"You Don't Belong"

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.

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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.

8 responses so far

  • Yannis Guerra says:

    Wouldn't be better to ensure that we teach girls that all colors are theirs?
    Trying to buy a non pink toy for my daughters is like jumping through a hundred hoops. And when I am able to find one, they tell me that X color is not a "girl" color!
    Just like Barbies can only be teachers or veterinaries or beautitians, we limit our future girl scientist if we say "well, the environment is not for you". Screw them! All the universe is for you!
    Why can't designers make practical (pockets) clothing that is also beautiful? Why should the women be restricted to the "beautiful" and unpractical just due to the fashion? Wear your Chanel with pockets, you need them to put stuff on them!
    It is not only "the Man" that sets the limit of what a women can do. It is also the underlying assumptions that all of us carry, like the fact that a girl will get more hooked on science by having a pink telescope, instead of a blue one. Teach the girl, all girls, that blue is also a "girl" color.

    • Whizbang says:

      We can only try. As Francl points out, society also drives home the gender color scheme, and none of us can keep our kids in an isolation booth! We can and should try to break the mold with our offspring as we can, but we may not be able to overcome the rest of the world.

      My daughter's favorite color is green (and has been since she turned 2).

      OTOH, I know many women who refuse to wear pink because it's a girly color and it will undermine them. Really? Then pink is way more powerful than I ever imagined. I wear it; I look good in it. And the menfolk better not doubt me (they for sure will not do it more than once).

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I'm a woman in a math/physics/chemistry-heavy field and unabashedly a horrible girl. I always say that my mother wanted a daughter but she got a nerd with boobs. Perhaps that is why I scorned the social pressures and ended up in science.

    I did want to make the point that women in science don't necessarily equal women in academia. There was an interesting article several years back (which I can't seem to find now) responding to James Watson's views about women in science. It posited that women are less inclined to be satisfied with the "prestige" of academia and are smart enough to look for jobs with fewer hours and significantly better pay. I realized there was something to that when I went to an alternative career fair for scientists and only one of the dozen speakers was a man. Whether that is a reflection of academia's subtle displacement of women, a concession to supporting a family or merely a function of a sociological push towards reduced competitiveness in women is entirely debatable. I don't presume to understand what drives a person to make their decisions. But I think it's worth pointing out that all of these articles cite reduced female faculty numbers rather than looking at all of the careers that women can chose to pursue.

    • Whizbang says:

      My parents were perfectly happy to have a daughter interested in rocks, dinosaurs, and why things live. Of course, I also read the fashion mags and painted my nails a different color every night in junior high. Eventually I chose medical school instead of the PhD route because it seemed useful and lots of academics (my dad was a history professor) were already bemoaning the glut of PhDs in the 1970s. An MD could always find employment.

      Ah, the call of "alternative careers" in science. The fact that industry and other scientific outlets get called "alternative" already says it all- but that won't stop me from saying more! I think we all know that our trainers in science consider tenure-tract, PI-dom the best possible outcome for each and every PhD granted. When evaluating training programs for funding - yup, it's those trainees going into academia that receive the high marks from reviewers. Until the powers that be recognize these other career tracts as valid outcomes for a PhD (and not just settling for a paycheck), these careers will remain "alternative" and really won't count. That may be an even steeper uphill climb.

      • Crystal Voodoo says:

        In regards to the alternative careers comment, I knew it but it kind of sucks seeing it in writing. My "in a perfect world populated by flying unicorn powered by candy corn and rainbow farts" job would be to have a salaried staff writer position in some life science department where people hand me data and I make pretty manuscripts and grant applications for them. A tenure-track professorship would be close but it has the disadvantage of politics and worrying about name recognition. I know people would think of me as less of a scientist if I pursued it though I am caring less and less about that as I spend more time postdoc-ing. Maybe it's a hallmark of the female psyche that we realize that in time to do something about it.

  • Glfadkt says:

    If you want a vivid example of sex-linked color assignment, just open an LLBean catalog (or visit their website) and compare the colors available for men's and women's polo shirts. You'd be hard pressed to find a brown, olive or similar color (i.e. the autumn color palette) in the shirts sized for women! Unfortunately, those rich earth tones work best for me...

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had an undergraduate female student worker, slender, petite and about four feet tall. I asked her to fill up a five gallon jug at the sink and pick it up out of the sink and put it on the cart. I was roundly criticized by a female colleague for doing so. However, my student worker needed to be able to do that, or we had to figure out an alternative. In fact, she was quite fit, and had no trouble. She was a good worker and I was very pleased with her. When she was ready to graduate, I gave her the phone number of another of my female students and she had an appropriate job the next day.

    • Whizbang says:

      Women don't want to be coddled. Most of us want to show what we can accomplish, and asking us to perform tasks within the job description is just fine. We just may not do it the same way the men folk do because we are shorter, etc.

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