As a child, I was told I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. I never felt like I was held back from pursuing any career that I wanted during my youth. The people who told me I could follow any dream I had neglected to mention that this was due to my privilege of being both white and male. Sadly, even in 2015, women and people of color do not always have the freedom of feeling like they can grow up to be anything. It is much more subtle now though as legally women can pursue many of the same careers as men. However, residual overt sexism of years ago still rears its ugly head in our current society in more covert ways. Even today, women are still largely underrepresented in the sciences. This is particularly concerning in the in physical sciences, math, and engineering. The statistics are alarming with women scientists often making at least 10% less than men, 75% of computer and mathematical occupations done by men, and only 3% of full professors in all sciences and engineering fields in the United States are women of color to name a few. Personal anecdotes can be even more harrowing and provide personal insight of why this under representation may occur.
A very drastic example of how women are not persuaded to go into the sciences was seen with the national story of Kiera Wilmot. Kiera was a 16 year old African American high school student who was expelled, arrested, and faced two felony charges for conducting a science experiment without teacher supervision before school one day. She combined aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner in a water bottle which created a puff of smoke when the top popped off. Yes, this could have been dangerous if the top of the bottle hit someone in the eye, but is arresting a young girl with a curious mind really the best way to handle it? Detention or a brief suspension would have been much more appropriate instead of a hasty arrest with felony charges. This is just one case, but reflects the undercurrent of how our society is so quick to judge minorities. African Americans students are already disciplined at much higher rates than whites with black females being most disproportionally suspended. The case of Kiera Wilmot provides a clear example of how society views women and especially women of color to not be associated with science. I can speak as being a young white boy who had his fair share of mischief during high school. I was reprimanded and given detention plenty of times for committing thoughtless antics. However, I do believe that if I engaged in such behavior as a black female instead of a white male I would have had an arrest record and be nowhere near science instead of doing neuroscience for my career.
I interviewed a few of my friends to find stories of women in science that may not have generated national news like the case of Kiera Wilmot, but are still incredibly informative of our culture. I would like to start with the story from a young woman by the name of Ania Bula from Ottawa, Ontario. Ania was passionate about going to medical school since 9th grade and took a heavy load of science courses during high school. Boys her age also took the same courses, but yet only Ania was encouraged to drop some of her courses from her guidance counselors because they might be too hard. When she expressed interest in becoming a doctor to her family and friends, Ania was told to go into nursing instead. A quote from my interview with her speaks volumes of the underlying sexism still rampant in our society.
“Everyone seemed to think that the idea of a woman becoming a surgeon was ridiculous. I had one person tell me that only ugly women who never plan to get married go into surgery. I had many people tell me that if I became a doctor that my future husband would have to be a doctor as well because no man would accept a mate who was better employed than he was, or made more money, or more successful, etc.”
When young women are exposed to such harmful “advice” while considering careers, it is easy to understand why there are not more women in the sciences. Also, stereotype threat emerges with the endorsement of these harmful falsehoods that women are not smart enough for science. Stereotype threat occurs when a group performs worse on a certain task simply because that social group is told they will not do well. Many studies have shown that making one’s race or gender more salient before a test can reduce performance. However, this effect can be reduced when participants are told that gender or race has no effect on performance. So even if young women are brave enough to take science courses like Ania was, they might actually do worse than men because of stereotype threat and not because they are not as smart as men. Fortunately, Ania took these classes anyway and did not buy into these harmful and incorrect stereotypes that were thrown at her. Sadly, other young women may internalize these harmful falsehoods.
Zoë Toth studies biomedical engineering at the University of South Carolina and was fortunate to have a social network that supported her scientific interests. However, Zoë told me a harrowing story of girl named Sam she knew in high school. One day, Zoë, Sam, and others were having a discussion on intelligence and gender. A young boy was suggesting that men were smarter than women while Zoë was arguing for equality. Sam, though quite gifted in mathematics, remained silent during the discussion until she interjected to agree with the young boy that men are indeed smarter. Sam explained that god had made men better than women and while Zoë and she were smart, they will always be inferior. Zoë ended our interview with an inspiring quote:
“Although I am not sure what I want to do for the rest of my life, science holds a part in my future. It is something that I love that helps explain the world to me. And I know it should be held near to my heart, because there are people trying to pry it away from me. Some part of me hopes that if I go far enough perhaps I will be a reason for a young Sam somewhere one day to no longer think of herself as inferior.”
