OK, here are some sobering statistics about girls in science (don’t tune out just yet…) that a friend and colleague of mine shared with me today. Check this shit out:
39% of all undergraduate geosciences degrees are awarded to women.
47% of all Masters degrees in geosciences are awarded to women.
41% of all Doctorate degrees in geosciences are awarded to women.
Women only hold 30% of the jobs in geosciences.
All right, so the 47% isn’t so bad, and really, about half of the graduate students in geosciences in many programs across the nation are women. That’s progress, right? So why are so few of the actual jobs held by women? In my geosciences department we have about 32 faculty and 4 of them are women (including me, and I am not a tenured or tenure track faculty). That is about 13%. At UCLA, where I did my PhD, they have about 35 faculty and 4 are women (roughly 11%). So less than one seventh of the faculty in these stellar geosciences departments are women. Yet quite a few women are getting degrees in geoscience fields. At the heart of the issue here, separate from the statistics (which are indeed important but can be boring as hell to think about), is why women generally don’t take the plunge into what we call STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Believe it or not, there are actually people out there studying this very question using the scientific method, doing real research, and diligently trying to figure out how to attract more women to STEM fields. One of them is my colleague, Phil Stokes, whose recent work includes looking at gender differences and differences in underrepresented minorities in pursuing geoscience degrees. In his review of the literature he found some interesting things in other people’s work on gender. First off, and probably not surprising, is that there is a gender bias in science that can put women at a disadvantage because of the way they are perceived professionally (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). A study by Canetto et al. (2012) looked at women in atmospheric sciences and determined that they may have career goals that lead them out of science more often than men. Study or not, I can certainly relate to being less ambitious about thriving in the “publish or perish” world of academia, and more ambitious about teaching, outreach, being a mother, being a human being with outside interests other than work, being a writer, and so on. Perhaps I am not the only woman who can relate.
Now, let’s get anecdotal. In my experience, wanting to have more than the very singular goal of achieving tenure is a common feeling among women, and is not common among men. When I was in graduate school, I struggled to find a balance between being a graduate student, learning how to survive in the sometimes competitive and harsh world of science, and being a human with other interests, and a desire to get the hell out of the lab on occasion and live like the normal folk live. My male contemporaries, while they had other interests, had no such struggle, as far as I could tell. They lived in their offices. They worked all hours of the day and night. They ate, slept, and breathed their research. They thrived on this. In fact, my husband and his office mates were in the office all the time, at the same time, and so took to calling themselves the squirrels, and labeled their office the squirrels’ nest. The only time I saw them all leave was when the lot of them, including the two male advisors of our little cohort, would lace up and hit the stadium to run stadium stairs in training for the Tibet field season. I used to go with them quite regularly, and spent the entire time huffing and puffing and trying to keep up, only to end up running stadiums by myself, watching them kick my ass, and feeling like a complete fuck up. On a recent visit back to UCLA, more than ten years after graduating, the squirrels’ nest designation lives on. Whenever I used to visit my husband (boyfriend at the time) up in that office, I felt like an imposter in some sort of nerdy boys club. I must say, they were all sweet guys who never said or did anything to make me feel unwelcome. But they were strange, and nerdy, and had limited interpersonal skills for the greater part of their graduate school career, and I just did not get that whole jam. But to them, they were living the dream, and were on the straight and narrow path to academic glory, and I couldn’t help but feel less than worthy as I headed home at 7 pm to eat dinner, walk my dog, and watch Friends re-runs.
Feeling less than worthy among a group of confident, cocky, smart as hell men is likely one reason why women often find another path than the traditional tenure track academic long haul. Another might be growing babies in their bodies and then having to raise those babies, but that’s another story. But what about going back farther into a woman’s history, and thinking about the experiences girls have with science and math early in their educational and personal development? Again, I am going to spew a bunch of anecdotal information at you now, and I don’t have statistics at the tips of my polished fingers to throw at you in support of these suspicions, but research is emerging that suggests some of these ideas are at least partially true. I have seen time and time again, little girls (let’s say ten and younger) who love science and math. They say math is their favorite subject in school (my best friend’s seven year old daughter is one of these precocious little gals). They say they want to be astronauts or archaeologists or doctors when they grow up. The fear of science, or the belief that math is hard, has not set in to their developing minds yet. It is a delight to see. Then, at some point, usually around middle school, it changes. More and more girls start repeating this mantra, “science is too hard.” Or its ugly stepbrother, “I am not good at math.” And that is the end of that. Another perfectly capable, smart, creative girl out of the STEM pipeline. What the hell is going on here?
