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Disgruntled Julie

Disgruntled Julie is a laboratory slave 6th year Ph.D. student studying pediatric cancer through biochemistry and biophysics. When she isn't in lab (never), she enjoys cooking, cleaning, crafting, and other domestic goddess type activities. When she is in lab (always), she spends her time attempting to purify seemingly non-purifiable proteins, determining the structure of unstructured proteins, fighting with the pH meter, and injecting mice with cancer. Disgruntled Julie survives by finding the humor in lab life, and rants accordingly.

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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Friday, August 27, 2010


Yes, we can. But do we have to?
Yesterday, LabMom discussed the problems with science and gender at a very young age when trying to enroll her daughter in science camp. Seeing as I have no children myself (nor will I anytime soon), I tend to steer clear of discussions relating to children and parenting. However, something else LabMom mentioned caught my eye.

“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.”

I feel like this is a topic that is coming up more and more frequently. While I used to just read about the problem with getting girls interested in science, more and more I see individuals phrasing it as a necessity to get females more interested in the physical sciences. (Note: I’m not trying to say that LabMom is doing this, but rather her post and subsequent comments made me realize how this is becoming a more common topic.)

But I have to confess… I don’t understand why this is a BAD thing. I’m not talking about situations where women are not exposed to science at the same level as men, but rather if the exposure if equal, why does it matter if women just tend to be more inclined towards and interested in the biological side of things?

In my high school, we had to take the honors level of each science before advancing to the A.P. course. While this made it far more complicated to take multiple A.P. science classes because of scheduling, it also meant that those who were intelligent but with no interest in science could stop at the honors levels of biology, chemistry, and physics, and did not have to advance further. As a result, those taking the A.P. level courses were the ones truly interested in science. My biology and physics classes were pretty evenly split between male and female, and my chemistry class was quite a bit heavier on the female side. Everyone in these classes truly wanted to be there, and since we all took it out of interest, there was never a situation in which males dominated and females sat back on their hands instead of speaking up in class.

So what happened further on down the road? Well, for the most part, the females went into the biologically related fields (medical school, veterinary school, etc.) while the males went into physics and engineering. We all took the same courses, had the same experiences, and came from a similar upper middle class background with parents who supported us all in studying exactly what we wanted to study, regardless of typical gender roles. Yes, of course, childhood experiences may have shaped this, but with equal secondary educational opportunities, everyone went on to pursue the field that interested them the most, even if it did hold true to gender bias. Isn't this what we want -- everyone studying what interests them the most?

I’m sure I have a slightly different perspective from others because I was very strongly shoved into research. I suspect, had teachers and professors not latched onto me so strongly (a female! interested in science! good at the bench!) and yanked me in my current direction, I would be doing something much, much different today. It’s not that I regret where I am, but I do regret that I didn’t get here of my own choosing. I may very well have opted to do the same thing on my own, but I don’t know for sure what I would be doing today if the only person involved in deciding my future career was me.

So why do we spend so much time trying to drag females into science, and more specifically, into a field of science they just may not enjoy? If a grade school boy doesn’t like math and thinks it’s hard, it’s not a problem. He just doesn’t like it, and that’s fine. But if a grade school girl doesn’t like math because she thinks it’s hard, an intervention is necessary to teach girls that they! can! succeed! at! math! Just because a female CAN do something doesn’t mean she should be forced to do so.

This isn’t meant to be a discussion about parental influence from a young age and whether children should go to dinosaur camp or not, but rather a question of why further down the road, when interests are developed, we still feel the need to push women towards the sciences. Even if their experiences as a child were responsible for shaping their less-than-favorable view toward science, it’s still important to remember that not everyone likes everything or wants to do everything as a career, and that is okay! If students take the same advanced science courses and we still wind up with more women in biology and more men in physics… that’s okay too, as long as everyone is studying something about which they feel passionate. I fail to see why we have to “remedy” this and chance down more women for the physical sciences. If not left to make their own decisions, I fear that we will have a generation of female scientists who may very well regret it.

