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March 30, 2007

Men as fairy godmothers?

This weekend, Pat, Kathryn and I will be giving a session at WAM: Women, Action & the Media at MIT. Want to come see us demonstrate some tips on how activists and researchers should talk to the media? Join us on Sunday at 10AM.

Can't join us? Let me tell you what we'll be talking about:

What you all don't know is that I've been doing a lot of research lately on men in fairy godmotherhood. I bet you didn't know that men could be fairy godmothers, because they don't get a lot of press. Like women in STEM, they're not only underrepresented but also overlooked where they do exist. Plus, people think men can't be good fairy godmothers because they're not nurturing enough. Silly essentialists.

But let me tell you! Men can be great fairy godmothers in the right setting. Men of all types do well as fairy godmothers, in fact, though different types of men have different experiences. Men who fit people's stereotypes of fairy godmothers fit much more smoothly into the field, while (how to put this delicately?) more stereotypically manly men encounter a lot of hurdles.

Does this mean that manly men can't be good fairy godmothers? Not at all! It turns out that stereotypically fairy godmother-like men don't challenge people's ideas about fairy godmothers, and so they fit into the existing system smoothly. Great! Manly men have a harder time, as you might expect, but they also do very well when they're given supportive colleagues and wish-grantees. This is great news, because it means that we all can have an impact on progress in this realm.

But why should we care? The short supply of fairy godmothers in our culture is a problem, and will continue to be so. If we can attract more men to the field, and keep them involved and engaged, more wishes will be granted for everyone. You may not think fairy godmothers are important in your life, but you never know when you're going to need a wish granted: Support male fairy godmothers today!

March 29, 2007

Exploring Not Creating Stress

I spent the last few days in Puerto Rico with a group of department chairs and other leaders from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. I, the only non mechanical engineer in the bunch, was there with colleagues, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Eann Patterson, Constantin Chassapis and Darrell Guillaume, presenting on "Attracting, Retaining and Advancing Broader Student Populations."

My favorite presentation was Eann's which was called, yes "Exploring Not Creating Stress". He presented some of the applications he has been developing to help explain mechanical engineering concepts (no link yet but as soon as there is one, I'll post on it). He is doing things like using skateboarders and unicyclists on planks to demonstrate bending moments and shear stress, jewelry pendants to explore thermal stress and statically indeterminate loads and, my favorite, cooking sausages as an application of Mohr’s circle of stress.

As part of his presentation, Eann had the mechanical engineers attending go into small groups to brainstorm applications for dynamics or thermodynamics. While not all of the small groups paid attention to diversity as they worked, a number did. And I heard men in two groups challenge their colleagues' ideas as not being of interest most women and suggest ways to make applications that would be of greater interest to women students.

Why is this important? Integrating applications into the teaching of fundamental concepts has been found to increase women's recruitment and retention in computer science and engineering.

Thanks Eann.

March 27, 2007

Wanted: that rare character -- the man in engineering

You think you know engineering? Maybe you've been working in product design or crash testing studies for years and you know what you're talking about in these fields.

If so, the Discovery Channel may want you to be the host of a new series (that link will only work for a few days):

Discovery Channel needs a host for a new series. Must have background in either engineering, product design or crash testing. On camera experience preferred but not required.

Are you a natural innovator? Do you have the engineering creativity to adapt technologies in imaginative ways to save lives? Do you often think – ‘a small change to my car/a jet fuel tank/a building could make the difference between life and death? - Then, we want to talk to you.

Cool, right? But, wait...

Ideal candidate is, male, young to late forties, edgy, adventurous, and an innovator. Must feel comfortable conceptualizing and testing their own designs and the designs of others.

Because when we talk about engineering and science, the edgy, adventurous image we're looking for is male.

Damn, that ticks me off. He's probably white, too.

March 24, 2007

What's a Leak?

FairerScience friend Suzanne Franks at Thus Spoke Zuska has been doing some interesting posts about women and science and the "leaking pipeline." She is doing an excellent job describing the pressures, negativity and just plain awfulness that can lead people (ok read that women, because there sure seems to be some extra awfulness for women) to leave the sciences, especially the academic sciences.

In one section she talks about her leaving as being "marked by an increase in choices: what kind of work to do, who to work for, where to live, which path to take in the career. There was no longer one model for success; success was whatever we defined for ourselves, whatever we set out to make of our lives."

