Life as an Extreme Sport

Socializing Girls Away from STEM

Sometimes, I wonder if the problem with STEM and girls and their interest isn’t that we devalue STEM to girls, but that we devalue girls and their interests.

Image via EDF.
Image via EDF.
In October 2015, EDF’s Pretty Curious campaign drew a lot of ire from scientists (mostly women), both for the name and for the content of the promotional material. You see, one of the people involved was a cosmetics scientist.

I found the outrage over the name to be a bit baffling, because while I admit I really wished to be called pretty when I was a kid, I was called pretty curious all the time (and I suspect those who’ve worked with me can attest this much is still true; I’m insatiably curious about the world). I don’t hear a slur or a gendered put-down in that; instead, I actually hear the kind of language people are encouraged to use when discussing young girls: talk about their minds, not their bodies. And “pretty curious” is definitely addressing the mind!

It almost seemed like bigger outrage came around the fact that the campaign includes cosmetics scientist Florence Adepoju. Rather than focusing on diversity, as Adepoju is a woman of color, critics focused on the fact that she’s a cosmetics scientist. Because, you know. Girls and makeup and stereotypes–nevermind that you actually need science to make makeup, and that’s part of the point of including Adepoju in the first place: she used science to study how to make makeup (her dissertation was on getting lipstick to stay on lips), and built that into a successful smallbatch makeup business for women of color.

Not bad for 24, eh? Certainly the sort of women I’d like the girls in my life to look up to, anyhow.

But she does makeup, you see. And so people jump on it for being too girly, and the message that’s sent? Well, whether it’s intentional or not, it’s telling girls (and women) that it’s bad to be interested in makeup, in “girly” things.

My cousin wanted to start up summer jewelry-making classes in an income and resource-poor area of the country; she’d provide the tools and materials and teach anyone who was interested how to make jewelry–and sneak in geology lessons via gemstones. After all, to understand the quality of what you’re working with, you need to know how it’s made. She was specific in saying that anyone would be welcome, but also that she wanted to target younger girls in her community who might feel alienated from more boisterous physical sciences summer-camp-esque classes, which are largely populated by boys in her area.

I floated the idea by some scicomm people, who were horrified. Jewelry-making? It’s too stereotypical! We need girls to go into STEM! Not be girls! Another friend is getting the similar pushback over a science-y fitness class.

It’s a very weird sort of mental holding to have, isn’t it? We can’t use science to talk about things that girls are interested in, are targeted to via advertising, will likely spend lots of money on for themselves over the course of their lives, and have the potential to be skills useful for real-life, adult, science jobs.

The examples, though, seem to me to indicate not a problem with STEM, but a problem with girls. In particular, a problem with the way society can socialize girls to be “girly,” to like makeup and jewelry, to want to stay fit, to be interested in clothing design. But instead of working to open those areas up to boys while simultaneously encouraging girls, it seems like we’ve kneejerked so far away that any attempts to frame these “girly” areas as science-and-okay-for-girls is rejected.

But I have a feeling that when we do that? We’re rejecting the girls who are interested in these areas, and not the socializing behind the girls.

4:46pm, edited to add: After I posted this, Bethany pointed out that this was a discussion going on in early January that I probably missed because I was still recovering from emergency hospitalization/surgery/death-flu stuff. So here is Jamie Bernstein’s post In Defense of Pink Science, and Shannon Palus’s post that Bernstein was responding to.

If I’m Gonna Drop Anything, It’ll be Bricks, Not Names

I really hate having to justify myself. I hate having to roll out “credentials” and be constantly challenged on whether or not I have the “right” to discuss philosophy or ethics, or why I am actually offering a bit more than an “opinion,” or the recent favourite, that I’m not just talking about these things because my husband is a postdoc at Penn.

I hate it even more when I see how people treat Nick – even before his affiliations were made public, no one asked him to justify his credentials. No one asked if he had the right to offer opinions, and in fact, few took what he said as opinions. Oh sure, he gets the MY SCIENCE FACTS crowd, but that’s the crowd that’s arguing the validity of ethics as a field, not the validity of Nick discussing ethics.

sexistandabsurdNo one has suggested that he writes about ethics, or thinks he’s able to do so, because of who he is married to.