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Kelly Oakes
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I see what you're saying, but from my experience of seeing/hearing people talking about getting more girls into the physical sciences, what they're really trying to do is to is open the door for girls to go and do these things, but not actually push them through said door. Or if that's not what they're trying to do, then I think it should be.

When I started my A-levels (studying biology, chemistry, physics and maths) I thought I wanted to go off and do a biology or possibly chemistry degree afterwards. But for some reason my tutor kept assuming that I was applying to study physics, which got my thinking - 'well, maybe I actually could do a physics degree'. Looking back now it seems obvious to me that my interests had always been in physics. I read popular science books about the universe, and in new scientist I found the space/astrophysics stuff the most interesting, but before that tutor came along I simply hadn't considered that I was the sort of person that would do a physics degree.

I think the main thing is to let girls know that they CAN go and study physical sciences if they want to, and then of course they're free to do the deciding.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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You raise some great points Julie. I just wonder how that gender roles assumed as a child affect decisions later in life. Would you have become an archaeologist if you had the opportunity to dig for bones in the dirt without having boys to interfere and tell you to go play with your dolls? I'm not a psychologist, so I have no idea how child psychological development works, but I can imagine if parents/teachers/media keep re-inforcing these stereotypes at an early age that it can affect your decision making process. Maybe girls choose biology because it's not as "hardcore" and "masculine" as physics, engineering, or chemistry?

Disgruntled Julie
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Kelly: I have zero problem with an encouragement along the lines of "hey! if you want to do this, you can!", but I've seen time and time again a near shoving-through-door type approach. I've overheard my PI tell his daughters that science is what "smart people" do so they should go into science. It really irritates me, because there are hundreds of things a "smart person" can do which have nothing to do with science. I also worked at a summer camp for minority students in science. It wasn't an equal opportunity deal where the school district offered a variety of programs and the students could choose; it was just science or nothing. 99% of the girls had zero interest and were miserable being there. We did one week of more biologically-related things, and they actually seemed to enjoy it. When I approached the school district about altering the summer program curriculum (and this was just an extracurricular activity, not a class!) to focus more on what the students enjoyed, they said absolutely not, I HAD to spend the allotted time on physics because they needed more girls to sign up for physics courses at the high school level. Rather than celebrating that these girls actually found something science-related that they enjoyed, I had to move on to something they disliked just in case one might decide to sign up for physics. These are the type of situations which grate on my nerves, not just a simple encouragement or your tutor showing you that you can succeed! :)

Alyssa
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I agree with you that people have specific likes and dislikes, and no one should be pushed into breaking the gender roles if they don't want too. But, then a more fundamental question arises: why don't girls/women seem to be as interested in the physical sciences? Is it because of some sort of gender-role phenomenon they were exposed to as a child, or are women just not "wired" that way? If it's the latter - then how come?

Disgruntled Julie
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Brian: My mother is actually a child psychologist, and her take is that children often innately have a preference for something before parental stereotypes take place. Of course, they might help shape and push further, but using me as an example, I grew up only with boy-things. My parents friends all had sons, so I was only dressed in boy clothes and given truck-type toys, and apparently had zero interest in playing with anything. My mother just assumed it was because I wasn't into playing with "things", but when we acquired a hand-me-down play kitchen, I was totally in love with pretend cooking (and don't even get me started on when I was gifted my first My Little Pony... love at first sight!). Everything I grew up with was male dominated, from the clothes to the activities (my father LOVES trains so by the time I was three, I had been to pretty much every train museum in the northeast and ridden on every major subway system in the country), and my mother stayed home until I started school, so a daycare didn't provide any sort of gender-specific interests. And yet even with all these boy-things in my life, I had zero interest in dinosaurs, bugs, and other classically male-oriented things.

While of course, parents can influence things, I too believe there is an innate difference between males and females, just from a basic biology standpoint, and even without gender stereotypes, these still come through. Stereotypes typically start with some basis of fact which is just exaggerated, but looking back thousands of years, we know that men hunted and women gathered. Women have always played more "nurturing" roles, so maybe it's just in our DNA to be more inclined towards biology and living systems. That's not to say that women can't (and shouldn't!) go on to excel in these other areas (because they most certainly can!) but maybe it's not a problem with the system why women are more inclined to biological sciences over physical sciences... maybe it's just, well, biology! :)

chall
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Julie, interesting thoughts!

