Girls Love Science. We Tell Them Not To.

A recent article argued that ‘biology and nature sway females away from science.’ Not so fast.

Thomas Tolstrup/Getty

How do we get more women involved in science? This is an important and complex topic, but to some, it seems like an unnecessary question. They point to equal treatment under law and policies against discrimination. The opportunities are there, it’s just up to women to take them!

Or maybe they won’t, because as Mary Kenny recently wrote in The Telegraph, perhaps “females as a whole, are not hugely engaged by science.”

One would hope that Kenny obtained some decent data to support such a claim. But, unfortunately, she didn’t offer data worth supporting. Citing a single psychologist, Dr. Gijsbert Stoet, who (a) she never directly spoke to and (b) has distanced himself from the article, Kenny asserted a hodgepodge of strange proclamations on women’s affinities that tend to sway them away from “boring” science.

As she wrote:

“The problem with science is that, for all its wonders, it lacks narrative and story-line. Science (and math) is about facts, and the laboratory testing of elements. It is not primarily about people. Women—broadly speaking—are drawn to the human factor: to story, biography, psychology and language.”

Many found this to echo a Stepford Wife mentality of women: Women like stories and language, not impersonal, cold, manly numbers!

Being neither a scientist nor a woman, this was territory I knew little about. Perhaps Kenny, then, had some experience as a scientist herself? I read her second to last paragraph and it firmly cemented the reality of the situation: “I’ve noticed this in my own modest career in public speaking. In a mixed audience, women immediately respond when you tell a story with a strong human element.”

First, not a career as a scientist, but as a public speaker. I’m not diminishing her career or the career of any broadcaster—only indicating that it’s a far cry from the world of the working scientist. Second, she used anecdotal evidence to cement her point, which, as any good scientific method will indicate, is a bad way to support your claims.

Given my and Kenny’s apparent ignorance on this topic, I decided to do what Kenny should’ve done: I spoke to some female scientists.

Dr. Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist and Postdoctoral Research Associate at Doane College, told me that the most striking thing about Kenny’s piece was Kenny’s view of science as some “monolith.” As Burks pointed out, “Science is a process and a staggeringly massive, ever-changing, expanding body of knowledge. Science, with its many fields and applications, is diverse—as are the scientists doing the work.”

Burks explained just how backward Kenny had it. “Science is about facts and people,” she wrote. “Science is done by people and it is often done to serve the interests of people. We do laboratory tests, field experiments, computer simulations, etc. so that we can understand the world around us and ourselves. How can we use this information to build, start, stop, and/or save something or someone? Even the most basic research, which may have no immediate application, is pursued to increase our knowledge. If that isn’t [about] people, I don’t know what is.”

On many levels, fewer things than science—in detailing where we came from, what we are, how we function—are more human. Burke finished off by telling me that even if Kenny’s assertion that women prefer the “human factor” were true, then “women would certainly be drawn to science. I certainly am.”

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Others were equally unimpressed by the article.

Dr. Katherine (Katie) Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University and has written for Slate, Time, and elsewhere. She told me, “Gender-based socialization, and messages LIKE THIS ARTICLE [her emphasis] that tell girls that science is an unnatural thing for them to do, are incredibly pervasive in our culture. If you want to discuss inherent differences between men’s and women’s brains, first remove all stereotypes, discrimination (subtle or explicit), biased parental expectations, media messages, pressure from teachers, and long-standing gender-based cultural norms, and then tell me about whatever differences you can find, if any.”

Given the near impossibility of finding such a sample of children to conduct this test on, it’s no wonder so many are unimpressed with claims about what women are supposedly drawn to.

Professor Janet Stemwedel, whose Scientific American blog on ethics and science remains an essential read, has made a greater impact than most. She started her career as a physical chemist and now teaches philosophy at San Jose State University.

“Clinging to the idea that maybe there are innate reasons that girls and women aren’t interested in and or don’t have aptitude for science and math,” she said, “before we’ve actually managed to remove the features of the environment that discourage and discriminate against them when they try is just foolish.”

Stemwedel agreed that Kenny had it backwards. “There are science teachers who can make science seem like a boring pile of facts—as well as science teachers… who are not shy about communicating that science is not really for girls,” she explained. “Given the other background social pressures, especially during adolescence, this kind of message may discourage girls from taking science classes (where both teachers and peers question whether the girls belong there) in favor of something else.”

Again and again, talking with women involved in scientific—or even just male-dominated—areas, it was clear Kenny’s was the last wheel in a self-fulfilling prophecy machine. Tell girls that girls and women don’t like science, that it’s a man’s space for men, and witness the results. Then find your confirmation from this result that tells you, well, girls must not like science—otherwise women would be doing science!

In a popular article for Collider, Stemwedel outlined what she saw as a young woman working in a lab. It was believed women who had great research or who got published had help, even though the same assumptions weren’t made of male students. “One of my lab-mates was routinely dismissed in this way, although if any of the doubters had bothered to read her detailed lab notebooks … they would have seen that her secret was that she was tremendously smart and frighteningly organized...” she wrote.

In 2005, astrophysicist Meg Urry noted that “Discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face. It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.” No wonder so many women either don’t enter or don’t remain in scientific fields.

The New York Times’ Eileen Pollack noted that the American Mathematical Society published some data in an attempt to identify standout performers. However, they found some other interesting results. The authors wrote that “it is deemed uncool within the social context of U.S.A. middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.”

For Pollack, that “the disparity between men and women’s representation in science and math arises from culture rather than genetics seems beyond dispute.” And when that culture still holds onto sexist views of women, even attempts to rectify this imbalance can backfire.

In 2012, the EU made an awful attempt at making women interested in a career in science. While their motives were admirable, the execution was anything but. The campaign was dubbed “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” and, said Anna Leach, “was part of a broader push to address the gender imbalance in science and technology.” However, the campaign’s ideas were rather cringe-inducing, especially its now infamous video. Leach summarized: “Girls will love science, the EU has suggested, because Bunsen burners look like lipstick and fiber-optic cables are sort of like powder brushes. Also, because a tube of lipstick stands in for the “i” in “science.”

The campaign was a notorious disaster. Members of the “gender expert group” advising on the campaign expressed disgust at what was produced. As Professor Curt Rice pointed out in the Guardian: “My uncertainty about how the campaign would be received was vanquished the moment I saw the teaser video. Not only was it completely devoid of any trace of our group’s recommendations… but its sex roles were stereotypical clichés. There was the aforementioned man in a lab coat sitting at a microscope. But the women wore short skirts and stilettos as they pouted and giggled while clumsily dropping models of molecules all over the lab floor. When the girls did seem to have some interest in science, it was directed towards the science of make-up. Indeed, the video could almost be a hip cosmetics commercial.”

Discrimination against woman is a widespread problem that requires responses on numerous fronts, but it’s important to identify and acknowledge its pervasiveness. No one should have their work, dreams, and career undermined because they’re the “wrong” gender or race.

And yet we’ve seen that even attempts at redressing this, when it’s filled with a backward or sexist view of women, can harm the overarching goal. No one is saying this is easy, but it would help if we started recognizing women as persons, and the many environments that do not treat them so.