It is absolutely terrible that a young woman gifted academically will always think of herself inferior to men. Religion may make this explicit for some women, but our society certainly reinforces those harmful beliefs.
Xandra Best, a math and computer science major at St. Olaf College, did notice some problematic things with her scientific pursuits as well. Though Xandra had supportive math and science teachers in high school, she told me that this was not the case for some of her female math major friends as they were discouraged from pursuing math by their high school teachers. Xandra also noticed a concerning trend when she was a math tutor. Xandra was just as qualified as male tutors, but would get less overall work, less advanced students, and less male students compared to the male tutors. She had to lower her wages to keep competitive with her male counterparts. It was through this experience that Xandra came to a disconcerting realization:
“That was when I first started wondering if a math major would be less valuable to me as a woman than it would be if I were a man. How many potential employers would also believe that I was less qualified for a position because of my gender?”
This disturbing anecdote could provide some insight as to why women in the math and sciences have significantly lower incomes than their male counterparts. Regarding computer science, Xandra noted how few women are in that field which promotes stereotype threat and less people suggesting women should be computer science majors.
“The most frustrating thing about this is that all the reasons that make it difficult for a woman to major in computer science are prevalent because there are so few women in computer science.”
Anna Butterfield is currently pursuing her master’s in biology at the University of Center Florida and took many science classes throughout high school and college. Her parents were supportive of her scientific interests and she did not report much overt trouble from her male peers; especially after she would set the curve on the first test. However, Anna did notice that there tended to be a type of savior complex with some of the young men in her science courses. Men were eager to help women in the science classes, but became colder towards them when the women did well on their own.
“Also, a lot of guys kind of shut me out after I performed well on tests. I imagine it may be because they thought they could help me and when they realized that I didn't need help, I was not nearly as interesting anymore.”
This savior complex is quite problematic because it penalizes women for doing well in the sciences and also rewards them for needing help. This creates a vicious cycle which only promotes the stereotype of women not belonging in science. Luckily, despite these cases, there are still many women who have overall positive experiences in pursuing science.
Alex Cottle is a pre-medical student at The Ohio State University. She was an excellent student all through high school and took many advanced science courses as she knew she wanted to be a doctor at an early age. Alex went to a high school where many women excelled in academics and she feels this could have played a role in reducing any potential sexism.
“Actually, in my grade, the top 10 students were female. So, I think that my peers grew up seeing us 10 females excelling beyond all of my other peers, and they were just accustomed to us being interested in science.”
Additionally, Alex’s community was very supportive to women in science by having a "Women in Science Day," a "Math Awareness Day," and offers scholarships for women in science. So it seems like having visible successful women in academics as well as an environment which supports women in science and academics in general can play a large role in reducing sexism and stereotype threat. There are also many other female friends of mine who are excelling in science and also had a very supportive and open environment.
There still is work to be done, but there has been great progress made in this area over the years. As a neuroscientist, I am surrounded by many brilliant scientists in my department. I also interned at a hospital doing neuropsychology evaluations on brain injury patients and my cohort there was also exclusively female. Additionally, I attended Westminster College which is the number one college for women in science. So because of my experiences of being surrounded by so many brilliant women, I find it ridiculous that women are ever thought to be less intelligent in the sciences. However, people shouldn't need to share my experiences to know sex does not play a role in scientific intelligence. This is why we need to continue making strides in making the scientific world more accepting of women despite the progress we have had. We need more men to call out sexism and foster a more open, safer, and accepting environment for young women who want to pursue science. It pains me to think of how many brilliant women who could excel in science choose a worse fit for them because of social pressures. No one should ever be discouraged from their dreams because of their gender.
*This article originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of The Feminist Observer which focused on youth issues.