That section calls to me because it so pushes us to think about what "leaks in the science pipeline" mean and when leaving science is a success rather than a failure. I think about my own life. After getting a BS in mathematics with a physics minor, I thought about what I wanted to do next. I was clear that I wanted to use math not do it. I'm doing just that and am happy and productive. It is pretty clear that I'm not a failure but am I a leak?

I once had a fascinating discussion with microbiologist and former Radcliffe President Polly Bunting about this. She spoke of then famous people like McGeorge Bundy who had left science and went on to do other things. Her point was if you go on to have an interesting and successful career you are neither a failure nor a leak.

Ten years ago my daughter Kathryn went to Stevens Institute of Technology's summer engineering program. ECOES She had a wonderful time, learned a lot, met interesting people and found out that she would NEVER want to be an engineer. Was the program successful? According to Polly's (and now my) definition yes!

Now what does all this mean? Darned if I know. But I do know that there needs to be a distinction between those who leave the sciences because they want to and those who leave because they are forced out. The latter are leaks; the former not. And the failure is one of the system, not of the individual.

March 22, 2007

Global Marathon: For, By and About Women in Engineering

Have any free time in the next twenty-four hours? If so consider using it to log into the Global Marathon: For, By and About Women in Engineering. It is part of National Engineers Week and is hosted by Sally Ride and Fran O' Sullivan.

I am sorry FairerScience won't be a part of it this year. But I am off to Puerto Rico for some sun and snorkeling and oh yes an American Society of Mechanical Engineers meeting. Actually the meeting should be very interesting. It is on education and diversity. I'll blog on it and what we are learning when I return.

March 21, 2007

Babe Scientist

Monday night I was watching Tommy Lee Jones' movie Volcano on TV. Ok fine condemn me for my bad taste, but I was tired and it was on and… Anyway in the middle of the LaBrea Tar Pits having a major eruption spewing ash and larva everywhere, Tommy Lee Jones yells "Find me a scientist!". Who shows up? Dr. Amy Barnes (aka Anne Heche).

Together they save the Los Angles and find romance. Well these last two are assumptions; I didn't actually stay up to watch the whole movie. I was really tired and I figured the high point of the movie was when Anne Heche was the scientist who showed up
I was about to write that we need this to happen more often. But then I found out it does. Searching for a link for Volcano (my thinking was hey perhaps some of you would like to find out more about the movie), I saw that one of the keywords for the movie was Babe Scientist. Really. And the category had more than 100 movie and TV listings. Who knew?

March 19, 2007

Mr. Coffee?

I started this morning with an annoying story from my roommate. Because I am finding it impossible to stop picking at the elements that are wrong about it, I'm going to share it with you. Aren't you lucky?

My roommate's boyfriend was taking a writing class with a well known author. The author panned one of the boyfriend's short stories for, among other things, having an unrealistic female character. What was unrealistic about her? She was addicted to coffee. No one would ever believe such a woman could exist. After all, it's men who are addicted to coffee. Women are addicted to chocolate.

Naturally, my roommate told me this story while clutching her morning essential -- her mug of coffee -- tight in her hand. A stop in any coffee shop in the country will provide evidence for the cross-gender appeal of the brew. So how could this author, presumably a reasonably smart guy, get his gender stereotypes so wrong?

I think there are a few things going on here.

First, I suspect this is a classic example of him believing what he thinks. Maybe when he was growing up, his dad drank coffee in the mornings and his mom didn't, or his dad made a big deal about it, or all his male teachers were never seen without a cup of coffee. Whatever the case, his expectation was set such that men drink coffee in a way that women don't. (If he'd grown up in my house, he'd never have been able to reach that conclusion!)

Second, he sees things as men vs. women. I see lots of men and lots of women drinking coffee on a daily basis. I hear lots of women and lots of men talk about how much they need their coffee in the morning in order to get going. It wouldn't occur to me to think of this as a place where gender differences exist, much less that they're salient. I don't know if more men are "addicted" to coffee than women, proportionally, and I'm pretty sure our author friend doesn't, either.

Third, he doesn't let evidence dissuade him from his theory. Even if -- and I say "if" here with a lot of skepticism -- even if there is a difference in the proportion of men and the proportion of women who drink coffee and joke about being addicted to it, there are obvious examples demonstrating that this is not an either-or situation. That is, if this guy paid attention to the world around him, he would see numerous evidence debunking his theory that it's unrealistic to describe a female character as being addicted to coffee.

