Want girls to get into science? Just relate it to cooking and shopping!

As a response to the NYT infographic showing that girls underperform in science in the US, Canada, and Britain compared to the rest of the world, The Guardian has published a list of ways to get girls interested in science.

Among their super brilliant suggestions from “experts”:

  • Color code all the crap in your house, because girls like colors.
  • Make girls read all the instructions for their toy kits out loud because “it’s amazing what girls skip when they don’t slow themselves down for this step”.
  • If a girl doesn’t understand something, just make her memorize it.
  • Cook more! Because measuring and timing things is mathy.
  • Point out the math in domestic activities, like shopping! (Especially “if your daughter wants something that is too expensive” – because us ladies are so irresponsible with our money).

Basically, those of us with lady brains need to slow down and read instructions, because we can’t build Lego sets otherwise, memorize stuff cause it’s just too hard for us to grasp, and use cooking and shopping to understand math concepts.

The entire point of the infographic was to demonstrate that boys and girls don’t have different intrinsic science abilities, but that culture plays a huge role.  So one might think that maybe boys and girls don’t have different interests because of intrinsic sex differences; maybe they have different interests because of culture?  The Guardian has obviously failed to figure that out; instead, they resort to age-old stereotypes about women to come up with patronizing and insulting suggestions for getting girls interested in science.  Guess what? Girls are already interested in science, and they’re already good at it.  It’s just that certain cultural and societal influences make it more difficult for girls to see science as something they can pursue.

NYT Infographic: Gender which excels on science exam is location dependent

The New York Times has a great infographic showing the results from a science test administered to 15-year old students in 65 different countries.  The results are broken down by gender so you can see in which countries girls/boys score higher.  One gender does not have an overwhelmingly higher aptitude for science.  In some countries, boys excel; in others, girls excel (though girls do excel in a more countries than boys).

What should be immediately apparent from this infographic is that the gender that excels on this science exam is strongly location-dependent.  Girls tended to underperform in the Americas (including the U.S.) and in Western Europe, but overperform in Northern/Eastern/Southern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  This means that gender gaps in science ability don’t have to do with intrinsic ability (as some would suggest), but with other factors, such as cultural stereotypes.  One suggested reason for the observed gender gaps is that stereotype threat is stronger in some countries.  Countries also offer different incentives for pursuing math and science, and value math, science, and education differently.

Hopefully, information such as this will help quell opinions that boys are intrinsically more talented at math and science than girls.

Source: New York Times

Fathers’ gender stereotypes influence daughters’ career choices

New research finds a correlation showing that fathers who support gender equality have daughters with higher career aspirations.  Researchers gave questionnaires to almost 400 elementary school age children and at least one parent for each child.  Parents were asked about gender stereotypes and division of household chores.

The fewer gender stereotypes a father had, the more likely his daughter was to say she wanted to work outside the home.  These girls also had more broader, less gendered interests (i.e. they are just as likely to play with trucks as they are with barbies).  This was also true for the daughters with parents who divided housework more evenly.

Though correlation does not equal causation, the results of this study are certainly interesting, and it seems logical to me that the more gender equity that exists in a household, the less constrained young girls will be by gender stereotypes.

Source: LiveScience

Outreach and grad school

I’m in the midst of my first semester of graduate school, and (made apparent by my lack of blogging) have been insanely busy. I’m learning lots and making time for fun, but suffice it to say that I have never worked this hard.

One of the things I was really excited about when coming to graduate school was the prospect of starting to do some outreach.  So I signed on to help coordinate a physics demo day for local girl scout troops.  My duties were relatively low-key compared to the main organizers, but there were moments when I felt like I wanted to kick myself for volunteering my time to something that wasn’t a necessity when I had so many other “higher priority” obligations.  I wondered if it was worth adding another pull to my time when I was already overwhelmed, however worthy outreach might be.

The event was today.  And it was totally worth it.  The station I participated in had the girls line up as a human solar system, first trying to figure out the relative distances themselves, and then with the actual distances.  I think it created a really nice visual for understanding the distance scales of the solar system, and they seemed to enjoy it.  Afterwards, we just answered whatever questions they had about astronomy.  We got lots of expected questions about black holes, aliens, and Pluto, but also some great questions about how planets form (we don’t really know..) and how big/small galaxies can be (we also don’t have a good answer for that..).  It was great to see how interested they were in astronomy/physics.  And it was really rewarding to not only be able to answer their questions,  but to tell them “Astronomers are studying that right now! Maybe one day you can figure it out!”