I just read an op-ed piece in the NY Times by a very accomplished woman scientist who argues that in the world of STEM there is a sexual assault problem. So let’s see…take this myth many girls believe that math and science are too hard and add to it the possibility that they might be treated inappropriately in the field while doing research, and see what that does to the number of women in science. Jesus, as if entering a male dominated field with very few female mentors and little in the way of emotional support wasn’t enough, you better wear a turtleneck at all times and never venture into field research without a posse of bodyguards and a wire under your fleece to record any sleazy remarks coming from your male colleagues. I really hope this is not as common an occurrence as the piece suggests, but I suspect it is more common than you would think. (See the piece here)
I, for one, was lucky enough to have absolutely amazing men with me when I worked for months at a time in the middle of nowhere, Tibet. After reading the piece in the NY Times I reflected on my time in Tibet and how utterly cut off from civilization I was for extended periods of time, and realized that if I had not had two fellow graduate students with me who were trusted friends I could have been very vulnerable. At the time I was doing field research we didn’t even have satellite phones. I couldn’t have made a phone call if I wanted (or needed) to. My only option for contacting the outside world was via postcard sent from a small town, and when I did so, I usually made it home long before the postcard did. But luckily, my Tibetan drivers were total gentlemen, even protective at times, and our Chinese colleague, although he thought I had no business being on the plateau because I am a woman, was polite enough too, so I was in good hands all around. But imagine being alone in a foreign land, far from civilization, with no easy way to communicate with the outside world, and feeling threatened by one of your own colleagues. If this happens even once, it needs to be dealt with. And the implications for women in science could be devastating. You cannot exactly, in good faith, encourage your daughter to go into a field that relies on exotic, far-flung field studies if it is likely a male colleague will mistreat her. Even if it is not sexual assault, but being talked down to, or doubted, or made to feel inadequate – why would you want your daughter to have to deal with that? But little girls don’t know about this, so little girls shouldn’t be worried about this. There is something else going on.
In addition, I would guess this happens in quite a few fields, not just science, so it is probably not something I would worry about when thinking about encouraging your daughter to go into science. Teaching them to stand up for themselves in any field is going to go a lot farther than scaring them away from a field because they may encounter bad behavior by male colleagues. They will likely encounter bad behavior by male colleagues in any field they choose to enter. They may even encounter bad behavior by female colleagues.
I think there is a deeply rooted idea that women are less able than men to thrive in academic scientific pursuits. We don’t see the same split in humanities fields. In fact, in many of the humanities, arts, and social sciences women dominate the faculty positions and the jobs. But our little girls don’t know this when they are five, or ten, or even seventeen. So why do they run for the hills when science comes their way? Why do they duck and cover when math comes at ‘em? Is it because nobody bought them a chemistry set when they were little? Or because they were encouraged to play with dolls instead of dirt? I don’t really know. I do know from experience that as a young girl I pictured myself as a dancer, or an actress, or a stay at home mother, and never even considered I would be a scientist. I didn’t know what a scientist was! I know as a middle school student and high school student I bought into the whole idea that math was hard, and science was hard, and I was going to be a writer and never have to deal with those hard subjects. What a mistake that was! (Not to mention, writing is really fucking hard). I discovered that math and science were something I could actually do, and that they were a lot of fun! If only I had believed that throughout my childhood, I might have been better prepared when I finally did enter the world of science.
And so I implore all of you women out there who have access to young minds: talk up science and math! Tell your daughters how fun science is. Instead of watching Frozen again this weekend, find a simple science experiment online and do it with your daughter. Take her for a nature walk and pick up a goddamn bug or two. Take her outside at night before bed and tell her about the solar system, the constellations, and the moon. You can find out some pretty cool shit about that stuff with a simple Internet search. When she brings home some tricky math homework, don’t tell her that Dad will help when he gets home. Figure that shit out and help her yourself! Show her that women can do it just as well, if not better, than men. Model for her how utterly normal it is for a woman to be fascinated by science.
Then take her for a mani/pedi and belt out Let It Go on the way home. You deserve it!