Thursday, July 12, 2018

We need to start being honest with girls about science

"My daughter has a question for you," the video began. An adorable 3 year old girl asks breathlessly, "Why does the Sun stay still?" I had to message my friend separately to find out what exactly her daughter meant. She told me that in school her daughter learned that the Sun sits still and the planets move around it. Her daughter wasn't having it. She was very concerned. Everything else in the world moves, so why wouldn't the Sun? I quickly told my friend that her daughter was absolutely right to be concerned because the Sun does not sit still. Just like the planets orbit our Sun, the Sun orbits the center of our galaxy along with billions of other stars. I also told her how much her daughter kicks ass for questioning what she was told and using her everyday experiences to come up with really amazing questions. It's what scientists do.

Science has a girl problem right? We leave our fields of study in droves at every level after middle school. There are tons of after school and summer programs aimed at getting young girls interested in science. Those programs work. You'll find girls just as interested in science at the elementary and middle school levels as boys. As my 3-year old buddy shows, gender has no impact on a child's ability to do science. So why should it be any different as those kids grow up?

The answer is it shouldn't be. I write this as a mother who tells her two girls they can be whatever they want to be, a science communicator that watches young girls' minds light up as I talk about science and a former astrophysicist that is no longer studying galaxies. The feeling that rises when those three parts of me come together is guilt. Guilt because some day my daughters and those young girls are going to realize that I lied to them.

Some day one of my daughters will ask: "Why aren't you an astronomer anymore? Isn't that what you wanted to be?" Some day one of those young girls will look back and remember: "Dr. McBride talked to us about science and it was so cool, but she doesn't actually do science anymore. What's up with that?" Or, and this is my worst fear, they'll figure it out as I did. At the end of a decades long, uphill battle to earn my Ph.d only to have it end there. To realize that the people who held the key to the gates of my scientific field didn't want to let me in, even after I successfully jumped through all their hoops and passed all their tests.

The signs were always there. My mother went to college and earned a B.S. in Biology, but her professors wouldn't write her recommendations for graduate school. She was honest about that but it seemed so long ago. Like it didn't happen anymore. It was a different time. Well it's not different. It's just less blatant. My adviser didn't say he wouldn't write me recommendations, he just sort of faded away - to Australia. He saddled me with a project that others warned him wouldn't work and then left me with the mess. Even after reorganizing my dissertation project so I could get data, analyze and write my thesis in two years, there was no discussion of my future in the field. He had moved on, so I guess I had to also. I reached out to former advisers and senior astronomers who worked in the same sub-field for guidance. But that network didn't pan out. It's very frustrating to have devoted decades to a degree and a field only to have it fizzle out and end. At some point, hard work and determination isn't enough.

Girls want to do science and science needs girls to do it. Science doesn't care what the gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or class of the person doing it is. It's the system that's been designed to groom new scientists that has an opinion on this. We get girls interested in science and tell them nothing of how the system is stacked against them. How many more walls they'll come up against. How much harder they'll have to work to prove their intelligence. How few people like them they'll see in senior positions in their field. How defeating it can all be.

Science doesn't have a girl problem. Institutions of scientific learning have a problem with girls doing science.

It's obvious the institutions that work to develop and employ the next generation of scientists need to do better. But we also need to own up to the faultiness of the system to the young girls we're asking to join our ranks and make sure we're setting them up to succeed. Some ideas:

  • Encourage young girls to start building their support networks early. Supporters don't have to be scientists.
  • Find scientists in your area or encourage girls to reach out to their favorite living scientist. If you can't find one, reach out to me!
  • Include the stories of women who left their fields and compare their experiences to those who stayed. This way girls see, for example, what kinds of things to look out for in an adviser (stay tuned for a post on this!) or other fields where they can apply the skills they're learning.
  • As parents, guardians or just people who care, we need to ask the institutions our girls are interested in being a part of what they are doing to support girls, to stop harassment and bullying by senior scientists, to make their mentoring, teaching and research more inclusive. If we don't hold these institutions accountable, then nothing will change.
  • As a scientist, you should reflect on your journey and identify the people and opportunities that helped you succeed or overcome failure -- and tell aspiring scientists about it.
  • If you are no longer in your scientific field, do this too. Comparing and contrasting different experiences will let future generations of scientists see the many paths and people that they'll meet on their pursuit of scientific truths.

We need to start being honest with girls about what they'll face if they're interested in science. The more prepared they are, the more likely they'll make it through and change the system for the next generation.

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