As a high school junior, I intended to become a research chemist. A family friend, the male director of research at Armstrong Cork Company, told me that research chemists were all “pointy-headed people,” and that I should abandon my plan because I was not. He did not mention that they were also all male, though I wonder now whether my gender was a factor framing his advice. I did change my mind, partly because I became fascinated with government and partly because I realized that my science of choice was not chemistry but physics.
So I arrived at Bucknell University nearly 40 years ago as a government major. I chose physics to fulfill my science requirement and spent my first year complicating my understanding of the world around me. This was not “Physics for Poets”; this was physics for physics majors, complete with killer labs and problem sets with more formulas than any math course.
An older female student advised me how to get through physics lab. Patty said that I should go in that first Friday morning, find the nerdiest looking guy with the biggest slide rule, and ask him to be my lab partner. He would get me through.
It was easy to find a “him.” There was only one other woman in the entire 100 student lecture. But there were quite a few nerd-type males there, so selecting just the right one was more difficult. One special fellow had a slide rule attached to his belt, so I bypassed quite a few good-looking athletes to select my savior.
Alas, Patty’s theory had a flaw. Neither nerdiness nor maleness was enough to guarantee success in physics. I ended up carrying that poor boy through physics lab for two semesters.
Of course I studied calculus too. My grades in both physics and calculus earned me a higher GPA than my other liberal arts courses did. In other words, I was female, interested in science and good at it. I still am, I suppose, though I’ve since channeled my professional interests into epistemology, ethics and education and reserved my scientific musings for “multiverses” and “dark matter.”
So you can imagine my dismay when 10 years ago, a male science faculty member stood outside my office door and told me with a completely straight face that girls lost whatever science ability they had in puberty. “Pardon me?,” I said in disbelief. He didn’t seem to recognize my concern. He said something like, “Don’t you agree? I think hormones just get in the way of scientific thinking.” I looked at this human testosterone-making machine and wondered about his unscientific lack of precision with respect to hormones. And I wondered how his prejudice impacted his female students.
You might also imagine my distress in 2005 when former Harvard President Larry Summers told an academic conference of women scientists and economists that innate differences between men and women could account for women’s lack of representation (and success) in science and engineering. I could only wonder just how dumb this man was – both because his analysis was un-nuanced and because he chose to make his proclamation to this particular audience. His defense was that he was told to be provocative and I am actually sympathetic to his intention to provoke. We ought to be exploring all the reasons – genetic, physiological, hormonal, psychological, cultural and developmental – why women tend to shy away from, fail at or are chased away from learning science and choosing careers in science-related fields. And we ought to understand the complex ways in which nurture interacts with nature to deny women the delights of science and to deny to science and social well being the insights of half the human race.
But Summers didn’t ask about societal pressures for femininity or the press of family responsibilities or the lack of child care on campus, nor did he ask whether the dominant (masculine) linear models of scientific thinking are the only successful models or how hormonal variations (in males or females!) “taint” findings. Nor did he suggest any affirmative actions that might encourage females to stay a scientific course.
So now you can imagine my delight in learning that a group on campus has been working in recent months to consider ways to encourage girls and women – and persons in racially underrepresented groups — to engage science. And that recently, female faculty members across all the sciences designed a flexible course that integrates specific content in scientific disciplines with the stories of the women who made this understanding possible. You can imagine my desire to support these efforts.
This week I broke my sabbatical seclusion to join more than 115 students and faculty at a dinner/discussion themed “Telling our Story: Women and Underrepresented Faculty and Students in the School of Science and Mathematics.” This is a conversation I want to encourage because it matters to all of us when any of us is discouraged from pursuing interesting fields of inquiry. There is room in the world for all kinds of pointy-headed people.