Science Grrl

“It’s not rocket science.”

The old saying is supposed to put one at ease when attempting to solve a problem. But it also is our way of elevating rocket scientists as the epitome of intelligence. Thus we are left with the image that only the most intelligent people can be scientists and engineers. Please note that I said “most” intelligent because obviously you need to be intelligent to do science.

That said, people have often pointed to the fact that there are more male geniuses or, more recently, that boys make up a large majority of those in the 99% percentile in math:

At the very highest level, the 99.9th percentile, this difference meant 2.15 males for every female. This difference was large enough that, in an occupation requiring math skills at that level, the job ranks could be expected to be filled 68 percent by men, 32 percent by women — enough to explain, as Summers suggested, part of the gender gap.

While I have not seen the breakdown of what people, men and women, who score in the 99th percentile do with their lives, I doubt we can focus on this slim slice of the population to increase the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. Thus the idea that because we currently have more male geniuses is a reason to just accept that we will always have more male engineers is hogwash. Thankfully others see through this flawed logic.

In my career as a student, scientist and advisor, I have seen students who blow my mind with their genius trip on their laurels and ego to fall flat on their face. I have seen students who started their college careers in remedial math, yet worked hard and succeeded not only in passing Calculus, but continued on to graduate school. And yes, I have seen the stereotypes: Genius students sprint through college in 3 years and straight into medical school; others drop out after getting clobbered by Calculus. Having a solid foundation in math is obviously key, but in the end percentiles cannot predict creativity or aptitude for science and engineering.

In my opinion, this argument is merely another excuse to avoid the harder questions of discrimination, curriculum, and the lack of encouragement we give our girls to consider engineering and science. Given the need for more engineers in our society, we should be working to find ways to encourage as many students as possible, of both sexes, to turn to this field. It is a sad fact that even with a 3:1 advantage in math genius, our boys are not turning to engineering as a career and that spells trouble for the future of our economy.

Last week I sat down with a group of journalism students and they asked what we can do to make math cool for girls. “We simply need to make math cool in general, not just for girls,” I replied. The same goes for science. Science is portrayed as the only field that uses big words (it’s not like law is any better—have you ever tried to read the terms & conditions for Facebook?) and thus intimidates many to think one needs to be a rocket scientist to be well, a scientist. So when scientific studies are printed in the media that “prove” that working moms are happier than stay-at-home ones, or vice versa, or that feminism is to blame for the rise in women alcoholics, most people are unprepared to question the findings.

This lack of skepticism is scientists’ fault. Far too often we, (even though I haven’t been a practicing scientist in over a decade, I’ll lump myself in), don’t explain things in a simple way. It takes a long time to tackle those big words and we need to use them…when we talk to each other. But basic knowledge of science is a must in today’s society. Scientific literacy should be just as important to our education as knowing how to read and add together two numbers.

More and more I find that this scientific literacy is a must for women and girls in particular. As we have seen in the eight long years of the Bush administration women and girls health care has been politicized. Yes, most of the Bush administration has been politicized, but health care is especially touchy. I just heard a story of a friend whose pregnancy was going badly and instead of offering a termination immediately her doctor referred her to labor & delivery to birth the dying fetus. She said she couldn’t believe that she had the will to stand up at the time and tell the doctor he had better find someone to perform an abortion. This friend is one of the most vocal feminists I know and yet she knows that she almost folded under the cloak of “Doctor Knows Best.”

When the Bush administration says that climate change has nothing to do with polar bears dying, we have photos of dead polar bears. When the Bush administration says that the morning after pill is an abortificant we don’t have a photos to counter. That’s the tricky thing with science and health care.

Our only defense is to educate ourselves. We should know how to spot when the science is bad or when the reporting is bad. Debunking is a science and often our bodies are a battlefield. Ladies, suit up.

Image Credit.

GWP’s resident Science Grrl, Veronica Arreola, is here with a fantastic column adding to her WMC commentary on Larry Summers. Reminding us all that a much-celebrated election victory doesn’t mean our work is over, Veronica asks whether Summers is really change we can believe in. –Kristen

There’s much more not to like about Larry Summers than just one line in one speech.

First that line…It was not just a simple line, but a complex argument that was summarized into one line and then reinforced during the question and answer session and in subsequent interviews. And that was not all he said; he also ranked in order of importance three reasons why women are not well represented in science and engineering. First, he noted women’s unwillingness to work 80 hour weeks, second, their innate handicap in math, and finally, discrimination.

The first reason is important, because I believe it will soon become obsolete—it will be the straw that breaks academia’s back…MEN will quickly move into this category too. I have seen signs of Gen X men scoffing at 80 hour weeks because they want to be more than just the breadwinner. They want to know their children and enjoy their lives. Once a critical mass of men do, we’ll have more support for work/life balance. But what is flabbergasting is that Summer ranked discrimination last, privileging the idea that women are innately unable to do math as reason for our lack of representation. But the data simply does not bear out this theory.

While women hold the largest edge in biological sciences, they lose that edge by graduate school and quickly fade by faculty time. Obviously the on average 60% of biological sciences degree holders have a firm grasp on math, so what happens to them? Do they lose their math skills as they age? Doubtful. The genetic difference argument holds no water, and other factors, such as family pressures and lack of role models, give more valid insight into why women are being “lost in the pipeline” in graduate school.

Second issue: is Summers such a strong believer in the theory of the free market that he wouldn’t initiate any pro-women policies for fear of hindering the free market? That’s a question I’d like to see a Senator ask if Summers is nominated. Does welfare to single moms throw off the free market? Does it do more damage than a government bailout of the banking system? While Summers has written Financial Times columns in the past few months that show a greater role for a government hand in the economy, is this an actual rebirth, or would he still fall back on the free market policies of the Clinton years?

And lastly, yes, his past stance on the developing world is important to this debate. As I wrote in my WMC article about Summers, I voted for change and that means a change from this country using developing countries as a dumping ground.

My opposition to Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary goes beyond one line in one speech. It is the mentality and thoughts behind that one line, behind that one speech. What type of person thinks it is ok to say that women and girls can’t do math, and that he would be safe from rebuke for it? Will a man who holds these views fight for equal pay, give benefits for child care, or demand that discrimination be stamped out of the workplace?

The question: Does he or does he not believe in regulation … and if yes for financial markets, why NOT for labor markets?

~Thanks to economist Susan F. Feiner for guidance on this issue and for the last line.

–Veronica Arreola