Finally, he's just not thinking. It's not exciting to realize you're wrong, after all, and it can feel good to separate people into types.

So my roommate's boyfriend's story got panned, but at least he knows the guy doing the panning can't be trusted to say something useful, anyway.

March 14, 2007

Assertive vs. Nice. Guess who wins?

I have been slowly working my way through the incredibly great bunch of links provided by Scientiae Carnival #1, which included this excellent post by Jenny F. Scientist about her personal road to assertiveness.

The part I want to focus on is this:

I still see people get run over. It especially frustrates me when young women do it. I want to shake them and cry "Don't put up with it! Grow a spine!" But I remember I was once like that, and they must learn. They must want to be assertive more than they want to be nice. [Emphasis mine.]

I want the world of science and academia to be a welcoming place that helps newcomers find their place and learn the customs gently over time. I want people who don't already know how things work to be able to learn how they work without getting stomped on and run over. I also want a pony.

This is not specific to women in the sciences, but it's a common issue that may impact women who are pioneering the way as still-underrepresentated populations in many scientific and academic fields. Women are explicitly and implicitly told that we should be nice and sweet and feminine, and it can be a huge challenge to stop doing that, because it's so closely linked to how we envision ourselves as people.

What to do? Practice being assertive, day by day. SciMom has some tips on speaking up and speaking out to get us started.

Now, about that pony...

March 11, 2007

The Weekly Reader is Ig Nobel

The Weekly Reader is Ig Nobel

I love the Ig Nobel awards. When Science Friday has a program on them I listen and one of these days I'll go see them in person. So I was really pleased to find out that the Weekly Reader likes them too. You remember the Weekly Reader, it was the little newspaper you got in elementary school, well weekly. Anyway their January supplement, Science Spin, focused on the Ig Nobel awards. For those of you who don't know the Ig Nobel awards, they are wacky, funny results of scientific research; a perfect way to interest kids in science.

Unfortunately Weekly Reader doesn't seem that interested in getting all kids involved in science. There are seven pictures of people in the Science Spin, all are white. Five are male including three scientists, and two boys responding to what the scientists are doing. The two women- well one represents humans in a list that includes elephants, mice and bats and the other is an elderly woman with an outsized ear trumpet, funny looking glasses and a confused expression on her face. Well at least the sample of Nobel and Ig Nobel prize winners included was a little more diverse.

Weekly Reader you should be an ally in the effort to get to FairerScience not an enemy!

March 08, 2007

Blog against sexism (in science) day!

Today is Blog Against Sexism Day, and while we at FairerScience.org hope that we blog against sexism on a regular basis, this is a fine excuse to talk explicitly about sexism, science, and why defining people and their interests by their gender is a harmful oversimplification.

Thanks to Larry Summers, among others, there's a lot of talk these days about why women are underrepresented in the sciences, and I, for one, am excited to see it. We can't find a solution to a problem we're not talking about, after all. So, let's keep talking. It's even great to see people arguing, especially when the arguments consist of evidence gleaned from careful and relevant research.

To that end, we'd like to see more careful and relevant research being done and being disseminated. We're really tired of reading old myths disguised as researched facts, and we hope you are, too. When scientists package "common sense" about gender differences to support a theory, we weep and rend our clothing, because this hurts everyone: scientists and the good name of science, women, men, students, and society as a whole.

Am I being overdramatic? I think not. After all, the definitional result in sexism is reduced options for women... and men. We're all in this together, and as long as we tell people that they way they act, their behavior, their interests, are defined by their genetics or their hormone levels, we're closing the door for people who don't fit the norm, whether that norm is imagined or real.

We all know there are differences between women and men, just as we know there are similarities. We also all know that there are difference between one man and another, or between one woman and another. And I think we can all agree it's useful to examine norms and understand what group difference may or may not exist, just as long as we can also understand that describing a norm is a far cry from describing an individual.

So, my Blog Against Sexism Day challenge to you is this: Whatever research you read today, examine it carefully. Be especially wary of research whose conclusions uncomplicatedly support gender stereotypes or involve overbroad generalizations.

And then do it again tomorrow.

