Adventures in Ethics and Science

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?

Comments

  1. #1 becca
    April 29, 2009

    *grumble grumble*
    I still don’t see the point of decoupling them if you could be working on decreasing the costs of opting out of evil oppressive patriarchal heteronormative gender roles. It strikes me as much more rational to abolish junior high.
    /stick in the mud

  2. #2 Jared
    April 29, 2009

    I suppose my experience may be skewed towards those females that do go into sciences, however, many of them seem to segregate the two quite nicely. At the age of 13, on the other hand, one has to wonder what social environment this individual is in. One thing I noticed at the university I attended was that all women in scientific programs I encountered were from rural areas or with a parent in academia. It would be interesting to do a survey and look for any non-anecdotal correlations with this. My university did have a high proportion of students from rural areas.

    I am unsure as to how to proceed with correcting the issue at the time, however, I would state that I would begin by encouraging science education across the board and that could help. Perhaps increasing the profile of women in science assist this. I know a great many female scientists are overlooked in the general biology, chemistry, and physics courses.

  3. #3 Dave X
    April 29, 2009

    At 13 I wanted to be an astronaut. e.e. Doc Smith, Tom Swift, etc. The opportunity cost of giving up science and math would have been huge.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 29, 2009

    Becca, that would pretty much be my preference, too. But I *really* hated junior high.

  5. #5 Kim
    April 29, 2009

    From my distant memory of middle school life back 40 years ago (yes, I’m a geezer), the influences that kept me interested in science at that age were: 1) a mother who was a nurse and communicated that science was cool, 2) female teachers who thought that science was cool and let everyone know it, and 3) reading books about women scientists/engineers/explorers.

    Notice a theme here?

    I can’t recall any of the angst about whether to be a cute girl or a geeky girl, but we were in the middle of the liberation revolution and freeing women from their stereotypical positions in the universe was quite the discussion point everywhere you looked.

    Maybe there was a little angst about whether boys would be able to deal with me liking “boy stuff”, but it was not really a big issue, from what I remember. Of course, I could be filtering this through my selective memory filter, having ended up doing bench and clinical science and loving it, and now writing about science for a living. Oh yeah, and finding a scientist spouse who also thought that scientific women were VERY cool!

  6. #6 Super Sally
    April 29, 2009

    But I *really* hated junior high. -JDS

    So did your mother while you and your sibs were held captive there. I was more elated when the youngest exited middle school than at any other of all your many graduations and honors because of the pressure that relieved from your parents’ lives.

    We need to find a way to convince parents, guidance counselors, teachers and pre-teens/teens of the $$$ cost of dropping out of math/science curriculum.

    MAAAAAANNNNNYYYYYYYYYYYYYY years ago when you were a teen, the statistic that caught my eye was: If a person drops out of the pre-calculus sequence before college 60% of courses offered in the typical university will be closed to the student due to the inability to complete prerequisites. We’re talking economics at all but the descriptive level, most science courses, many computer science courses, even graduate education courses that require statistics, etc. etc. So you only get a 40% buy-in for your tuition $$.

    Now consider the other end of the pipeline: jobs after college/grad school. Sort them by earning power and see how many of the top paying jobs you can get to from the 40% of what is offered at university if you block yourself out of calculus.

    Subtract out the “discount” that is generally taken by women in salaries for all those other historic reasons.

    This is an economic issue of large proportions that I do not believe has pierced the awareness of the average jr high/middle school guidance counselor. I spent some time sparing with them (and even HS counselors) to get my off-spring the academic challenges they needed. It should have been easier. It would have made that time better during what is always a difficult part of life to transit.

    I also spent some time sparing with NJ guidance counselors on math education in general, based on our analysis of the NJ Basic Skills Test results for several years.

    Glad I’m not doing that at this point. Sorry for the rant.

  7. #7 LabGrab
    April 29, 2009

    I agree that the “I stink at math” attitude has a lot to do with parenting and role modeling, and what a real men or real woman would do escapes all teenagers.

    What about late bloomers? Do any of us discover in college that in fact we are great at math and love Organic chemistry? I did, a bit.

  8. #8 llewelly
    April 30, 2009

    If a person drops out of the pre-calculus sequence before college 60% of courses offered in the typical university will be closed to the student due to the inability to complete prerequisites.

    This not true. I took EE courses in university with 4 people (2 women, 2 men) who entered college knowing little or no algebra. They had to take a lot more courses before they got to calculus, but they got there, and they got through differential equations, and what not. It’s more difficult, it takes more time, but they all made it out with their degrees.

    A little known fact is that most universities accept transfer credits – often at no penalty at all – from ‘community colleges’ and such, which will teach the prerequisites. Furthermore – at the community colleges, the prerequisite math material that a high school would take a full school year to cover are often covered in one semester (or even one quarter, at schools on a quarter system.)

    This delusion that if high school doesn’t work out for someone they are forever doomed to a life of failure and poverty is cruel and destructive – especially since it is parents and school administrators, not the students, who have final say over what courses high school students take. You might wonder how the above mentioned 4 people entered college needing to take a math course every quarter or semester, and even in the summer, for one or two years before starting calculus, and yet had the interest to continue until they got through calculus and beyond. Well, in 2 cases, they had the interest all along, but it wasn’t until they got to college, where they could reject the demands of ‘well-meaning’ parents and teachers, that they were able to pursue their interests.

