The current issue of Nature Chemistry includes a commentary by Michelle Francl, Sex and the citadel of science. Click over and read it, if you can. Her thoughts on the lack of female achievement in science one hundred years after Marie Curie's second Nobel Prize provoked more thoughts on my part.
Dr. Francl reviews her own story as well as the prevailing hypotheses to explain the lack of women scientists:
(1) the fraction of women who have the native intellectual capacity to do science, particularly at the highest levels, is much smaller than the fraction of men, (2) an inherent lack of interest among women in the hard sciences and engineering, and (3) societal and cultural biases that push women out of the pipeline and lead to the devaluation of the contributions of those who remain.
Data debunk the first two hypotheses, leaving us with societal and cultural biases that push women out of science. Of most interest to me were the discussions of architecture and color.
Built space is not neutral, as Winston Churchill noted, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. As much as scientists use labs to create science, labs themselves create scientists.
Dr. Francl discusses the difficulties of being "vertically challenged," at least in comparison to the typical male scientist for whom lab benches, podiums, and even lecture hall chairs have been designed. As I sit in a standard office chair writing this with my feet on a riser and the chair in its lowest position, I understand her views. I am average height for a US woman; I have friends who must special order chairs! Consider how awkward things can be if a woman failes to wear a jacket with pockets for a seminar. She has no place to put the microphone power pack during her talk. As Dr. Francl points out:
Ginger Rogers may have had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards and in high heels, but a female speaker who forgets to don something with pockets or lapels may find herself having to do what her male colleague does, but with both hands tied up.
Are any of these things game-ending? No, but each is a subtle reminder that we women "don't fit" the standard.
Color provides other cues, with children as young as three years understanding the association of pink with girls. Dr. Francl Googled images for "chemistry laboratory" and sorted by color; six-fold more equipment appeared in blue, green, or other earth colors than in "girly" pastels. The shift to real lab equipment typically occurs in middle school, about the time that girls lose interest in math and science. Color provides one more subtle cue that these things are not feminine.
Dr. Francl admits that each of these feels trivial alone, but provides an analogy that illustrates the cumulative risk of such things on girls:
Of course, chemists regularly separate closely related materials, by simply repeating the separation process many times on a chromatographic column. The ability to chromatographically resolve two samples depends not only on the selectivity of the process, but on the number of theoretical plates. Think about the number of times a child encounters the standard gender colour-coding scheme every day — the number of theoretical plates is extraordinarily high.
So what can we do to assure that all capable individuals of both sexes can achieve their potential in science?
We may not be able to avoid the gender-linked colour-coding imposed by the larger society, but we can be more attentive to the spaces we create in which we do and talk about science, as well as the materials we use to do it. Even small tweaks in the conditions under which a chromatography column is run can affect the separation.
Don't dis the pink telescope or the lavendar microscope. That may be what it takes to get a girl hooked on science early.