March 05, 2007

Worm poop, bottle caps and science

As I suggested in "Science is Boring... or not", a great way to get people involved in and excited about science is to unpack the fun parts of science from the parts of it that are perceived as scary or boring. Now that I'm out of formal science classes, I never have to open a textbook again! I can, mind you, if I want to, but I don't have to.

Well, okay, but where does that get us? In my case, it keeps me thinking about science-related activities that might have broad appeal as fun or useful not because it's science, but because it's an activity that stands on its own as engaging. Call it stealth science.

Now, two of the realms of science about which I, personally, am most passionate are related to growing things (especially tomatoes, because, really, what's better than a tomato right from the garden, sliced onto a
piece of bread right out of the oven, drizzled with a bit of olive oil and cracked pepper? Oh, sorry, okay, so I'm also passionate about food science, but that's another post!) and sustainability.

TerraCycle is all about sustainability, because their products are made of various forms of waste. They sell worm poop (aka, fertilizer) in reused (not recycled) plastic bottles. How awesome is this? You can't see it, because you're not in my living room with me, but I am doing a little chair dance of joy about it. Trust me.

But what does this have to do with getting people into science? Well, they have this contest, you see. They have a use for the bottles, but they have so many bottle caps they don't know what to do with them. And they want you to help them figure out a use for what would otherwise be trash.

And what does this have to do with women in science? Well, I'm a woman and this is science... Besides, we know that real world applications of engineering and scientific principles is a draw for populations who are historically underrepresented in STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) fields, including women. If someone isn't interested in science for the sake of pure science, the hook of a useful application is powerful. This contest links a real world application to current social and environmental issues in a way that makes it relevant to a broader spectrum of people than a pure numbers problem from a textbook might.

This could be a great project for school groups of any level, science or engineering clubs with an interest in issues of sustainability, or just regular old individuals such as yours truly, who isn't sure yet what she can do with a pile of bottle caps, but is looking forward to finding out.

March 02, 2007

Science is Boring! ... or not

I'll admit it: When I was in school, I found science boring. Okay, sure, I was excited about dissecting eyeballs and frogs in biology, and I loved chemistry labs, and once I got to astronomy, things got really exciting, but everyone knows that science is boring, and when that was paired with teachers who encouraged me not to think of myself as someone who liked science, no amount of evidence to the contrary seemed to shake that piece of my identity. So it's a big surprise to me to find myself voluntarily subscribing to science magazines and reading scientific news and blogs for fun.

What changed?

Well, in part, I have significantly less exposure to people who tell me in many subtle ways that I'm not supposed to like science. My high school AP science teacher, the one about whom everyone said, "He's an amazingly great teacher. He just isn't so good with girls," (Hm, in what context does failing to serve half your population characterize being great at your job? Not that I'm bitter.) rarely shows up in my pop quiz nightmares these days, and when he does, I'm prepared. Why?

As detailed in The Buffyverse and Incidental Exposure in the Framing Science section of Science Blogs, I, like millions of other people, have unexpectedly found myself learning about science through entertainment. Popular television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, House and Numb3rs cover a wide array of science-related topics. Unfortunately, many of these shows oversimplify the science they contain. This is hardly surprising: the main point of Law & Order is not, after all, to help me understand the complexities of DNA testing or the issues coming into play in recent controversy over the reliability of fingerprints.

From The Buffyverse and Incidental Exposure

The challenge then is to find ways to "incidentally" expose audiences to science in places where they are not looking for it, playing on their strong entertainment-centric predispositions to guide Web surfers, channel jockeys, and book browsers back to science-rich content.

A leading model on how to do this, and turn a profit doing it, is the "Science of ______" genre of books that have sprouted up ever since the debut of Lawrence Krauss' "Physics of Star Trek." The latest in this genre is Jennifer Ouellette's The Physics of the Buffyverse

One of the challenges for us as researchers and scientists is to take advantage of people's accidental interest in scientific topics. We all know that people who weren't interested in science in school are not going to be interested in learning about science in a setting that's like school. But what if I can learn about science in the context of a surprisingly great TV show? And once I'm learning about The Physics of Star Trek, maybe I'll find physics, in general, more accessible and interesting. Before I know it, I'll be reading books about science for recreation, because it turns out that science is cool and fun and interesting.

If only I'd known this in high school, I'd know so much more, now! But better late than never.