Dr. Isis has some rollicking good discussions going on at her pad about who might care about blogs, and what role they might play in scientific education, training, and interactions. (Part one, part two.)
On the second of these posts, a comment from Pascale lodged itself in my brain:
I think a lot of impressionable girls, especially in that middle-school age group, get the idea that they can’t be good at science or math if they like clothes, makeup, and boys. Is it the science/math sterotype that is the problem, or is it that girls make other choices to pursue these alternate interests? “I want to be pretty, so I don’t want to be a scientist, etc” or is it “I’m bad at math and science, so I should be pretty and study art.”
Girls’ test scores and grades don’t fall behind boys in these subjects until that age, and I find it hard to believe that girls suddenly lose the ability to do math and science. If more positive role models were present, then girls might see that they can study science and be feminine as well. I think that may be the real issue to closing the gender gap in the sciences.
This has me wondering.
What if the perceived cost of opting out of science and math was as high for the typical American 13-year-old girl as it is for the typical American 13-year-old boy? (Note that this is not just a matter of how the 13-year-olds in question imagine their future trajectories and the role math and science might play in those trajectories. There’s a lot of feedback that comes from teachers, guidance counselors, parents, peers, TV shows, and such.)
What if the perceived cost of opting out of science and math was as high for the typical American 13-year-old girl as the perceived cost of opting out of femininity? (Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can tell you about the cost of opting out of femininity. Undoubtedly, anyone who has ever been a teenage boy knows something about the costs of opting out of masculinity, too. Teenagers, and those who herd them, can be pretty intense about policing boundaries of gender conformity. This is just one of many reasons that junior high sucks.)
What if masculinity and femininity were generally taken to be orthogonal to interest and ability in math and science? This would mean that opting into, or out of, masculinity or femininity would be a completely separate issue from opting into, or out of, math and science. Your decision with respect to math and science would neither count for or against your opting into or out of a particular package of gendered characteristics. And, the costs of opting into or out of math and science could be adjusted independently of the costs of opting into or out of masculinity or femininity.
Changing the cost structures should change the range of plausible choices, right? So how do we do that?