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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

This summer I enrolled ThePrincess (my 4.5 year old) in a summer science camp at a local children's museum in our area. She is starting to climb the walls and we have a full month until preschool starts up again in the fall.

The camps are designed for children aged 4-6 and are split into 2 week sessions with different specialized topics. Examples of the topics were subjects like rockets/aerospace, botany, zoology, bugs/reptiles, going green/environment, farm animals, big machines, etc.

The session we chose was dinosaurs/archeology.

On the surface it appeared as pretty generic kid-friendly material with a decent science base. They would be making plaster of paris "fossils", digging though the sandbox for shark teeth and trilobites, studying dinosaur skeletons, making paper mache dinosaur eggs etc.

Typical 4 year old stuff. Great. Sign us up!


The extremely reclusive female archeologist, rarely seen in the wild.

Never did it cross my mind that dinosaurs would be such a gender specific topic. When we arrived at camp on Monday I was unhappily surprised to find that the camp consisted of 12 boys and 2 girls. ONLY 2 GIRLS! What the hell?

I have heard the unfortunate statistics (and reasons) that girls tend to lose interest in the sciences by the 8th grade, but I was always under the impression that early on (before 4th grade) boys and girls had equal interest in science. That is why I was so surprised there were nearly NO girls in this 4-6 year old camp.

Looking back , I understand dinosaurs could be considered a predominantly "boy" subject, but a 1 to 6 ratio is still a pretty huge gap.

It is no secret that boys tend to lean towards subjects in the physical sciences, while girls tend to have more interest in the biological sciences, but I had just assumed there were be a few other girls at dinosaur camp. WELL, AT LEAST MORE THAN ONE OTHER GIRL!

I originally wasn't going to blog about our experience, until I read YoungFemaleScientist's post yesterday with this quote about this exact subject matter.
From her blog: "And then I have to read these idiotic emails from various women in science groups lamenting how they can't figure out why more younger women don't want to go into science. And how we need to do more outreach with little girls to get them interested.

I keep trying to tell them, there's no inherent difference in girls vs. boys at the level of interest. All kids, when shown cool science demos, think it's fucking cool. Because it is. And only some kids want to know how it works. And only some kids are encouraged to pursue finding out how stuff works. Probably, in our culture, we do encourage boys more, but I think that difference happens more at home than it does at school."

I agree with her, that there isn't anything intrinsically different in these kids, but where are all these girls at Dinosaur camp?

At this stage it is all about parental influence. The girls aren't being encouraged to 'go for it' at the same rate as the boys. The girls are being set up (by their biggest influences) to believe that dinosaurs, bugs, rockets are all "boy" subjects, and that they best stick to their Princess Ballerina Camps. (Which ThePrincess did enroll in earlier this summer, I am am equal opportunity mom.)

As a parent, I thought it needed to be about balance. That is why I (clearly unlike a lot of other parents) enrolled her in Dinosaur Science Camp. I didn't think at age 4 we needed to follow the stereotypes. Well, in reality, I didn't even realize there were stereotypes until they smacked me in the face.

This wasn't only dinosaurs. As I looked though the list of other camp options, they seemed to be heavily geared towards boys too. Bugs? As a mom of 2 girls, trust me: Not a ton of girls are begging to go to bug camp. Same with rockets and big machines. Very "masculine" subjects, even in the minds of 4 year olds. I see that now.

Unfortunately the whole experience backfired on me. ThePrincess HATED be one of the only girls, and was dying to get back to Princess Ballerina Camp where she "fit in". She even was told by her fellow classmates that "dinosaurs are for boys."

Damn. That sucks.

I don't have to wonder whatever gave them that impression. Even at age 4 kids know their gender roles and they already have their ideas of what a scientist should look like. (Something I have blogged about before.)

So what is a parent to do?

It is a vicious cycle. Without girls going to camp and making it fun, there is no motivation for other girls to want to join. No preschooler is going to want to be the minority. As a parent you feel like you are swimming up stream. If science camp is such an awful experience at age 4, how am I ever going to convince her that she belongs and should try it again next year? How am I going to prove that boys haven't cornered the market on dinosaurs, or bugs or whatever else she finds interesting.

It is all so disheartening.

Clearly other people feel the same way too. USA today just published a story about Sally Ride's new Science Academy which is educating teachers on how to engage kids in science (both boys AND girls.)
From the article: It's essential for girls to see examples of women in whatever career they want to pursue, says Ride, who sees herself as a role model. "I'm an example of someone who was a pretty normal 10-year-old girl who grew up to be an astronaut," she says.

Who are we kidding? Sally Ride wasn't 'normal.' I would bet she was one of the only girls at space camp. She was fighting the gender stereotypes from the get-go.

That fact is glaringly apparent when you realize that Sally Ride's foundation also sponsors Sally Ride Science Camps EXCLUSIVELY for girls in the 4th through 9th grades. She, more than anyone, knows that girls want to be surrounding by their peers who are other girls. THAT is how they feel 'normal' and accepted. Not by being in the 15% female fraction.

But it begs the question.. at that point is it too late?

If the girls are already missing from science camp at age 6, the message that they don't belong there is already stirring around in their heads (if not being told to straight to their faces). It is going to take a lot of Sally Ride Science Camps to overcome those feelings.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great post! It's sad that even at that age kids are already taking on their gender role. It's hard to know whose fault it is or how to try to fix it.

