When I was 14, the President of Harvard University stated that there are fewer women in science because of biological differences between men and women’s scientific abilities. In the world of Western science, rationality and logic reign supreme –two traits often attributed exclusively to men. How can women be good at science if we can’t think rationally?
This was an important statement for me. I remember where I was when I heard it (my talented/gifted program teacher’s office), who I was with (my brilliant peer and great friend, Nikki), and what my reaction was (I’ll get into that).
I loved science well before I was 14. As a young girl, I had to think long and hard about what Lawrence Summers said about my abilities to perform science. How could the president of an institution like Harvard be biased? Surely someone affiliated with Harvard would have facts to back up anything he had to say. So, is he right? Am I worse at science because I’m a girl?
Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, I loved science. So I kept taking science classes. I took AP biology online because it wasn’t offered at my high school. My friends and I (with the support of my awesome biology teacher) started an environmentalists’ club. I stayed up late with my best friend watching nature documentaries. Science is what I loved.
You know what I didn’t do? I never took a physics class. I was always amazed by astrophysics and secretly dreamed of being an astrophysicist. I thought it’d be too hard for me, even though I got straight A’s throughout high school, was good at math and science, and my family & teachers always supported me.
So why did I think I’d suck at physics without ever even trying the class?
Girls start becoming aware of the negative stereotypes about women in STEM at a very young age. We learn exclusively about white male scientists, see gendered depictions of careers, and have gendered toy options. We tell our daughters not to explore the outdoors because they might get messy. And these stereotypes can burden girls’ minds with thoughts of inferiority, so some of our brain power focuses on that rather than a task at hand (like a test). We are basically programmed to think we suck at math and science to the point where it’s actually making us suck at math and science.
This is even more pronounced for Native American, Black, and Latina girls, who are not only pressured by stereotypes about girls in STEM, but experience stereotypes about Black/Latinx/Native school performance in general. I remember during my third year of teaching science, I gave out a survey to my physics class (yes, I taught physics. no, I still haven’t taken a class) to figure out what they thought about gender and race in science. The results upset me.
And it’s no wonder why: I taught about the great discoveries of these white male scientists to students of color. I showed male scientists (like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson) explaining scientific concepts to my girls. I made an effort to introduce them to female scientists like Rosalind Franklin, whose work on the structure of DNA was stolen by men, but the curriculum cared about Darwin, Bohr, and Einstein.
But I really hope that I inspired at least one young woman to pursue science because science needs her.
Does it make a difference?
These stereotypes don’t subside as we get older or into more advanced schooling. At every step of the game, we’re forced to assert ourselves and prove competency –something that men don’t have to do. The men in charge exclusively encourage other men to pursue advanced science, leaving women discouraged, exhausted, and fed-up. Dealing with racism on top of that is even more exhausting. According to a study from University of California’s Hastings College of Law, 93% of white women in science reported gender bias, while 100% of women of color reported it. It’s important not only to focus on the gender gap in science but also how the intersection of gender and race creates an even wider gap for women of color.
Overall, these stereotypes result in women being 3 times less likely to become scientists than men. And when only men are performing science, you end up with studies backing up the notion that men are better at science than women.
Though Western science prides itself on being unbiased, the bias is there. It is impossible to put your bias aside while doing anything as a human. We combat this by identifying our biases, opening the floor to everyone, and making a real effort to ensure that all students, regardless of identity, are given equal opportunities.
This is how we stop producing science of the same bias over and over again.
After high school, I attended a women’s college (what up Wellesley!) –a place where women interested in science were able to study and do science virtually free of direct stereotyping. I was given the opportunities to excavate at a paleoanthropological site, conduct independent research on bioarchaeology, and present my work at a national conference (shout out to my amazing advisors and supervisors). My confidence as a scientist grew during my four years, but I still stayed away from astrophysics.
A part of me knows that sexism in science played a role in me choosing primatology, a female-dominated science thanks to the women who sculpted the field, like Jane Goodall. I love the field I chose and I’m excited to continue studying climate science and animal behavior. But I wonder if my path would’ve been the same if Lawrence Summers never made that statement during my formative years. Maybe I’d be astrophysicsing alongside Neil deGrasse Tyson. Maybe I’d be working for NASA. And maybe I wouldn’t. But it sure would’ve been great to feel like I could’ve.