Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Women in STEM

About three weeks ago I read this tweet by @KariByron, of MythBusters fame, about women with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers:

Which I promptly retweeted to my close friend, Angela. Not only has she written for this blog in the past, but she works in the lab across the hall from me. It seemed obvious to me that she would have something interesting to add to the conversation, what with her being a woman and all...

Well, the next day when I saw her I asked about the tweet. I don't think I can adequately describe the evil look she gave me, but our conversation went a little bit like this:
"I don't know, Chad" she said, "why did you choose this career?" 
"Ummm...because...I don't know. I guess because science is awesome and it was something that interested me. It was something I could imagine myself happily doing as a career." 
"So why do you think my response would be any different, just because I'm a woman?"
And for some reason I was shocked. It seems that Angela wasn't the only one to think this way, either. Later that day Kari followed up her first tweet with this one:
For some reason I had never realized (or never put much thought into) this glaringly obvious point: Women choose a STEM career for the same reason that men do, so why do we market it so differently? At my university there is an annual conference for "Women in Science". I'm sure you can guess what Angela's feelings are - Why even have a conference for women in science? After all there isn't a "men in science" conference, right?

But the fact remains - there are fewer women than men that choose a STEM career path. The US Department of Commerce, in a 2012 report stated that the STEM workforce is a shocking 76% men, while the total workforce is split pretty evenly between men and women.

And the problem doesn't end there. Not only are women underrepresented in STEM fields, but there seems to be a double standard from within our own community. As scicurious points out in this great article, it's common to see an accomplished male professor sporting an unkempt beard, Hawaiian shirt, and a holey pants at a scientific conference, but you won't often see women dress as casually. I have never felt pressured to dress formally at any conferences, nor have I even taken a second look at any women to know how they are dressed. I suppose I'll have to believe scicurious that women feel this pressure.

But the double standard isn't just about dress. Look at this obituary, published just a few days ago:

Screen capture from NYT website provided by  BuzzFeed
The obituary has been revised, but the original began: "She made a mean beef stroganoff...and oh yeah, and she also invented the propulsion system that became the gold standard for keeping satellites in orbit." (I may have paraphrased a bit). Now, I don't doubt her ability to make beef stroganoff. In fact, if this article had been written by her children or grandchildren her stroganoff may have been placed appropriately at the beginning. But I can't think of a scenario when it would seem suitable for the obituary of a male scientist to open with something so absolutely trivial. To compare, let's look at what the same author says about a male scientist just fourteen days earlier

So what do we do now?
After researching and writing this article two things are obvious to me:
  1. We need more women to choose STEM careers.
  2. Women don't need special treatment or special reasons to make that choice. 
But number 2 seems to conflict with number one, doesn't it? If we want more women in STEM careers don't we need to appeal directly to them? How can we get more women involved in science while at the same time not making a fuss about women in science? Do women need/deserve special treatment to choose a career in science?

Probably not. Instead, they just need to know from a young age that the option is available. PBS has a 30 minute program that I think has a pretty good job of attracting young girls to STEM careers without propagating any female stereotypes. SciGirls stars a cartoon teenager, Izzie, who leads a group of real life girls on adventures in biology, engineering, and other STEM related fields. Throughout the show the girls are mentored by real life female scientists and engineers. I watched a couple of episodes, and I think it's a great example of how to get more young girls excited in science. They don't need a special reason to pursue science; science is awesome just the way it is.