I do wonder about some things though. Isn't Biology in undergrad/high school different than Biology in Gradschool? (at least in my scandinavian country DNA was taught in Chem class in high school but in Biology major in graduate class...) And then there is the need to know math in biology (statistics and other types of math) so I don't really agree I guess....

When it comes to physics though, I would think that it is more common for men/boys to like it partly because it is hard to find something "obvious" that is related to the subject apart from electricity. I mean, what does a physicist really do? (Same applies with grad studies in math - it's hard to find a "real" job to explain to "Good girl A who is thinking about studying" why math would be an excellent choice).

As with lots of things, I think the main "problem" is that we tend to allow men/boys to go with "I am interested in that and can dabble with this for a while" whereas women are more going for "a real job". Maybe too simplified, but somewhere in the area of what I've seen so far.



Evie
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I very much agree w @Kelly. And I like what @Chall is saying as well.

@Julie – Growing up I never considered going into engineering. I was not good at math in hs, and it just didn't occur to me. When I moved to the US, I hung out w my childhood friends and their group of hs friends (who I happened to really click with), and it just so happened that they all were studying various fields of engineering and computer science. I knew I was just as smart as them and quicker to figure stuff out, and for the first time realized hey, if they can do it.. so can I! So it takes a lot more than a quick 'You can do it if you want to' from someone you don't really know, to make a girl realize she actually can.

I also think that the push is a temporary thing, once women are more into those fields, and more role models are around and it's not 'weird' for girls to be there anymore, I think it'll become the way you say, girls will know they can do it if they want to, and they will be free to choose.

I dunno why dinos and bugs a clumped together, I hate bugs but have always loved dinos! I don’t see that as a boy thing at all. There is something about physics that makes it seem like a boy thing, but it really isn’t. I think it has a lot to do w how it’s presented. For instance, when I got my pretty pink crystal castle (filled w princesses of power), it had this elevator operated by a pulley system, it was purple. I loved playing w it figuring out how it worked. If it wasn't all purple and girly, maybe I wouldn't have been as interested. And maybe if more physics can be presented in pink and girly ways, more girls will find it appealing. I mean 'Force' and 'Torque' aren't exactly the terms little girls are attracted to. All you need to do is girly it up a little bit. Like you, I loved my little pony stuff, and I loved being a princess. But I wanted to be a badass princess, not one that was carried around and helpless, one that has her own fucking sward and dragon!

As far as what you said about biology and evolution, of course that is true, but the way I see it, girls could go hunting too when they had to, it is however rare for a guy to be able to be as nurturing as a woman. So even if women wanted to go hunting (and I suspect they did), they were the responsible ones and knew they couldn’t do it all on their own, and the men probably couldn’t handle more than the hunting..
Just my take on it :)

Jason Goldman
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There is some evidence that male children tend to play with mechanical toys, and do better on physics/engineering tests. Females prefer human or animal dolls, and tend to score higher on tests of emotion recognition and social sensitivity. Many of these findings are likely to be at least partially environmental in origin.

However, there are probably *some* biological factors at play. Male rats are better than females at water mazes, but castrated males do poorly. And females treated neonatally with testosterone outperform control groups at water mazes. Young male vervet monkeys spontaneously prefer toy trucks; females prefer toy dolls. One-day-old baby (human) children prefer looking at mechanical objects, females look longer at faces.

At a population level, females *may be* better "empathizers," and males (at a population level) *may be* better "systemizers." It is unclear (and obviously very complicated) how much these early patterns affect later choices.

Dr. O
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@Jason - this explains women tending toward more biological rather than engineering fields of science. Back to LabMom's post, however, it doesn't really explain why girls aren't signing up for a dinosaur summer camp class, unless it's a parental push/nudge in that direction...which is the source of my concern. And a boy saying that a girl doesn't belong there is definitely environmental. Besides, Littlefoot always seemed to be just as endearing to girls as to boys, IMO.

