Parents and teachers say science is for everyone, then tell girls to “let the boys do it.”
Sophie?—?an Education Coordinator at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry?—?was running an hour-long laboratory experience for school-aged children when a parent approached her. She pointed out her kids?—?a boy and a girl?—?then leaned in and whispered, “You know, he’s the real scientist in the family.”
Sophie says this happens a lot—that over the course of her career, she’s heard parents, chaperones and even teachers declare science is for everyone, then immediately tell the girls to “let the boys do it.”
These are the exact girls she hopes to reach with her new web series, “Science With Sophie,” a science comedy show encouraging girls to think deeply, ask creatively and be scientists every day.
Growing up outside Boston, Sophie rarely saw herself represented in the science TV shows she loved. “The only female role model I had was Ms. Frizzle and she was a cartoon,” she says.
Educational TV has made strides since the “Magic School Bus” days. In 2010, PBS debuted “SciGirls,” a show designed to gently push young women to pursuing STEM careers. In 2015, Netflix released “Project MC2,” a series about four smart girls who use science to bring down bad guys.
But in the real world, gender bias and inequality is still a frustratingly ubiquitous issue. Eighth-grade girls outscore boys on technology and engineering literacy tests, but men still get more doctorates and dominate leadership positions.
870 Nobel prizes were awarded between 1901 and 2015. Women only won 49 of those, and they mostly fell outside the science category.
It was 2009 and Kathryn Gosselin was preparing to speak at the US National Meeting of The Combustion Institute. There was only one problem: She had no idea what to wear.
“I know how my male co-workers and male professors dress for this sort of thing, but I have no idea what the female side of that is,” she says. “It was seeing [other female scientists] at conferences and saying, oh that’s how you dress for a conference and that’s how you carry yourself at a conference.”
Growing up with three younger brothers and a passion for martial arts, Kathryn is used to male-dominated spaces. But even she was surprised by how her femaleness complicated her academic journey.
After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a PhD in mechanical engineering, Kathryn accepted a job as Assistant Professor at San Jose State. Part of the position’s allure was the faculty; of the 11 full-time employees in her department, three are women. By mechanical engineering standards, those numbers are absurdly impressive.
According to a study by the National Science Foundation, there are just as many women studying science at an undergraduate level as there are men. But the women are not equitably distributed throughout the science sub-fields and some branches are better at marketing themselves to minorities than others. In mechanical engineering?—?Kathryn’s area of expertise?—?less than 8% of all employees are female.
One semester, Kathryn taught Thermodynamics to undergrads. She had 40 students in her class?—?and only one was female. It was a challenging dynamic for both the student and for Kathryn. “I can only do so much because I’m not a student,” she says. “I’m not her peer, I can’t study with her or boost her up on a day-to-day basis.”
Kathryn knows firsthand how hard it is to be the only woman in the room. As one of the only female graduate students in her program, she frequently guested on student panels. As time went on, she suspected this was for political reasons?—?a subtle reminder to the public that the program “had a girl.” The tokenism grew tiresome. “It’s great that you’re making sure to get a woman’s perspective, but it can’t always be me.”
Science’s representation problem is not uniquely female: Blacks and Hispanics are also historically underrepresented within STEM fields. In 2011, Hispanics made up 7% of all STEM workers and Blacks only 6%. And while there are efforts to recruit more diverse candidates, as Kathryn puts it, “it’s clearly a huge weakness.”
Both Sophie and Kathryn agree that science is full of heroes—they’re the teachers who boost young girls’ confidence and show them a reflection of their future selves. Sophie says, “When I see a third grade teacher who is telling her girls what kind of scientists they are, that’s my hero. That’s what we need.”