[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.