The missing element: girls in science
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My daughter wants a periodic table poster for her door. It has to be correct and complete, not some rubbish with less than 119 elements. It’ll go nicely with The Beatles poster above her bed. So I’m obsessing online about the best periodic table poster, and resisting the urge to run to school and hug her science teacher.
Last month, her school held a “Women In Science Night”. Two hundred people attended—mostly girls, some boys, parents, and some fantastic science teachers. Seven women scientists came and spoke about their work. The school, East Side Community High School in Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village in the US, is dedicated to breaking stereotypes and getting the best out of students.
Girls and STEM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics. It’s an issue everywhere, the shortage of girls in STEM. Less opportunities, less expectations, prejudice, and the insidious whisper of sexism telling small girls—and small boys—that techie stuff is for boys.
In the US, for instance, studies show that even if there’s no actual difference in math achievement between boys and girls (a 2008 report in Science analysed the math scores of seven million students and found no difference in girls’ and boys’ average scores), the perception still exists that girls aren’t as good. My daughter’s elementary school principal told me that she felt girls hit a wall in third grade, and from then on too many just assume they are bad at math and science, whether or not they actually are. And of course, when you think you can’t do it, you often can’t.
If others think you can’t do it, you don’t get the job. A recent study at Yale University found that research institutions are more willing to hire men than equally qualified women scientists. Other studies show that boys are more likely to raise their hands and talk in science class, and teachers are more likely to call on them. This is why Women In Science Night is important. This is why you should never assume your daughter doesn’t want a periodic table.
The dynamic is a little different in India, where the biggest hurdle for girls is getting to school in the first place. If you don’t get aborted when you’re pre-human, killed at birth, starved in infancy, married at 3, or kept home to cook, you have a shot at school. If you’re Mai, a bright little Adivasi girl in Tembre village (Maharashtra), that still might not be enough to get you into a STEM career…. Mai’s family proudly sent her off to school, but she dropped out very quickly. The teacher in the one-room schoolhouse made her sweep and clean, and refused to teach her anything.
If you do make it to school in India, then you don’t have to spend as much time dealing with the business of not being considered good enough for science. It’s not a question of gender. It’s all about your marks. If your marks are high enough, you’re cleared for “Science”. If they’re low, you’re relegated to “Arts”.
So in some strange way, Indian girls—once they get past some extremely steep hurdles—might have a short hiatus in school when they don’t have to deal with the same sexism that their American counterparts face. It’s different later.
Women are still under-represented in STEM careers. Last month’s Scientometrics has an article by K.C. Garg and S. Kumar with some interesting facts. The authors analysed 9,957 papers in the life sciences published by Indians in 2008-09. Of these only 3.4% were contributed exclusively by women. Men wrote more, published more, were cited more often. This is disturbing. What happens to the bright little beings who go into “Science”? Who shuts them up?
I’m not sure whether or not it’s occurred to my daughter—yet—that being a girl carries any limitations. If it hasn’t, I’m thankful to her teachers. I’m not a particularly good role model. I don’t do a “manly” job, just sit at home and write things. I’m a feminist who can’t use a socket wrench. In my (sort of) defence, I can’t use a pressure cooker either, so the issue is not an excess of femininity, but more a surfeit of ineptitude. But I digress.
What to do about all these bright beings who are in danger of thinking they’re not good enough to take on the mysteries of the universe? First we have to believe this: Girls rock. Let’s show our girls and boys examples of brainy scientist women. Marie Curie, Kalpana Chawla, Rachel Carson…there are lots of them, despite the odds.
I have two sisters-in-law who are scientists. Sophie Molholm is a badass neuroscientist: She strides around in impossible heels, and could slay a ganglion at 10 paces. Robin Perrtree, marine biologist, is on a first-name basis with quite a few dolphins in the inland waterways around Savannah, Georgia. I’m so glad our children have such good role models. It’s good for our girls to see their mothers and aunts decoding the brain. It’s great for our boys to see their mothers and aunts analysing the paths of potential tsunamis. It’s not new: Women have decoded brains and figured out escape routes since the beginning of time. Let’s just make sure our children know this.
As for the periodic table, I know what you’ve been waiting to say since the first paragraph: “But there are only 118 elements!” Aha, I say to you, there are only 118 known elements so far. No.119 is yet to come. It has a temporary name, Ununennium, and it is waiting to be discovered by some badass future scientist who is busy doing her math homework right now.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
Also Read | Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns