They blanded her with science

Stereotypes, it appears, are imprinted early in life, and by “early” I mean, oh, fourth grade or so:

[We] were doing a pilot project in which we had three or four graduate students working with Sue Kirby’s fourth-grade class on circuits. We were planning a grant in which we wanted to study the impact of contact with real scientists on student images of science and scientists. The program to which we were writing had a goal of teaming graduate science and engineering students with K-12 teachers, so we had recruited a few graduate students — all of whom happened to be female — to come and work with the kids. We didn’t set out to get women students, those were just the students who were interested in participating. Our goal was to see what the students learned about the process of science in their quest to make a bulb light with just a battery, a bulb and a single piece of wire.

So far, so good. But then:

About halfway through the process, as I’m standing there watching with a smile as bulbs are lighting and students are saying “cool” and smiling about how they understand science, [my collaborator] approaches me.

“Guess what?” she asks. “The students don’t believe you’re scientists.”

She had been interviewing students out in the hallway and asking them questions I never would have thought to ask. Like “Who are these people helping you?”

And darned if the fourth grade students weren’t overwhelmingly positive that the women graduate students in the class could not possibly be scientists. Even with prompted with “could they be scientists?”, the kids had all sorts of reasons why they weren’t.

“They’re too pretty. Pretty women wouldn’t be scientists.”

“They smile too much.”

“They talk in ways we can understand.”

“They act like they want us to understand them.”

At least they got a paper out of it. Still, you can tell that they were not expecting this kind of response:

[W]e tried a bunch of things to reinforce the idea that the women were, in fact, scientists. We videotaped them in their labs explaining their experiments, we mandated that they be called “scientists” or “engineers” and not “graduate students” and we even bought a button machine and made them nametags with “Scientist” in big letters. I was outvoted in my idea to tattoo the word “Scientist” on their foreheads.

More worrisome, from my point of view anyway, is the idea that one of those fourth-graders, perhaps not right away but eventually, is going to be told by Some Older Person that “Oh, you don’t want to go into physics. You’re much too pretty for that sort of thing.” And the girl who might have found the Higgs boson, possibly with Higgs still attached to it, instead ends up reading the news on a TV station in Paducah. You can’t tell me this is a favorable outcome.

Perhaps things will work out. Already women outnumber men in the nation’s colleges; assuming the trend continues, as one should when in doubt, eventually more of them will end up in the hard sciences and maybe even introduced to impressionable fourth-graders. To me, at least, this seems more plausible than trying to persuade Dolce & Gabbana to come out with a line of lab coats.


  1. fillyjonk »

    23 June 2010 · 12:05 pm

    I don’t know whether to crawl under my desk and weep, or put on my Abby Sciuto boots and go out and try to prove to grade school kids that scientists are people too.

    From what I’ve read, 11 is about the age where girls begin “falling away” from science and math, because some of them learn that it’s easier to get through life by being a Fruit Cup Girl (that is: pretending you’re too weak to open your own fruit cup, and asking some convenient guy to do it. And then that behavior gets extended to a lot of things).

    Why didn’t I “fall away” at 11? I think I was already convinced that nothing I could do would ever make me one of the “cool kids,” so I had might as well do something I actually enjoyed with my life. I suspect that’s actually what happened with a lot of today’s female scientists; most of the ones I know report the same kind of grade school experiences that I had (eating lunch alone, not getting invited to parties, being the “weird smart kid”)

  2. Charles Pergiel »

    23 June 2010 · 3:21 pm

    Somebody famous (Ghandi, maybe) once said that there are two kinds of people. Those who do the work and those who take credit for it. I suspect people that do the work (of any kind) do so because it suits them. People who claim the credit are simply making use of their inate political talents.

    Some people are biddable and do what they are told, some people are independent minded and do what they want regardless of what other people say.

    So the big question is, how much can you influence the independent part of people’s minds? I think we have enough scientists and engineers, what we don’t have is a culture that values them, at least not very highly.

  3. Francis W. Porretto »

    23 June 2010 · 3:55 pm

    “They’re too pretty. Pretty women wouldn’t be scientists.”

    That’s been my experience, too. The currency they possess allows pretty women to enter other, more gratifying life tracks, and the overwhelming majority of them prefer to do so.

    — Francis W. Porretto, BS (Mathematics) PhD (Physics)

    PS: No, that is not the reason I left the sciences.

    PPS: “scientists are people,” Filly? Talk about counter-trending!

  4. fillyjonk »

    23 June 2010 · 4:42 pm

    I suppose I shouldn’t get upset about “lookism” and science until they start advertising plastic surgery with, “Don’t worry, honey…come to us and you won’t HAVE to become a scientist.”

    Though considering my cynical view of culture, I’d not be surprised if that wasn’t used somewhere.

  5. CGHill »

    23 June 2010 · 7:42 pm

    And there’s this: “In Drawings of Scientists, seventh graders draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.” (Hat tip: Syaffolee.)

  6. Rightwing Links (June 23, 2010) »

    23 June 2010 · 9:55 pm

    […] They blanded her with science […]

  7. Old Grouch »

    24 June 2010 · 6:30 pm

    “…possibly with Higgs still attached to it.”

    Last time I looked, Higgs was over here. (He’s the one in the hat.)

  8. tioedong »

    27 June 2010 · 5:38 pm

    well, this might help:

    A “reality show” about Nerdgirls: LINK

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