Tag Archives: mathematics

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

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