it may well not be intentional, but it works.

This conversation matters because, much to my surprise, the fundamental premises are still subject to debate. This morning I was alerted to a post on Scientific American blogs, in which a psychology doctoral student named Chris Martin wants you to know that women are just naturally not so scientific, at least not when we’re talking about the super-duper-smart people. He invests in the Larry Summers argument because he wants to debunk Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who when asked about women in science, gave a smart answer about race and science by way of analogy.

Martin writes, with intense disciplinary snobbery to my reading:

Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to the question quite well, but since he’s not a social scientist, he wasn’t able to draw on psychological research on gender differences. His answer focused on stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecy effect. I don’t blame him the slightest for lacking expertise in an area outside his specialty, but I do think people who only watch that video could come away with a misconception about the impact of stereotyping. I’m not going to discuss self-fulfilling prophecies here—they have a weak effect—but I will talk about how recent research has addressed this question.

Yes, Martin argues, there might be a weak effect of stereotyping, but really it’s not such a big deal. The key, he argues, is that there are plenty of women in science, but they tend to be in biology and psych, and most of them do not “choose” to go into academic careers. Martin wonders why.

I am not going to quote more fully. At the end, he nods to the notion that stereotyping might have a tiny bit to do with why women don’t become scientists, but mostly he makes claims that in the context of the Larry Summers debate have been well discredited. Yes, it’s not impossible that there are evolutionary factors that have a tiny effect on career choice. It’s not impossible. But as said on twitter (quoted with permission):

We’ve been through this before.

There’s a place for a smartly argued thoughtfully nuanced piece on the ways that evolution may in fact shape certain kinds of gender difference. This is not that piece. This makes these bold confident truthy statements claiming that the matter is resolved, and this man will tell how it really is.

It wouldn’t matter. Except that it is on Scientific American’s blogs, a major forum, and I suspect it reflects the beliefs of countless people in positions of authority, people who hire, people who train, people who run labs.

Here’s the deal I’ll make.

Let’s get rid of all the stereotyping, all the micro-aggressions that drive girls and women out of science, the social messaging that women who nurture are the only real women, that pretty matters more than smart. The phrases in the video are real, I hear them, I see them in our media. Let’s beat those back, and then we can see where the evolutionary gender differences really take us.

Because these stereotypes run deep. Sometimes, I feel them coming out of my own mouth, directed at my daughter. She’ll be wearing a pretty dress, she’ll be heading for the mud, she’ll be doing something that might be a bit dangerous, and I’ll find my words telling her to stop. And I’ll be appalled at myself.

Then, even if my daughter’s wearing a pretty dress, I hand her a shovel and we go out and dig for worms. I would dig out the science kit and do an experiment with her, but it turns out … her mother is a scientist.

I leave the hard science to mom. 

5 Replies to “Girls and Science – Makers vs a Scientific American Blogger”

  1. David Weber says:

    What kind of scientist IS mom? Unless she's a physicist, chemist or computer scientist, she only supports Martin’s stereotypes. And experimenting with worms isn’t going to help much directly to encourage your daughter to enter a field Summers might respect, like… oh, I don’t know, planetary geophysics. Like my daughter-in-law, at NASA. Who was enthralled early on, as was Tyson, with space. And not apparently ill-favored genetically.

    1. David Perry says:

      Food chemistry actually.

      The point is that if she wants to go into bio or whatever, that's fine. If she doesn't, that's fine too. My closing paragraph really refers back to the video where there's a lot of – it's too dirty, it's too dangerous, it's too hard. We just came inside from planting and digging and climbing trees. Like I said, I leave the hard science to her mom.

    2. David Weber says:

      I agree completely. My daughter was a tree-climber, a soccer player, a Seven Sisters dropout who rebuilt a VW bus and drove it across country home to California, now competes in marathons and triathlons, climbs mountains with her sons, is a free-lance tech journalist… and a full-time, Emmy-winning Latin jazz singer. If she'd wanted to be a scientist like one of her brothers (who also qualified to be a Navy Seal), I haven't a doubt in the world she would have been. Raise your daughter to believe she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. And give birth. Which Larry Summers can't do. Girls rule.

    3. Jessie Shelton says:

      Respectfully, I think you're misunderstanding. I'm a theoretical particle physicist, and I zeroed in on that field pretty early, but when I was in kindergarten all of my protoscientific energy was being channeled into bugs and dinosaurs. In fact, it was paleontology that introduced tiny me to the power of scientific inference and probably made me a scientist for life. The scientific mode of thinking and approaching the world is broader than any particular field and is important to encourage in general, and, at least in my own (personal, subjective) experience, was the basic way of engaging the world that was marked off as "not acceptibly female" by many of my peers.

  2. Janice says:

    I wonder how this blogger would handle cultures such as Russia where women dominate human medicine? Maybe animals in Russia are less "child-like" and so less interesting to women, according to his mode of explanation? There's a huge set of data out there and a lot of published studies that illustrate the powerful role that nurture, from familial all the way through to the broader cultural forces, has in skewing women's education and employment outcomes.

    A chemistry graduate student who is interested in the history and philosophy of science ought to have a more profound understanding of the role that culture plays in determining how people see and understand their worlds. Clearly, this fellow has not read as widely in the field as he should have done before spouting off on the SciAm blog.

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