www.whyville.net Jul 6, 2014 Weekly Issue

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Women in Science: What's the Issue?

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There has recently been a lot of talk about why it seems that men excel in many areas of science, such as biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering, but women shy away. Many reasons have been produced. Some claim that society has taught women to be less accepting of their own mistakes, so they are afraid to ask questions. There is a strong argument that many technology firms have a very masculine atmosphere that is not accepting to women. Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, even implied that there is something different in the brains of men and women that makes it less natural for women to pursue science.

My name is Pamelia, and I am a woman in science (I just finished my freshman year of college!) I want to talk about my experience in science, to dispel some fears from other girls considering science as a career path, and to explore what needs to be done in order to fix the gap.

I started being a science nerd when I was pretty young, actually in elementary school. A university near my school had a robotics team just for girls where we could build and program our own robot to perform specific tasks. I loved the team! My parents looked at the 10 year old me and were very proud, and it seemed like I could study robotics and engineering through middle school and beyond. But then middle school hit, along with what I like to call the "mean girl" years. Suddenly there were cliques and popularity, and it seemed like everyone was watching me, waiting for me to mess up so that they could pounce. I stayed away from science, thinking that the people who did it were dorky and that I should focus on singing and sports, more acceptable pursuits.

In high school that all changed. Being smart, trying hard, and discovering your passions stopped being seen as uncool and instead started being appreciated. I began to realize that science was not the ugly stepsister of other subjects, but was something uniquely beautiful. Suddenly, however, I was faced with a flood of people telling me what I hadn't realized: that women were apparently an endangered species in science. I was confused, and in fact a little dejected. If all these prestigious sources (The New York Times, The Huffington Post) were telling me that women were not in the sciences, then what made me think that I could be? What made me different? In fact, the very chatter that started the whole push to get more women into scientific fields made me less attracted to it. I didn't want to study microbiology for a feminist cause. I wanted to because I loved the subject. However, the more I heard the talk, the more that I wanted to give an inside view of women in science. A real, human view.

Let me first try to deal with a few of these "reasons" why women don't join science: the numbers. There is, of course, something to the argument that there are more men than women in science. In physics, engineering, and computer science, it is certainly true that men dominate the field. In a physics course over the summer that I took, only 3 of 20 students were girls. However, there are now more women in biology than men, and in my chemistry class over 75% of the students were girls. Although there are many men in these subjects, there is no reason to feel overpowered! The sciences are filling up with intelligent, interesting women, and we are excelling. Last semester, I lived in a dorm with 3 other girls in science. I never felt isolated from the sciences because of my gender.

Another question is that of our "meekness." I actually see some truth in this. Young women, especially those of middle and high school age, are afraid of being labeled a know-it-all and being judged by their friends and peers, while boys seem to be less sensitive towards the opinions of others. I know that I felt pressure not to give too many answers or ask too many questions in class. Some of this is internal. We are afraid of asking a stupid question or being wrong and we don't want to embarass ourselves. However, it is a rare question that is stupid. As my friend Charlie always says, the only stupid question is an unrelated one (for example, those kids who raise their hands and preface the question by saying "this might be a little unrelated" and then finish by asking the physics teacher what that weird rash on their elbow is.) If you're feeling hesitant about asking a question, know that the teacher always appreciates a student who wants know more, and that other students in the class definitely have the same question but are more shy. However, this sensitivity to public opinion is also fading. As young women realize that it is better to do well in school than it is to go through school unnoticed, I find more girls in classes willing to speak up. In everyday school environments, I see more scientific discussions going on between women, and more women who are willing to make mistakes in order to learn from them. We are learning that the gaps in our own knowledge can best be filled when they are recognized.

There is much more work to do in order to get more girls interested in science. We have to publicize the fact that it is not a dorky, geeky, or nerdy thing to be interested in. I want to show everyone that I know tons of completely normal girls working in science! Emma is super fashionable, Johanna is a sporty crew girl, and Jasmin loves going to the beach and getting tan. We talk about boys together, go shopping together, watch romantic comedies together. We do not have to sacrifice our femininity in order to study science, and I think that this is often not recognized. We also have to work to get better math and science teachers. The problem is not just with young girls in this field. Both young boys and young girls would be more interested in the sciences if they had better teachers, and girls especially could use better role models in order to build their confidence.

At the end of the day, though, daily scientists are not really caught up in this debate. They just keep solving the complex puzzles that life provides. For example, I am currently working in a microbiology lab this summer. The people are great! Ellie is sassy and pokes fun at everyone in the place. Karen, my mentor, is young and energetic, although very nervous about getting the results back from her final exams. Overall, there are 6 women in the lab and 2 boys. I am happy here. I feel connected to the people and comfortable in the environment. The subject itself is really cool; I am studying bacterial biofilms, which are complex communitues of bacteria that are differentiated. There is nothing quite like the feeling when you observe a reaction taking place that has never been seen before. If I cared to, I could isolate a new molecule. Of course, it would take a few years (yay for the scientific process,) but at the end of it, I would make my mark. That feeling of ecstatic discovery is universal; gender is irrelevant.


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