It’s no secret: Women scientists are a rare breed. And who better to know this firsthand than Athene Donald, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge. She’s written a thoughtful piece on how women are sadly underrepresented in scientific fields such as physics, engineering and mathematics and why social and cultural norms may be to blame:
Go online to buy a T-shirt for your daughter and you can find one with the catchy slogan “I’m too pretty to do math” blazoned across the front in fetching pink letters. The message is clear to young girls and they appear to be heeding it. Society expects them to be wafting around with long hair, long Snow White dresses adorning impossible figures, and ignorant of how to work out their credit card interest or the mpg of their nippy little car, let alone get to grips with relativity or design a bridge. What they are allowed, even encouraged, to do is to cuddle a cute kitty (hence, I would assert, the large number of female vet students and biologists), or exhibit their nurturing side in preparation for a lifetime as a nurse or childminder.
Why are we as a society so inert in accepting these gendered (and other) stereotypes that permeate the way we bring up our children? Some scientists may be geeks, but female geeks should be just as acceptable as male ones.
Some scientists may be scruffy, but if you’re pretty (or handsome, nicely gendered words there) and like clothes, it doesn’t disqualify you from being a scientist. Female scientists can have families, you’re not excluded from that either. In short, we need to celebrate the fact that scientists and engineers, collectively, are smart, interesting people with rich lives whose other attributes are just the same as the rest of the population.
Take a look online and you can see that Barbie can be lots of things: a doctor, a news anchor, a computer engineer, a pet vet, a pizza chef, or an architect. But Athene, I’m with you – where is Physics Barbie?