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girls,science, etc.

Aimee Yermish ayermish at leland.Stanford.EDU
Sun Jan 24 19:33:10 EST 1993

I, too, had very supportive parents.  The general deal was that if I
expressed an interest in something, I would be given the opportunity
to maintain that interest, and as long as I maintained the interest, I
would get all the support possible.  (same held true for my younger
brother) So, for instance, when I was 7, I asked to take piano
lessons.  They gave me a teach-yourself book and told me that if I
kept it up for six weeks without being reminded, then I could have
real private lessons.  Generally they gave me material that was just
above my level, which meant I had to really push myself to understand,
but when I did, I learned something of value instead of "our friends
the trees."  It didn't really matter what I was interested in, as long
as it was relatively wholesome -- I was given that same warm support
that encouraged me to take my interests seriously rather than being a

I agree that you kind of have to catch girls' interest in science long
before they hit junior high, because once they get to the herd years,
they're too worried about being weird or too smart or not nice enough
or not liked well enough or whatever.  (obviously, that's not always
true, but it seems to happen enough of the time to be a
generalization) And as I read more about how teachers are taught in
this country, the more obvious it becomes that those elementary school
teachers too often don't really know much science, and the way it's
presented to them in their courses, they won't really learn what they
want to convey to the kids.  Too many people think of science
(especially biology) as a huge set of data that must be memorized and
spit back, rather than as a way of observing and thinking.

We also have very few good role models in popular culture.  My husband
and I watched some of those old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials a
while back, and I was astounded to see the scientists portrayed as the
good guys.  Any scientists who worked for the bad guys were under mind
control or blackmail.  Today's pop-culture image of the scientist is
more like the guy in Back to the Future at best (basically nice but
really wacko) and like a whole horde of evil geniuses at worst (evil
and self-serving and a danger to humanity).  As alluded to in other
people's postings, we aren't even brought up to think of anything to
do with biology other than be nice little doctors (who are still hero
figures in most situations).  This works against both boys and girls,
but I think boys are more encouraged to sympathize with the evil
scientists than the girls are, because in general their violent
tendencies (which we all have) are more validated.

I have to mention one periodical for kids -- Science News.  It may be
a bit above some elementary kids' levels, but it's worth a shot.  It's
really short (16p/week) and quite well written, and the parents could
learn a lot from it too -- there's none of the gross
oversimplification that is so common in scientific stuff aimed at
kiddies.  In my many lengthy talks with my mother (who has only a
little college and not much science background), I've learned that
almost anyone can learn the details of science and scientific thought,
if they're willing to ask questions and listen patiently.  I wish
there were some way to encourage all those parents out there to learn
along with their kids.

Also, I recently had the pleasure of rewatching Cosmos, which came out
originally when I was 12 and just realizing how much I liked science.
It's still inspiring, even in my jaded late graduate student years,
and I have to admit it was one of the things that got me realizing
that I would be a *scientist* and that would be totally cool.

I've had my share of damn fine teachers, too -- Mrs. Hoffman, Mr.
Thomas, Mr. Druce (z"l), Mr. Wiltsee -- your names shouldn't go

In grad school, I've seen a lot of the same things other people have
mentioned with respect to women not getting respect.  I've whispered
ideas to the guy next to me so that they would get a good hearing.  
I've been accused of being too aggressive plenty of times, when I act
according to the boys' rules.  And I've seen my (women) friends suffer
because they couldn't be so aggressive, and their advisors didn't
respect them.  Male PIs who devote their lives to science and become
"monks" are seen as dedicated, female PIs who become science monks are
seen as, well, pretty good scientists but they must be inhuman to act
like that and they must have given sexual favors to get ahead in their
careers because they don't seem as brilliant as the men.  When a
speaker, potential postdoc, or other dignitary is taken out to
lunch/dinner, the men always get to go along and the women are never
even asked.  In the "girls' room" of my lab (there is a de facto
segregation, largely due to historical accident and self-choice),
we've talked about this stuff, and while we agree that we ought to set
up an old girls' network out of self-defense, we all want to believe
in the idea that we should be respected for being good scientists
instead of playing all these stupid politic games.


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