Girls with Toys

I want you all to engage in a little thought experiment with me:

Imagine yourself at dinner with some family friends. Their 17 year old is going to be heading off to university next year and so you ask “Jamie, what is it that you are planning to do?” Jamie replies, “I’m going to be a physicist! But, like, not just any physicist, I want to get a PhD and work for, like, NASA or something. I want to be Canada’s Neil Degrasse Tyson!”

You’re not surprised; this kid has always loved science. Heck, when Jamie turned 7 your gift was a model of the solar system. Which was followed by a lecture on its inaccuracies: Pluto is NOT a planet.

What advice are you thinking about offering Jamie, knowing that these specific career goals mean at least a decade in university?

-How about the fact that this may interfere with plans to have a baby? No one wants to start having kids in their 30s.

-A technical diploma will allow for way more family focused jobs

-What about *future* husband’s career goals?

How many of you actually imagined that Jamie was a boy?

On Friday, Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech said in an interview on NPR “many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys'” and it has since sparked a backlash on Twitter with the hashtag #GirlswithToys. It has some people wondering, “what are people so outraged”?

Well here’s the reason: that statement automatically excluded 50% of the population from being identified as scientists, a group that already is discourage from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In one statement, Dr. Kulkarni managed to highlight the tacit institutional sexism present in the sciences (like so many other fields).

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, with the exception of cretins who identify as “Men’s Rights Activists”, who would openly say “women cannot be scientists” and yet, women earn as few as 20% of the the bachelor of science degrees awarded to men in physics, engineering, and computer science.

On April 29th, (that’s April 29th, 2015) female researchers were told that their paper would be improved if it had a male co-author. I can assure you that none of my male colleagues have ever been told their paper would fair better with a female co-author.

My male colleagues haven’t been asked about “when they are planning to have children” in job interviews, despite being married (some already committed fathers). My male colleagues haven’t had TAs who didn’t want to to female students. (Sadly this was a situation that arose, in 2009, in Canada.) When my male colleagues mention that their PhD is in chemistry, I have yet to see the kind of shocked faces followed by the condescending, “oh you have a real PhD,” as though somehow getting a PhD in a physical science is harder or more legitimate than one in a social science. I have never heard anyone refer to my male colleagues as a “bitch” because the same kind of tough questions that the male professors do. And they certainly haven’t had to deal with the rampant sexual harassment. Let me tell you, when you are at a conference poster session and one of your professors begins to tell, in graphic detail, of how attractive he thinks a well-known undergraduate student is and what he is planning to do alone in his hotel with her image, it makes your skin crawl to know that even if you said something about this, the guy has tenure and so nothing will happen. Hell, let’s not even discuss some of the things the more senior fellows in the department have said.

Did Dr. Kulkarni mean that women can’t be scientists by his off-hand remark? Probably not. I like to think that he was commenting on the child-like curiosity that many scientists have, and that the general enthusiasm with which curiosity-driven research is carried out feels a little like “getting to play with some pretty cool toys”. However, when you take that sentiment in context with the stories of institutional sexism that I, and every female scientist, has experienced in some way, it becomes easy to see why we are reacting with outrage.

I happen to work for a company called Life Science Forensics, where I am the Director of Science and Research, and right now we are made up of four women only. I would very much refer to this wonderful group of women that I work with as “girls with toys” because we are driven to innovative research projects that often start with a curious question and the knowledge that we have plenty of high end instrumentation to test out ideas. We are committed to innovating our field-and if you had the kind of instruments we have, you’d want to be testing for all kinds of things like we do.

Does it matter that we are women? Not at all. Science is for everyone with a curious mind. Dorothy Parker wrote: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” And that has NOTHING to do with gender.

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