The Importance of Being Earnest (About Encouraging Girls in Science)

I care very deeply about encouraging people to be scientists or simply to stay interested in science, whatever else you may do with your life. This is especially important for young girls and women: although a lot of the old barriers of access to education and jobs have fallen, there are still a lot of cultural barriers that still stand (not to mention the eternal travesty of pay differences between men and women performing exactly the same work). There may be fewer sexist male scientists actively standing in the way of women’s progress into the various scientific professions, but the “boys are better than girls at math and science” stereotype persists—despite strong evidence to the contrary!

So here’s a positive story to melt my heart, as it melted the heart of the man who wrote it, from the blog It’s Okay to Be Smart. The author’s niece is a 7-year-old second grader who absolutely loves science, and he recognizes his own role in inspiring her in the past (he’s obviously her favorite uncle, as many little kids idolize older relatives), but he also realizes how important his personal relationship with her can be in the future, when social pressures might help push the girl away from science. Please read what he wrote, and pass it along to your friends—it’s important stuff.

My own niece is only 2-1/2 years old—too young even for most science toys—but it won’t be long before she’ll be open to learning about all sorts of things, hopefully including science. Her parents will certainly be encouraging in that direction, but as her scientist-uncle, I’m someone who actually practices and writes about science, so I have a responsibility to help as well as I can. I hope I am up to the task.

(I should note that Jorge Cham, who drew the “propaganda poster” to the right and who has drawn the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip for over 10 years, writes female scientist characters who are fully realized, not merely stereotypes or men in disguise.)

7 Responses to “The Importance of Being Earnest (About Encouraging Girls in Science)”

  1. 1 Carrie April 3, 2011 at 10:30

    So true Matthew. I am trying to raise Caroline in the same way that I am raising William, in regards to having a love of learning, no matter the topic. Caroline is almost 5, and I can see the influence other little girls have on her: wearing pink, looking pretty, putting bows in her hair, playing house, etc. These things by themselves are not bad, of course; it is just that she and her friends do not do these activities alongside science experiments or treks through the woods, as William did with his friends at that age. 

    Caroline is already learning basic math skills, and luckily she will go to a wonderful Montessori school where the stereotypes are not encouraged. Hopefully she too will embrace the same curiosity and love of learning that her brother shows. 

    But it will be much more of an uphill battle.

  2. 2 Amy April 3, 2011 at 13:01

    Your niece will be pretty surrounded by scientists (since my dad is a biologist, our father-in-law an astronomer, and you as the physicist…and her other uncle as a philosopher, she’s got all variety of “sciences” around her) so you don’t bear the burden alone! I pretty much have a similar worry, in the idea that the gender roles will be pushed upon her, and in my worry to push *back*, I may steer her from things she might like that are traditional to girls! At the moment, we are lucky that the worst of our worries involve buying her a pack of both pink (girl) & boy (boy) training pants so she has a choice of colors to wear, and being disgusted that those are her only options, to wear “girl” or “boy” underwear..the pink pants having flowers, the boy pants having trains & cars.

    But the worries will get more contemplated as she gets older. My mom remembers me coming home one day in 5th grade (age 10) and asking her what was so bad about being a girl? It broke her heart and she said she cried all day about it as she couldn’t convince me that there *wasn’t* anything bad about being a girl. Coincidentally, this was also the year I learned to think I was bad at science, as it was the only class I was getting Cs in while everything else were A grades. I have a feeling that comment I made to her had something to do with a couple of the teachers that favored the boys, and I was melded to be a teacher’s pet (I’m still a people pleaser to this day) and was never favored by them (one of them being our science teacher, all female). I think that it goes farther than just science, but that was certainly the year I decided I was “bad” at it.

  3. 3 jtotheizzoe April 5, 2011 at 13:52

    Thanks a lot for spreading the word. The most important connections in battles like this are personal ones, so we all have to do our part!

    • 4 Matthew R. Francis April 5, 2011 at 18:42

      Thanks for stopping by and reading the post! I meant to leave a comment on your blog, since I found your post to be one of the more eloquent statements on the subject I’ve read.

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