Dr. O
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This is disheartening. I wonder if it's worth writing a short letter to the museum and seeing if they can take this into consideration next year. There have got to be some female scientists working there, and I bet they'd be more than interested to follow through on a getting-more-girls-involved type of program. In fact, I'd be willing to bet my clothes/hair budget for the remainder of the year that there's a grant app for that.

Tideliar
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Wow, 4 yes old and gender specific already!

I can't wait till I have kids so i can start breaking the rules too.

Evie
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Yea, I agree, it is going to take a lot of Sally Ride Science Camps to get some more equality going, no doubt. I am also very surprised that dinos are seen as such a boy thing. I've always loved dinos. And I am also sure that, like your daughter, I would not be a happy camper being one of 2 girls in camp at that age. That's for sure. I quit chess when I was a kid cause I was the only girl there. We really do have to come up w more female role models. And btw, the camp idea is brilliant. I love it.

Alyssa
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I agree that it's all about the parental influence. Maybe there are lots of girls out there who want to attend Dino camp but their parents say "wouldn't you rather go to ballerina camp?" or "that's for boys", passing on the stereotype. Then, there are only two girls in the class, and those girls pick up the idea that Dinos are for boys, and it's a whole vicious cycle. Very, very disheartening :(

Cricket42
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"Bugs? As a mom of 2 girls, trust me: Not a ton of girls are begging to go to bug camp."

This sentence makes me wonder 1)how you feel about insects, 2)whether your daughter was asked if she would like to go to bug camp, and 3)how much our children's interests are unintentionally influenced by our own biases and dislikes.

As an insect scientist(and not that it matters, but I am a female insect scientist), part of my job is to take live insects to schools so kids can have hands-on experience with lots of cool "bugs." At the preschool level, there are about equal numbers of boys and girls who like bugs and are excited about them. In some groups the girls are more interested/less scared of the insects than the boys are. I wonder how many parents unintentionally talk their kids (daughters) out of their interest in insects (and perhaps dinosaurs and rocks) by simply failing to encourage them to be interested in these topics.
laurel

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we recently moved across the country when I took a position in a new lab. My husband quit his job and is staying at home with our 3.8 year-old daughter. before she was GIRLY and never wore anything but dresses and skirts, and was very into the "boys do this, girls do that" thing. It was so frustrating to see her picking up that crap from daycare. Now she has been home for ~2 months with my hubby and she has become even more interested in the natural world and less preoccupied with what she should or shouldn't be doing based on gender. the other day she even announced that she was going to be a paleontologist :)
we fear the day my husband gets offered a good job and my daughter will need to return to school to be brainwashed into being a girly girl again

genegeek
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Interesting. I have a camp for high school students (biology & forensics) and we have 75-85% girls. Most of our programs have more girls attend. We don't target them but they do show up.
But I worry that it isn't showing a stronger interest by the girls but rather their relative increase in maturity and longer range planning to attend the summer programs.

Lab Mom
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Cricket42 said:
"Bugs? As a mom of 2 girls, trust me: Not a ton of girls are begging to go to bug camp."

This sentence makes me wonder 1)how you feel about insects, 2)whether your daughter was asked if she would like to go to bug camp, and 3)how much our children's interests are unintentionally influenced by our own biases and dislikes.

As an insect scientist(and not that it matters, but I am a female insect scientist), part of my job is to take live insects to schools so kids can have hands-on experience with lots of cool "bugs." At the preschool level, there are about equal numbers of boys and girls who like bugs and are excited about them. In some groups the girls are more interested/less scared of the insects than the boys are. I wonder how many parents unintentionally talk their kids (daughters) out of their interest in insects (and perhaps dinosaurs and rocks) by simply failing to encourage them to be interested in these topics.


I am sure I have an unintentional bias that they may be reading, since I do think bugs are more a "boy thing" but I am not the only influence. Children's clothing is a great example. You can't find bugs prints/patterns on girls clothes, but you can on boys. Same with trucks, dinosaurs, space stuff.

It is rare to see that in the girls section. And my kids see that when we go out shopping. Same with on TV. In cartoons it is always the girl who runs screaming from the bug or the snake or the mouse.

I was raised with those images, and consciously TRY to fight them, but I will be the first to admit my kids closets are filled with pink the toy chest filled with Barbies and My Little Ponies. At some point you just give in.

But sadly, it really feels like you are going against the grain to do otherwise.

becca
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1)Why limit yourself to shopping in the girls section? But even if you do, ladybugs and butterflies are seldom seen on boy's clothes. Bugs are totally there if you look.
2) How many boys were at PrincessBallerina camp?

Lab Mom
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1. Easier said then done. Since even at 4 the girls know their gender doesn't typical dress in clothes from the boys section. They want to look like everyone else, with disney princesses and dora the explorer. In fact, my older daughter fights every day to wear dresses, she doesn't like pants or shorts. Drives me nuts! You can get away with that when they are younger, but ego is already starting to kick in.

2. None. Pretty much as you would expect. As bad as I feel for mothers of girls who want to emphasize they can do anything they put their minds to despite their gender, I think it is probably much harder for moms of boys. Society is even less tolerant of feminizing young men.

UnlikelyGrad
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I have done a science-y outreach thing on the science of cooking. The audience (more girls than boys) thought it was pretty cool. The nice thing about doing this was that even though it was a science class, parents didn't rule it out as a possibility for their girls.
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