Anyway, I had a blast, the girls all seemed to get a lot out of it, and even though it took up some precious hours, I’m really glad I did it (and definitely plan to do more).

Also, when we asked the room full of ~30 girls how many wanted to be scientists, a good chunk raised their hands.  Very encouraging :)

Advice to your 15-year old self

Today is International Day of the Girl, which is a day dedicated to “highlighting, celebrating, discussing, and advancing girls lives and opportunities across the globe.”  In honor of today, CNN has asked powerful women leaders (from politicians to reporters to scientists) to give advice to their 15 year old selves.  This got me thinking about advice that I would give to my 15 year old self, which also happens to be advice I still struggle to take today.  I would tell my 15 year old self that sometimes, it is okay to put yourself and your needs first.   I think that when I was younger, I tried too hard to be non-confrontational and to try to please everyone, to the point that I was not putting myself first when I needed to.  I think this is still something I struggle with, as it’s a hard habit to break, but I’m getting there.  Tied closely to this is the ability to say no, which is most definitely something I haven’t gotten good at yet.  You don’t have say yes to everyone and everything.  If you do, you will probably drive yourself crazy.  You need to make the decisions that are right for you.  I’m not saying to live your life in a consistently selfish way, just that sometimes it’s okay to be a little selfish and do the things that are right for you.  In short: take care of yourself.

Even if these are skills that are more relevant at this point in my life, I think they are skills that need to be developed early.  So those are my bits of advice for fifteen year old Vivienne, and I think they’re relevant for many women and girls who try too hard to make everyone happy at the expense of their own happiness.

What advice would you give your fifteen year old self?

How many women in your physics/astro grad program?

After reading some tweets about the percentages of women in undergrad/grad physics/astro programs, I decided to tweet mine, and then got curious about whats going on in other programs.  In my high school AP physics class, I was one of two girls in a class of ~30.  In my undergrad physics department, we had a handful of women in a department with ~30 or so majors.  I’m currently a graduate student in an astronomy department, and there are five women in my incoming class of seven.  I know this is definitely atypical (I also know someone in an astro grad program where the incoming class is all men), but I’m curious about other programs, and the difference between the fraction of women in astronomy and physics programs.

Are/were you in a physics or astronomy graduate program? What is/was the fraction of women? Is it any different from the fraction of women in your undergraduate department?

Study shows unconscious bias has serious effects for women in STEM fields

Yesterday, I posted about one of the effects of the dearth of women in science – women’s voices not being heard.  Today, we can talk about one of the causes: unconscious bias.

In a recent study, 127 science faculty members at research institutions were given resumes of applicants for a lab manager position. All resumes given out were identical, except for being randomly assigned a male or female name.  Faculty members were asked to rate the competence of the applicant, and how much pay and mentoring would be offered to the applicant.  The male applicants were rated more competent and hireable than female applicants.  Starting salaries decided upon for male applicants were higher than for the female applicants, and the male students would have been given more career mentoring.  The starting salary to be offered to female applicants was about $26,000, compared to about $30,000 for the male applicants.

These results held regardless of the gender, age, field, or tenure status of the faculty member.  These results are discouraging, and they indicate the pervasive and deep seeded nature of unconscious bias.  Yes, some people are legitimately prejudiced against women.  However, I think the main issue here is unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias occurs when people act/make decisions based upon subconscious prejudices that they may not be aware of.  Even people that support equality for women can have subconscious biases against women, based on the stereotypes that pervade our society.  The unconscious bias confirmed by this study leads to real consequences for women in science: decreased chances of being hired, less mentoring, and significantly less pay.  Everyone has unconscious biases; even women can be unconsciously biased against women.  That’s why it is so important that everyone be aware of the existence of unconscious bias, so that they make an effort to be aware of their biases when deciding who to hire/work with.  The more people are made aware of the existence of unconscious bias, the more we can begin to chip away at the issues that arise because of it.