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GUEST COMMENTARY: Girls must learn to see themselves as scientists

GUEST COMMENTARY: Girls must learn to see themselves as scientists

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I recently visited an elementary school to lead a neuroscience demonstration for fifth-graders. The activities were going splendidly: my station demonstrating the brain’s plasticity (its ability to change and adapt with the environment) saw enthusiastic students who were also able to learn about proprioception (knowing where your body is in space) and see and touch a real human brain at the other stations.

During the transition from activity cleanup to neuroscience Q&A with myself and the other college students, one fifth-grade girl approached me and said she and her friend, Shannon, absolutely loved all the activities we had put on that day and that "Science Hour" was their favorite time of the school day: “Shannon even likes science so much she drew a picture of a scientist!”

I was intrigued. I approached Shannon and asked if she would show me the picture of the scientist she drew. I, too, think science time is the best time and was excited to see how this young girl’s interest in science showed in her depiction of a scientist. Shannon led me over to a file cabinet near the door where her drawing was hung. The drawing was on a folded piece of paper, the outside flap read “Science Hour!”

When she lifted the top flap to expose her drawing my heart sank as my fear was confirmed: Shannon had drawn a male scientist wearing a lab coat and holding a beaker surrounded by other science-related objects and symbols. I turned to Shannon and asked, “Why did you not draw yourself as the scientist? Why did you draw a man instead of a woman?” She replied, “I just drew a scientist.”

This encounter was such a devastating disappointment because it was completely expected. Through my participation in Women in Science and sociology courses at college, I was familiar with the socialization of girls away from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Everything from the toys we give young girls to what they watch in cartoons sends a message of what girls should be interested in and grow up to be and those messages usually do not involve STEM.

The National Science Board’s comprehensive review captures how though since the late 1990s women have been earning more bachelor's degrees than men these degrees are not in the sciences. The data presented in the review are clear. Women are earning fewer STEM degrees and pursuing fewer STEM careers than men.

In a predominantly numerical review, the National Science Board offers one explanation for the disparity in science and engineering bachelor’s degrees by sex with “men and women prefer different fields of study.” This infuriating misconception must be addressed as a misconception if the issue of fewer women in STEM will ever be solved.

What must be recognized is that men and women are socialized toward different fields of study and careers; they do not naturally “prefer” or avoid STEM. We must address how and why we are influencing young girls to believe they should not aspire to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians and coders.

A 2016 article describes excellent ways we can attempt to counter these socializations, but more than two years later, Shannon has taught me that things haven’t changed enough. We must consistently question, and have young girls question, instances like what occurred in that fifth-grade class.

We need to highlight role models, whether in the form of female science and math teachers, famous STEM discoveries by women or female STEM characters in books, film or TV. Explore lists like “The Best Female Scientists in Film” and question why a link at the top of the same page for “The Greatest Scientist TV Characters” doesn’t have a female scientist before No. 18 on the list.

We must encourage interest in science and math subjects without surprise or foreboding and empower young girls to pursue these interests in multiple facets of their academic and extracurricular lives. If we can connect young girls’ aptitude for STEM subjects to their personal ability to succeed in these fields in the future and share our hope to increase numbers of women in STEM, they will hear how much their talents are needed.

Lastly, we have to give girls toys and activities that are hands-on, constructive, creative and intellectually stimulating. It has consistently been shown that experience playing with construction-toys like Legos improves spatial skills. The same surely cannot be said for dolls.

Though my experience at the neuroscience fair was a heavy reminder of very real disparities in how girls and boys are socialized to see their ability in STEM, the girls’ enthusiastic interest toward science was encouraging. I hope that as these girls continue through the educational system and life, they will have excellent mentors, teachers, friends, family and role models who will inspire and empower them to take their interest all the way to a career in STEM.

It is time for "Science Hour" drawings to showcase women at the center.

Olivia Murray is a 2016 Valparaiso H.S. graduate and current junior at Washington University in St. Louis studying biology-neuroscience and medical humanities. The opinions are the writer's.


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