Some people have suggested that it’s because I don’t specifically call myself an ethicist or bioethicist in my Twitter profile, which is true. I have some issues there, and in particular I don’t want people to make the mistake of assuming I have a PhD, because I don’t.Look at my CV. Look at Google. Piece it together.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an education, because I do. I started off studying human psychology and comparative religions, and got about halfway through a dual degree when I had to relocate to another state, putting my education on hold. When I went back to school, it was with an eye towards either communication or epidemiology; I ended up in a strange interdisciplinary department at the University of Washington, the Comparative History of Ideas. My mentor had a degree in the History and Philosophy of Science, and I studied that, with a heavy emphasis in continental philosophy and anthropology, as well as medical history and ethics, in what was, at the time, the Department of Medical History and Ethics. They only offered a minor for undergraduates, but because of my major and my interest, I was allowed to take as many courses as I could, which ended up being equivalent the Master’s students.

During that time, I also started writing about pop culture and ethics for “the school newspaper” – which happened to be the third largest paper in Seattle at the time. I started guest blogging and then actually writing for other bioethics-related blogs, and I started giving invited talks on subjects I’d written on.

My thesis, which neared the length of a dissertation, was required for graduating with honors (which I did, both department and university). Relying heavily on continental philosophers you’ve never heard of, I made an argument against the primacy of autonomy and proposed an affect-centered ethic to take its place.

I went to graduate school, where I ended up writing for yet another bioethics blog. I worked in a bioethics research institute as a research assistant. I learned how to edit academic papers while working at an academic journal, where I also learned how to run an academic journal. I learned how to talk to the media, how to give interviews, how to evaluate timely and relevant topics. I learned how to write about complicated and serious issues in an accessible manner.

I also taught; I started teaching as an undergraduate, and into my graduate years. I taught basic general topics, I taught applied ethics, I taught bioethics. I taught Merleau-Ponty to freshmen and I taught medical ethics to graduate students.

Is that enough hitting over the head, or do I need to start name-dropping? After all, I learned a lot, from a lot of people, many of whom were, or are, considered the best in what they work in.

No, through circumstances, most out of my control, I don’t have a PhD to hit you over the head with when you question my credentials or my ability to talk about ethics in 140 characters. And that’s why, if you want to talk to “an ethicist” for a paper or publication, I’m happy to give you suggestions on who I think is accessible and able to talk on the subject at hand; I do understand the power of a PhD and the ability to cite an institutional affiliation. Do I wish I had that? Of course. But I also understand reality.

It's not just academia where you find this "treat a couple in the same field differently" bias; Emma Stone has spoken quite pointedly on it.
It’s not just academia where you find this “treat a couple in the same field differently” bias; Emma Stone has spoken quite pointedly on it.
Just like I understand the reality of why you question me and my ability to talk about ethics when it doesn’t even cross your mind to do the same with Nick. And it has nothing to do with his PhD, or my lack of.

Unfortunately, the fact that I even had to write that tells me that too many people don’t understand this, or the dynamics we’re working in, at all. Too many people don’t see that they will automatically accept a man as an authority, while automatically suspect that a woman can have any knowledge at all. So a situation is created where women have to be on constant defense, constantly justifying their ability to have more than an opinion.And yes, my irritation and my experience is a small fraction of what minorities, both male and female, have to deal with in academic and professional fields.

There is a difference between “let’s discuss” and “prove it,” one that rests not on tone or language, but on the implicit assumption that discussions happen between people with differing understandings, ideas, and knowledge, whereas someone being told to “prove it” has to meet some unknown, hidden bar of justification just to move on in to the possibility of discussion, and that the person making the demand has the qualifications to make such a determination.

And while there are situations in which “prove it” is appropriate, they are not “when the topic is about ethics and your background, degree, career are nowhere near ethics,” because you don’t have the ability to accurately judge my knowledge of my field.

You know who does?

The people I’ve never once been challenged by,Which is not to say there have never been loud and feisty disagreements. But see the difference between “let’s discuss” and “prove it.” I have never once felt as though I’ve had to prove my right or otherwise justify my ability to discuss ethics with other people in philosophy, ethics, and bioethics–and we’re not talking a giant happy-go-lucky field here, but one where civility is often strained, at best. in my last decade and change of being publicly involved in philosophical, biomedical ethical issues: other ethicists.