Monthly Archives: April 2012

Stop Teaching Girls that Science is Only For Boys.

(clockwise from left): Agnes J. Quirk, Helen Morgenthau Fox (1884-1974), and Florence Hedges (1878-1956)

I spent some time on Sunday helping some high schools girls revise their physics papers. Other than catching the standard misspelled words and clunky sentence structures, an interesting theme appeared in common in the papers; the girls kept writing in masculine references.

Humans have long gazed at the stars in wonder but in one paper it was specifically “man” gazing and wondering. Another paper referred to some scientists as “these men” as if gender had some kind of relevance that needed to be specifically pointed out. The papers weren’t about the lives and biographies of scientists but rather were about science in general. The scientists were men it is true, but it wasn’t necessary to emphasize that, any more than one might say that they were white or British or Greek or young or old, rich or poor, graduates of some exclusive university, or rugby fans. What did gender matter? The papers were speaking of discoveries.

But gender specific references crept into each paper multiple times.

The girls were subtly telling me that they thought science is for men. They were exposing the boundaries of the culture box that they live in, where men are glorified for wondering at stars by children raised to see them as superhuman and out of reach.

It was as if these scientists sprang fully formed and erect from the head of the father of all geniuses, historic discoveries clenched firmly in their fists, ready to enlighten the earth. Any child learning about science would be daunted.

That is a myth more romantic than the reality, which is that these men didn’t work alone and certainly weren’t born with breathtaking discoveries in hand. They worked for years, building their knowledge, sharing data, taught by parents and teachers, supported by assistants, students, and domestic help, promoted by mentors and sponsors, nurtured by loved ones, engaged by peers.

Not one of them could produce a single thought without sufficient food and water and warmth and they each created a human standard waste disposal problem.

All of these nitty gritty details of life fall away from the pedestals of great “men.” None of it matters, only the note that these were not just scientists, with all of the process and work that involves; no, these were Men. And if the girls are concluding from this that science is distinctly masculine, the boys probably are too.

I frequently see articles and statements made about the need for more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related careers.

“Why?” they ask repeatedly. “Why aren’t girls interested?”

Discovery and innovation always benefit from a diversity of perspectives and this is a particularly important need in these industries.

There is no biological requirement of a penis in STEM careers. I’m unaware of any significant discovery that required one as part of the process. We’ve seen successful female scientists so we know it’s possible. That means the restrictions are cultural and that means that we can have an effect if we pay attention to cultural factors, even if they seem small. A factor isn’t small if it’s pervasive. Air molecules are small too.

Narratives and stories are an important part of any culture. Science stories that specifically emphasize masculinity have the accumulated effect of excluding women from the culture of science.

If we really want more women to enter STEM careers and if we want the men in these careers to accept them, and I believe we do, we need teachers in these areas to be careful not to exclude females by using male-only language. Point it out in textbooks and talk about it. Point it out in papers from both genders. Leave it out of lectures.

It is as easy to say “human” as it is to say “man” and as easy to say “scientist” or “mathematician” as it is to say “men.” Words matter because words evoke images and if a girl can’t imagine herself as a scientist or a mathematician, then she’ll never dream of it while wondering at the stars.

Image: “(clockwise from left): Agnes J. Quirk, Helen Morgenthau Fox (1884-1974), and Florence Hedges (1878-1956)” by Smithsonian Institution, on Flickr

Here, There Be Dragons!

Ship Garthsnaid, ca 1920s

Centuries ago, there probably really were people who believed that there were dragons and demons at the edges of the world. Judging by the widespread anti-science sentiment today, there probably were a great many people who believed these things.

But probably none of them sailed with Columbus or with any other intrepid explorer who set off for the edge of the world. None of them ever found a new world filled with treasures.

Some of those dragon believers may have eventually learned the truth:

Demonizing something is a good way to prevent people from going there.

It’s a great way to keep people locked into place.

And that means that sometimes it marks a place that is worth looking into.

Sometimes a warning is meant to prevent people from breaking laws or from hurting someone else. A warning like that is prudent to follow. Luckily those kinds of warnings are usually obvious. A stop sign on the road means stop! A high voltage warning means stay away or be zapped!

But sometimes the warning is an unsubstantiated demonization of a place or a process or people; if it clouds the mind with fear of it, if it’s meant to keep people from looking further, there may be another truth hidden behind it.

It might just be an attempt to lock you in place.

Image: Ship Garthsnaid, ca 1920s by National Library NZ on The Commons, on Flickr

Conformity Kills

dominos

Conformity Kills People

Bullies enforce it, suicides are driven by shame from it, hate crimes are committed for it, riots break out over it, war crimes are fueled by it.

Conformity Kills Ideas

No one ever achieved a break-through innovation by conforming or by letting a conformist kill it.

Conformity Kills Organizations

Companies cling to obsolete processes and products, keep trying to do the same things only more. Boards don’t recognize the need to change, executives fall into groupthink and make terrible decisions because no one steps out of line to point out flaws that should be obvious.

Conformity is dangerous when conditions change dramatically.

Conformity doubles down on losses again and again.

Conformity can be as comforting and as dangerous as falling asleep in the snow.

Image: dominos by greg westfall., on Flickr