Science and Gender with Paul Grossi, Pt. 2

In my previous post I wrote about an interview I had with Paul Grossi, a teacher at an all-girls middle school. We talked about a lot of stuff, but last week I wrote about learning differences between boys and girls in the sciences, so this time I’ll write about the gender gap later on in the scientific community and why it’s important to reduce that gap.

In physics especially, there’s a huge gender gap – I won’t offer much evidence for that now, but there’s a lot of it out there and I’m sure it’ll be a topic that I write more about. For now, I’ll just give you this chart from the NSF (I found it in an article by Kate Sheppard):

  That’s pretty egregious. I can even see the gender gap in my twitter feed, where I try to follow as many scientists as possible, and yet I still end up reading mostly posts from men. Gender politics are a big deal in the sciences nowadays, and the gender gap is shrinking, but it still needs work. The thing that really opened Paul’s eyes about this issue was a talk with Cindy Blaha, a professor at Carleton College, wherein she talked about her grad school experience and how the people in charge of science programs tended to be “dinosaur old men.” I have a class with Cindy, an astrophysics class that happens to be all-girls, and she has mentioned in class that when she first got hired at Carleton, the chair of the department was wary of her because she is a woman (and an astronomer – there’s a bit of a feud between astronomers and astrophysics – it’s kinda like Australia vs. New Zealand).

As an aside, this also ties in with the story of Kiara Wilmot, a story I’ve been harping on because I think it’s a really important example. If a boy had been performing a science experiment in the school field and had caused a small explosion (with no damage and no injuries), would he have been arrested and expelled? Or would it just be a “boys will be boys, no harm no foul” kind of situation? I don’t know, but the fact that it’s even a viable question is concerning.

One of the main reasons that I find inspiring kids about science so important is that we definitely do not have enough female leaders in the hard sciences – honestly, when I think about scientists I know of, both current and historical, I can only come up with a few women. As Paul said, “female leaders in science stand out” – they are extraordinary, but male leaders are common. One of the reasons for this that Paul pointed out is that “it is a generational change, and generational changes take time.” Women are far more visible in science now than they were 10 years ago, and far more so than 20 years ago. So part of closing the gender gap is a waiting game, but that’s not the whole thing and it’s not a free pass.

Another issue that is slowly changing is that, as Paul said, “there is no complete life as a researcher.” It’s hard to comfortably have research and enough money and a family, even as an educator or a government-funded researcher. This is an issue for all scientists, but even more so for women, who have few female leaders and are still viewed with less respect in some circles (and it’s damn near impossible to take maternity leave in the middle of a project or most jobs in science). Again, this is an issue that’s slowly shrinking, but it needs more work – as scientists become more valued in society, it will be easier for a scientist to have a complete life, and that shift will extend to women. We need to value our scientists, male and female, equally, and giving them job security and comfort is a larger societal change without a simple answer.

Like I said in my earlier post, the first way to continue working on fixing these issues and closing the gender gap is by getting kids excited about science, so that they will grow up to be adults who value science and scientists. It’s not only about the gender gap, either – it’s about putting things into context, understanding our place in the world, and allowing that understanding to influence our everyday decisions.

I’ll end this post with a great quote from my interview with Paul:

Different ways of seeing problems come from cultural background, including gender; you need a wide range of views to bring all the possible solutions together.

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