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Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

Biased for science December 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I’ve taken a couple tests at Project Implicit.  The premise is that we have unconscious biases that may unknowingly affect decisions we make about other people.  I remembered this after coming across an article on race from the Washington Post.  I’d taken a test before that said I had a bias against blacks.  I’m owning up to it, but now that I’m aware of it, I try to recognize it’s there when making decisions.

I revisited the site to see if I could retake the test and if my results had changed, but I was distracted by the shiny things.  In particular, I saw there was a test on the subconscious preference to associate science with male and liberal arts with female.  Given the studies about how labs hire women less often and there is a subtle bias in salary, as well, I thought, “this could be interesting.”

And it was.  I was expecting to show a rather strong relationship between men and science.  Not only is that the most common association, but it seems like working in a male-dominated field would make that a no-brainer.

Iat-gender-science

Your data suggest a moderate association of Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts…

I’m one of the 3% who took the test who has that association.  If what I read in the Washington Post article applies to this study, most of the people taking this test are younger, more liberal, and more female than the average population, so the test may actually mean that the 10% who associate females with science is actually an overestimate.

Why do I have that association, particularly working in the field I do?  (I feel a bullet list coming on.)

Some potential ideas:

  • Being a female scientist is a very strong part of my identity, so I would naturally equate the two.  While at first guess, I would think this would be a no-brainer, the studies I cited above seem to indicate that’s not the case for most women scientists.
  • I have a lot of female friends that are also scientists.  As an undergrad, I was the only female physics major, but I made friends with a lot of female math, engineering, and physics and math education majors.  In my MS program, I spent a lot of time with other women engineering students, the handful I could find.  Going to a grad program (in earth sciences) means I was in a program with near gender-parity among the students.  Through the beauty of the internet, I’ve also made friends with other women scientists.  I think I’m likely to “see” more women in science than the average person…or even the average scientist.  “Women in science” isn’t a token female here or there but an actual sizable demographic in my world.  I think that this sort of exposure has probably had the most profound effect on my biases.
  • I know a lot of men who are interested in liberal arts.  Probably the most strongly influential one is older son, who is very much into drawing and writing.  I spend a lot of time with him, so that also probably affects my perceptions.

I’m curious how others fare on this test as well as their analysis of their own results.

Stereotypes are good because they’re true February 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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stereotypes1

A couple weeks ago, I was talking with someone who mentioned an email about stereotypes of women.  He apparently thought it was funny, and I made the quip that I hadn’t seen it because obviously no one would be stupid enough to send something like that to me.  There was some effort at defending the email, but I said that stereotypes aren’t defensible because they cause you to judge all people who fall into a particular category the same way rather than viewing them as unique individuals who may or may not resemble the stereotype.

In particular, I talked about my experience when I first started going to college.  A frequently overheard comment my first year or two of college is that, “Women are only accepted here because of affirmative action.”  Dummy me, I started to believe it.

It was a couple years later when I realized it was bunk.  I was working on a website for the women’s center, and I was asked to put up statistics that compared female and male admitted students.  It turned out that the stats came from my particular class, and one of the things that I was putting up was a comparison between SAT scores of the two groups.  I found it interesting that there was only about a 10-point difference between men and women. What really got me was when I found out that my SAT scores were actually higher than the average male SAT scores.  I was livid.  I’d been told for so long that I had only been admitted because of my uterus that I would’ve never believed it.  That meant that my SAT scores were better than more than half the men in my cohort.

Going back to the conversation, I became even more irritated when someone else jumped into the conversation, making the assertion that stereotypes are just fine.  Apparently, in this person’s world, the people they misjudge are apparently acceptable casualties because “most of the time,” it’s true.

Sadly, I doubt this person would understand how their judgments impact other people.  In fact, I think they’d be especially reluctant to agree with this article about how stereotypes are bad even when they’re good.

I admit to having caught myself assuming stereotypes of people.  It’s something that I have to work on constantly.  It’s disappointing, however, that there are still people who think stereotypes are a reasonable approach to human interaction.

When you think of a scientist… January 26, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in science, societal commentary, younger son.
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On the way to school yesterday, the younger boy started telling me that Dr. Frankenstein wasn’t a real scientist.  I asked him what he thought of when he heard the word scientist.  He was very quiet, and I started feeling anxious that this was going to end up in a “dude in a lab coat with beaker”.

I interjected, “You think of your mom, right?”

“No,” he paused for a few moments more.  “I think of someone who is already dead.”

Oh great.  So to be a scientist, you can only be recognized post-mortem, right?  I wondered if it was someone crazy like Tesla.

“Already dead?”

“Yeah, she discovered radium, I think.”

I was kind of stunned.  He wasn’t thinking of guys in lab coats – he was thinking of Marie Curie.  Upon conversing further, it turned out that he knew quite a bit about her.  There was a Magic School Bus book on science fairs at his classroom, and he had read about her in there.

I had to admit that I was hugely relieved that not only did he suffer from a common misconception about what a scientist is but that his first thought of a scientist was actually a very accomplished female scientist.

Although I’m still a tiny bit sad he didn’t think of me.

Frances Allen August 4, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, feminism.
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I wrote a post over an EngineerBlogs today. If you don’t know who she is, go check out the post: Real women write compilers.

If women in engineering isn’t your thing, you can go take the Famous Women in Science quiz. (Incidentally, I got a 17/20.)

Linkety Link July 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, links, math, science.
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I came across this fascinating article on the history of research in global climate change.  I am greatly amused by the fact that methods used for oil and gas exploration were later utilized to validate theories on climate change.  Irony.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating read:  The Discovery of Global Warming

I’ve also been remiss in not posting a link to this sooner.  (As you can tell, blogging hasn’t been at the forefront of my brain.)  GEARS wrote two great posts on diversification in STEM fields: Diversification In Stem Fields and On Diversification: with Dr. Anna Garry and Professor Ursula Keller.

Of course, there’s a lot going on at EngineerBlogs.  I wrote a post recently titled Died-in-the-wool Engineer.

For fun, you should think about whether math should be taught in schools.  (And yes, the video is a spoof.)

Linkety link January 6, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in links.
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Women in science with children are disappearing from the professorial pipeline, but not nearly as fast as bumble bees. Grizzlies are also dealing with the effects of habitat encroachment.. I wonder if this is similar to dispatching Topsy the Elephant to show the dangers of AC power.

On the up side, Brazil and other countries are eliminating poverty at incredible rates and LA County residents are attempting to save their night skies. (The last sentence was hilarious.)

On a more practical side, Female Computer Scientist has some fashion tips for interviewing while Chad discusses online first impressions.

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