Archive for: March, 2013

Society's Beef with Women in STEM

Mar 07 2013 Published by under Uncategorized


I've decided to stray away from Neuroscience for one post and take complete advantage of Scientopia's diverse platform.

In honour of International Women’s Day  and after some recent personal conversations (okey they were more like one sided rants), I wanted to talk about women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Initially I thought this post would be a breeze to write.

I mean I'm a woman, I'm studying in a STEM field, I organize events for other women in STEM of various ages, I am a community outreach youth counselor who concentrates on gender specific programming, and I LOVE every minute of my day/night..

Then I started the research.

Oh man. Did I ever sink into a blackhole.. I have written at least 6 versions of this post..

Now that I've struggled with articulating it, I've come to realize it’s a loaded topic, what to talk about? The role of media? The cultural differences? The retention rate for women in STEM? The job markets? Public perception of women in STEM? How about the women themselves, how do they feel?

Then I got into the "Geek" and "Nerd" allocations.. yea. I am still trying to process all these facts (read: opinions, stereotypes, discriminatory remarks, racist remarks and of course sexist remarks, its not a happy place out there)

I’ve decided to simply write it from my perspective. Cavaet:  I may be coming from a somewhat privileged standpoint, I grew up with both parents being engineers and with the expectation that I follow suit (yes I picked Neuroscience over Aerospace engineering and yes my father is convinced it's a hobby, but that is rant I can go into another time). Let's focus on the topic at hand..

Girls and society.

“As girls grow up, they are socialized to believe that women are caring and empathetic, making careers that nurture others appealing; more abstract fields like math and physics do not seem as female friendly. Drawing women to these areas requires countering these perceptions.”


From my experience, girls want to make a difference, they want to do something that impacts the community. They respond strongly to the idea of changing the world into a better place. Research has actually shown this to be the case, girls are less likely to enter into a field they perceive to be less likely to help people (Diekman, Brown, Johnston & Clark 2010).

Girls and STEM

Researching, attracting and retaining women in STEM has been a hot topic within university STEM departments and granting agencies (ie.Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada 2010 Report )

It's also been tackled by governments (the European Commission (EC)  “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” , Japan's Miss Rikei Contest  ) TV shows ( The Erika Show), and even NFL/NBA Cheerleaders .

The media has either loved or hated  the way the females have been portrayed (feminine, girlie, pretty, sexy, ect.)  ...

You may be asking yourself, someone must have looked into this method of attracting girls into STEM more scientifically...

They have. A popular study by, Betz & Sekaquaptewa (2012) make the argument that uber (my word, best way I can describe the females they used in their task) feminine STEM role models were actually discouraging middle school girls interest in STEM when compared to being exposed to a gender-neutral STEM role models. These authors have been quoted saying that having a "geeky" female role model did not motivate the girls to pursue STEM related field either... I encourage you to read the paper, it has some great background, but I am interested in what you think about the experimental design.

Personally I cringed during the EC video, I didn't see a problem with the cheerleaders (although I played rugby in high school) nor did I see anything wrong Dr.Erika.. But then again I am not a middle school girl, so I did my own little n=1 experiment,I showed the videos to my 13 year old sister (affectionately known as the half human), who is a self-proclaimed "jockey fashionable nerd" (her words, apparently it applies anyone who likes math, the shade of purple, plays sax & american football... -_- ). I asked her what she thought of the women in them. Her reaction to them went like this:

In response to the EU video "Why are you showing me such an old video? Are they supposed to be scientists? Why are the girls walking around instead of doing science?"

In response to seeing Erika " She's so pretty, what did she do her PhD in? Where is MIT?"

In response to the Cheerleading video "I think this is cool. Didn't your friend do hockey & her masters? You know what would be fun, if they made this with all the sports!"

So the videos didn't "demotivate" her or make her question her abilities. Granted she comes from a family of female engineers and her older sister (ME) a little excessive with the science/engineering worshiping. I plan on showing these videos to her class (grade 8) in two weeks when I go talk to them about Neuroscience (and embarrass her). I'll update you guys on their reactions in the comments.

Girls, STEM and Society

A lot of arguments I've read online are talking about how feminine these women are and that the videos are objectifying the women behind the science.

It should be about the science, not about how hot or sexy the scientist is.

Agreed.. BUT.

Let's take a step back here people.

Our entire society objectifies women. We can spend days on how women are objectified in the media & the press.

But that is neither here or there. The above videos/campaigns are aimed to the very society in which a women are portrayed a certain way.

Does that make them right? It's not a moral issue. It's an issue of taste and culture.

Does that make them relevant or effective? Perhaps, some girls may find them quite relevant (maybe not the EU one, that one is just horrible.. )

Girls, STEM & Geeks

Scouring through pages and pages of online articles, I came across articles from online communities to articles in Forbes.

You know too much about star wars, you know too little, you're too pretty to be a gamer, you're too ugly to be a comic hero, you're too well dressed to be a nerd, you're too under-dressed to be taken seriously..

There seems to be one take home message among all the judgement out there, you're screwed if your too feminine and you're screwed if your not.

Heaven forbid should you fall into a category that seems to represent more then one thing.

.....What a load of bull$*#!

I get it. We are a visual society, we enjoy the pretty, hell I LOVE the pretty. It's the association between the pretty and the science that seems to be the tough pill to swallow. Not being taken seriously, being brushed aside, having to work harder just to prove yourself..

I also get how videos like the cheerleading ones may send out a type of message we are not comfortable with.. In the end of the day, if it inspires one girl to go into computer science, all the more power to ya.

Obviously this entire women in STEM issue was alot more complicated then I've talked about, and there are no quick fixes..But you know what you can do? Judge. Not other people. But yourself. The next time you catch yourself putting someone in a box based on looks, take a minute and judge yourself. Harshly. Our girls and boys deserve a better society.

That's my two cents (ie controlled rant)

Stay nerdfabulous;)



For your reading pleasure:

Betz, D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735

Diekman, A.B., Brown, E.R., Johnston, A.M., & Clark, E.K. (2010). Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610377342



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