  9. #9 Pat Cahalan
    April 30, 2009

    > What if masculinity and femininity were
    > generally taken to be orthogonal to interest
    > and ability in math and science?

    I pick that one, right there. And it’s not terribly difficult to do. There are lots of role models in science and engineering, of all personality types. You’ve got the social nonconformist, the drama king (or queen), the lantern jawed Heinlein hero, you name it. Expose kids to this wide disparity of people who do science, and they’ll stop associating it with socially inept scrawny thick-glasses-wearing nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with nerds).

    Richard Stallman, Ernest Shackleton, Grace Hopper, Evelyn Granville, Brian May! C’mon, if you can be a rock god and astrophysicist while suffering from depression, anybody can be a scientist :)

  10. #10 Pascale
    April 30, 2009

    First, I would love to eliminate junior high/middle school, mostly because kids are evil to each other at that age. I agree that the only thing nearly as bad as living through it is watching your children do it. I suggested that children could be anesthetized for about 3 years and then allowed to return to society, but I suspect that would just delay the issues.
    I believe, ultimately, that more exposure and role modeling is what it will take to break the stereotypes and allow there to be no relationship between science/math and femininity. We are still a ways away. This week on Cosmo radio (yes, Cosmo magazine has an XM station) one of the DJs was talking about seeing “Winnie Cooper from the Wonder Years” married in some magazine spread. He then went on in amazement that she was “some sort of math genius” cause he never would have guessed that after watching her on TV. I wanted to call in and “enlighten” him, but I was afraid I couldn’t keep the car on the road.
    The fact that there are this many of us joining in this conversation heartens me. When I was growing up finding a female physician role model, let alone a female physician-scientist, was really difficult (I’m over 40). Now I could point a girl to a number of women right here at my medical center.

  11. #11 becca
    April 30, 2009

    “A little known fact is that most universities accept transfer credits”
    I’m totally in agreement with you in general, but… this is a little known fact?

    In that case, it’s probably a ‘virtually unknown’ fact that, despite “official policies” regarding minimum enrollment age- some community colleges will allow you to get that cumbersome pre-calculus math out of the way while you are still junior-high age if you get to know the VP of Academic Affairs through your homeschooling group contacts.
    Two birds, one stone.

    On the other hand, if you try this path Greggie might try to label you a crazy ideologically driven radical. And of course, if you do it partially to avoid the insidious junior-high gender stereotyping, I suppose you might be a flavor of ideologically driven radical. Just a rational one.

    “C’mon, if you can be a rock god and astrophysicist while suffering from depression, anybody can be a scientist :)”
    Anyone got any depressed pregnant scientist role models?

  12. #12 Jason Freeman
    May 1, 2009

    I am always interested in postings on ScienceBlogs about K-12 education and the responses that follow. Overwhelmingly, the responses are anecdotal. Yet, on other posts, the responses are more likely to be research related.

    There is a lot of research on when and how students make decisions about science careers. Here are two easy reads to start:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/312/5777/1143
    http://www.smm.org/ecc/

    The original post is correct – we have to change the identified costs and benefits. That is very hard to do with deferred benefits from education. By providing social situations that encourage science and math, we can decrease the cost – you can have your friends and learn. The smartest kids get these opportunities – math team, science club, academic summer camp, etc. – and many scientists point back to those experiences as formative. Now we need to give social learning opportunities to the average kids – every kid should have a science club once a week or get to play math games outside of school. This requires a change in attitude from everyone involved, but it can be done.

  13. #13 Jane
    May 1, 2009

    Why does this post’s definition of femininity basically equate it with frivolty? Girls who are seriously into dating and makeup stop being interested in demanding subjects; so do boys who are seriously into dating and football. Why is that a surprise? What we should be telling girls is, “Prettiness doesn’t matter, intelligence and character do”. Then they’ll do fine whether or not they pursue science.

  14. #14 Ian
    May 2, 2009

    Anyone who thinks the problem both begins and can be solved at thirteen is delusional. Monty Python may have meant it as a joke in “Meaning of Life” but they were far closer to the truth than people generally realize. The “genderising” of society starts before birth and it needs to be tackled at every level of society at every age, in every culture.

  15. #15 CM
    May 2, 2009

    I’ll pick option 3. We need more role models and folks breaking stereotypes!
    A male fellow student of mine (in grad school) once remarked about someone else, “She’s too cute to be a scientist.” This kind of attitude is pervasive.

    There is now research showing that students who are equally well prepared for science courses in college actually rate their high school science classes as lower quality if they were taught by women. Sorry I do not have the link/reference for this–it came across in an AWIS newsletter.

    In my experience, the following two statements are widely held beliefs:
    Women can’t be feminine or attractive and be scientists. And women who are scientists must be less competent than their male colleagues. I think more role models and highlighting the achievements of women scientists will help. But working to reduce gender stereotyping of kids from the very beginning is probably the only thing that will ever work.

    For the record, I am a female Ph.D.-level biochemist. I had all male science and math teachers in high school, and LOVED every class. All of my teachers were extremely supportive and encouraging of my interests, and strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in science. My parents were utterly clueless (neither went to college).

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