Jason Goldman
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Yes, the social interaction between the children would have to be considered. I don't think its as simple as "girls can like dinosaurs too." Lots of variables to deal with But with respect to LabMom's post, 2 girls out of 12 kids isn't exactly a huge sample. Are *all* the science camp classes skewed towards males? Maybe enrollment in science camp, in general, has more boys than girls? Then the problem would be framed somewhat differently I think.

Dr. O
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Aw, you're going to throw the sample size argument back at me? How rational of you, Jason. ;) I do think you're right that there are many factors though, and I was wondering what you would think of all this when I read the comments earlier.

And, just to clarify (since I didn't say so earlier), I don't think differences between men and women / boys and girls are bad. Even I was looking at little pink ladybug bedding for a baby girl, and jungle animals playing sports for a baby boy. In my mind, that's just what seemed to "fit". I do get concerned when society tells girls that they're not supposed to be good at / like certain things, like science, math, or dinos. And I think parents (I'm sure including myself, eventually) can do a better job exposing our kids to a wider assortment of opportunities/experiences.

genegeek
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Thank you for these points, Julie. I've been trying to think of a good way to write similar ideas - but you are more eloquent :) No one cared that I don't like ballet so why should they care if I like math? Now, the only caveat is that if women want to be engineers or men want to be nurses, those doors should be open. I'll have a quick post re: gender roles soon so I don't take too much time here with a related but perhaps not relevant story.

Silver Fox
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I always liked geology (rocks, volcanoes, dinosaurs, and dirt in that order), never liked biology as much - I'd love it if *any* of my nieces would get into it. So far, one is an engineer, none are geologists, two will likely go into medical fields. I haven't tried to push any of them, but have shown them things they might not otherwise have seen.

I was fortunate, perhaps, to be raised in an era when there wasn't anyone pushing girls toward any sciences.

biochem belle
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I think there is a difficult line to walk. I understand your point, Julie, about forcing people down paths, and I don't think that's the way to go. At the same time, I think sometiems it does take a little more encouragement to get girls interested in science, especially physical sciences, because of differences in how boys and girls are socialized. The real question is, Are girls not pursuing these sciences because they're not interested or because of other pressures or conditioning? I think there's reasonable evidence (and I'll try to find some sources that back this up) that boys and girls are treated differently when being taught science in a mixed group; anecdotally, for example, when it comes to technical things like operating a microscope, a teacher-male or female-is more likely to talk a boy through the process but to just do it for a girl.

GMP
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Very interesting post! I am a female prof in hard STEM, who never really cared much about bio-related subjects. I had strict, dogmatic biology teachers throughout grade and high school, so to me biology was mostly torture, but I think it goes beyond that: I loved math, physics, and chemistry (in that order). I also liked writing and foreign languages and drawing and geography way more than biology. When I was little, I loved dolls and Legos.

There are so few women in the hard STEM classes it's kind of scary.
Our soft-STEM departments have a dramatically higher representation of women, so yes there is definitely truth in "women in STEM are mostly in soft-STEM fields."

For the sake of future specimens like me, I would like us to keep nudging (if not pushing) women into hard STEM simply because, while I trust there may be a strong natural component of women's inclination to soft-STEM (i.e. women love living things for whatever reason), the society still very strongly communicates that you, as a girl, are weird if trucks or math or building stuff appeals to you, or if living things or mommyhood don't appeal to you. I don't think we are at a level where girls feel free of societal pressures away to really choose what they want deep inside (I am even not sure our desires can really ever be decoupled from the society we live in...); but, until that happens, I think it's definitely worthwhile to encourage (if not push) them in that direction that counteracts societal taboos. So fewer people of both genders would be flabbergasted when they meet the likes of me (a female in a very non-feminine field doing work reserved only for the rare ultrasmart boy).

biochem belle
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GMP, getting more women into ("hard") STEM fields is only part of the solution. For women to be truly accepted, we also need to increase the visibility of women in all STEM fields (which I posted on last weekend).

GMP
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@biochem belle: I totally agree.
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