There’s a way to get girls to stick with science–and no, it’s not more female role models

Girls don’t need to be convinced that science is cool.
Girls don’t need to be convinced that science is cool.
Image: AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini
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I’ve been into science for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I star-gazed with my dad and hung out in the math class my mom taught at a local college. I told everyone that I was going to be a paleontologist, or an astronaut, or a physicist.

So I’m confused by campaigns that assume girls and women have to be lured into science with gender-specific appeals. The most recent to get under my skin was IBM’s sexist “Hack a Hairdryer” campaign, with the implication that women will be drawn to solving problems if they involve beauty appliances. There’s also GoldieBlox, a line of dolls and construction kits aimed at making engineering more appealing to young women, which recently ran an ad featuring girls dressed up as icons like Beyonce, Hillary Clinton and Misty Copeland (which, for the record, I’ve very much enjoyed watching). And then there’s the European Commission’s “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” initiative, which kicked off with a pink, cosmetic-filled ad, and currently offers a perky list of reasons “Why you’ll LOVE science,” complete with a heart emoticon.

To me, these campaigns are going about solving science’s diversity problem all wrong. The issue isn’t that women and other underrepresented minorities are uninterested in science. It’s that science pushes them away.

When I entered an undergraduate program in physics, I found that just 20% of my peers were women. (I went to school in Canada, but stats are similar in the US.) Black people are even more underrepresented in the field: about 5% of physics undergraduate degrees in the US are awarded to African Americans.

As a woman, I encountered subtle behaviors that slowly chipped away at my resolve: a lab partner who referred to another member of our group as a “bimbo” when she got an answer wrong, or loud conversations in the student lounge referencing graphic titles of porn movies.

Two big stories in 2015 underscored academia’s continued determination to keep women and minorities on the margins of science. Reports circulated that University of California, Berkeley professor Geoff Marcy, a preeminent astronomer, had sexually harassed students for decades, while Berkeley allegedly ignored the complaints. Subtext: women are not respected here. Meanwhile, others in the Berkeley astronomy community fought, with derogatory language, to win support for building a telescope on a sacred Hawaiian mountaintop. Subtext: minorities are not respected here either.

The solution to these problems isn’t for schools, businesses and companies to patronize girls and women by putting microscopes and beakers in pink stickers—or even to circulate inspirational stories of women like Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. Instead, we need to start dealing with sexism and racism head-on.

In a study of 7,505 high school students, Geoff Potvin, a researcher at Florida International University, measured the effect of a handful of common interventions on students’ interest in physics: single-sex classes; having role models including women physics teachers, women guest speakers, and women who made contributions to the field; and discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. Of these efforts, only the last one succeeded in making high-school women more interested in pursuing a career in the physical sciences.

“We call it our myth-busting paper,” Potvin tells Quartz.

Exactly why discussing the problem works is unclear. But Potvin has a theory. Imagine that someone in a classroom discussion makes a sexist remark: for example, “Women just aren’t interested in understanding why the world works.” Heads turn. The teacher or students can direct the conversation that follows to question the validity of the statement, so that young women in the room realize that the self-doubt or sense of discomfort sparked by this comment isn’t their fault. They’re not the problem: the culture is. And they’ll continue to be skeptical of sexist behavior, as well as any doubts about their abilities, in the future.

Potvin’s study is also noteworthy for demonstrating that focusing on role models doesn’t effectively encourage women to pursue science. Simply seeing a woman in science doesn’t connect with people, Potvin explains. Reading an article about a brilliant woman scientist heading up a Stanford University lab, or hearing stories about the seemingly flawless Marie Curie, can feel un-relatable and make such careers seem far out of reach. On the other hand, having a supportive teacher of any gender might make a big difference.

However, Potvin acknowledges that it’s hard to package up a controlled conversation about cultural problems. Teaching the effects of discrimination isn’t as easy laying out a lesson on gravity or friction. But it’s worth doing.

I’m still all for Legos featuring women scientists, engineering toys that cater to different learning styles, and tales of academics who don’t look like a narrow slice of America. What I object to is that these things are used to pitch science to girls as though they aren’t naturally inclined to care about science in the first place—or as if they have to be as knowledgable as a two-time Nobel Prize winner in order to participate.

Young girls know that stars, dinosaurs, bugs and volcanoes are magic. The problem is that day-to-day life in a patriarchal culture makes it hard for women to study them.