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AWIS in Action! April 2013 - M3
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AWIS In Action!

 Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter   ~   April 2013
In This Issue

 M3 The Maddening Monthly Mention
 * Silly Solutions to Serious Problems *
Earlier this month we published a piece on the obstacles faced by women in STEM and the opportunity cost of failing to retain women on the Huffington Post. Much of the feedback was positive, but there were the typical naysayers who feel that the reason there aren’t as many women in STEM is that girls just aren’t interested in playing with chemistry sets and computer games. What these people don’t apparently realize is that from an incredibly early age in this country we consciously and subconsciously spell out gender roles. It’s incredible how challenging it can be to find gender-neutral colored outfits for a baby shower. JCPenney stopped selling the girls t-shirts which said things like "I’m too pretty to do homework”, and Gymboree pulled their "Smart Like Daddy” and "Pretty Like Mommy” shirts after public indignation ensued, but other companies continue to produce similarly themed messaging, such as this recent Avengers shirt which says "I need a hero” for girls and "Be a hero” for boys or the shirts from Space Camp, which encourage boys to "achieve” and girls to "dream”. Which one suggests success? While individually people mock those who express their outrage, telling them to get a hobby or lighten up, this perpetual onslaught of messaging reinforces these gender divisions.
Last week the Wall Street Journal was delighted by a report about new toys to cultivate in girls an interest in STEM by emphasizing spatial relation development via building and by teaching them simple circuitry. And that sounds great because when a gap is detected in spatial relations between men and women, it is frequently traced to what we play with in our youth. Then you look at the products and realize they are all about music boxes and doll houses, in lots of fun pastel colors. So instead of creatively breaking the mold, they are largely just reinforcing these "girly” gender roles. Girls play with dolls and houses, boys play with electronics. Additionally, the journalist goes on to say, "The spatial-skills gap between boys and girls is a function of biology,” an assertion that is not backed up by the body of peer-reviewed research but rather is misinformation that only further reinforces the idea that girls are fundamentally different from boys.
Part of the problem is that women in science and engineering are still seen as outliers in a sense. In one of her comic strips from 1985, Alison Bechdel proposed what has become known as the "Bechdel Test” for film. The three qualifiers to pass the test are that a film must have at least two women, they must talk to each other, and they must talk about something besides a man. Nearly 30 years later, startling few films pass this test. In a similar vein, last month a journalist proposed to avoid qualifying women’s scientific accomplishments in profile pieces with a metric she calls "The Finkbeiner Test”, named for a fellow journalist. Most newspaper and magazine profiles highlight the fact that the subject is a woman, she manages to balance work and life, and she’s a unique role model, etc. which all serve to undermine the quality of the science and make it seem like there are very few women doing science in any particular field. What this really boils down to is that in the media, and thus in society, we are still "women scientists” and "women engineers.” You don’t hear people saying "male scientist” or "male entrepreneur” because it is implied. The reinforcement of these gender roles is so pervasive that most of the time we don’t even notice it. In countries where there is less of a stereotype associating men with science, there is no performance gap between 8th grade boys and girls in science and math achievement, indicating that cultural cues reinforce these stereotypes. So it’s not a woman or girl problem, it’s an American problem. All of this suggests that if we really want to try to encourage more girls into STEM fields where women are underrepresented, we need to re-evaluate what we are showing them as a society. We have been investing heavily in STEM K-12 for three decades now but in the last decade the percent of women earning engineering degrees has gone down as has women’s representation on other fields, like computer science, as well. Pastel-colored Legos are not going to be sufficient to move the needle. We need to take a step back and look at the big picture and examine the way we stereotype and represent scientists and engineers, both male and female.
Another part of the problem is that as a society we still generally depict scientists as white males. Earlier this month at an event at the White House, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative, which AWIS attended. The Obama administration does a good job of engaging women and underrepresented minorities at events aimed specifically at these groups. However, when it comes to real science, the room is overwhelmingly full of white males. The picture at left shows the view I observed while waiting to head into the East Room. While the administration understands the need for positive role models, there seems to be a disconnect between talking the talk and walking the walk. Furthermore, while the project is being co-chaired by a male and female team, the rest of the roster is almost exclusively men. It would be great if this was an isolated case, but it isn’t. The Stand UP to Cancer teams, recently featured in a TIME magazine article, are also nearly exclusively male while the leadership of the foundation is entirely female! On their website, they advertise a sexy, windblown model in a tank top, stating that "Now you can Stand Up to Cancer like Heidi Klum.”  I’d love to see an ad that features one of the real women doing cutting edge research who are the ones actually standing up to cancer. Women make up nearly 25% of professors in the biological sciences and these days earn more than half of the PhDs, yet to look at these groups one might conclude that only men are working on the mapping the brain and fighting cancer. Furthermore, there is an increasing movement towards funding these sorts of cross-institutional, multi-disciplinary research projects which presumably arise when one person wants to collaborate with someone they think they can get along with professionally from another institution. Singular Male PI’s or all male teams make up over 60% of the INSPIRE grants supported by the NSF, a program highlighted specifically in the President’s budget as an area to increase funding because it is multi-disciplinary and transformative research. It is easy to see how women may be excluded from these networks. How can we move the needle when the only efforts made to show the broad range of minds and bodies that are actually doing science occurs when we are focused on talking about diversity? When are we are as a nation going to get serious about the real reasons girls don’t think STEM jobs are for them and women leave the pipeline? We are 50% of the population and the fact that we as a nation aren’t offering serious solutions, like changing hostile workplace climates, offering paid maternity leave, and giving women equal pay to name a few, is an outrage. 

In This Issue


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