This Blog is Wrong

This is a blog about science and girls and girls & science. It’s about how to welcome girls into the world of science and foster an enduring love for exploring the natural world. It is a blog for parents and teachers and scientists and people who care about girls. This blog is wrong. 

Image credit: Pearl Kim

Image credit: Pearl Kim

In this blog you will learn a lot of things about girls and science. You will learn that I run a program for middle school aged girls. You will learn that this program is named SPICE. You will learn that SPICE is designed to foster affinities for science [1] and science education. You will learn about research I have conducted on SPICE. This research quantifies programs impacts and seeks to identify effective techniques for motivating girls to pursue science education and careers. This blog, this program, this research is wrong.

The blog is not wrong because what you just read sounds pretty boring. What all the mumbling about “affinities” and “motivation” really means is that I spend my summers encouraging girls to light things on fire, solve murder mysteries [2], and build pinball machines. Not boring at all. I also watch girls light things on fire. I ask them how they feel about lighting things on fire. I write papers about how girls feel about lighting things on fire.

SPICE Camper Demonstrating a Butane Bubble Fire (2015). Image Credit: A. Evensen

SPICE Camper Demonstrating a Butane Bubble Fire (2015). Image Credit: A. Evensen

Big surprise, they love it! Who doesn’t like lighting things on fire [3]?

This, is wrong.

No, I don’t mean I feel bad about running a program just for girls. I don’t. Not. At. All.

Nor do I regret encouraging them to light things on fire. . . . yet.

The reason I don’t feel bad about running a girls only program (or the fire) and the reason that this blog, and my research, and my program are wrong are exactly the same reason. 

There is no secret to getting girls to like science. Seriously. Girls already like science (as do boys and children everywhere). Until they don’t. There’s a big fat ol’ body of research showing that elementary school girls really like science and are confident in their science abilities. Until they’re not. 

Gendered ideas about math and science emerge at shockingly young ages, but don’t really start to bear nasty fruit until middle school. Early adolescence is the time when kids start running away from science like a plague. Girls run particularly fast. Interest and confidence in science ability begins a steady and uninterrupted dive in middle school. There is a lot of research (including my own) on why this happens and this blog will explore this research in future articles, but not right now. Right now I’m explaining why this blog is wrong. Remember this is a blog about getting girls motivated to do science. Something they are pretty much hard wired to enjoy from a very early age. So why the gender STEM gap?

Gendered achievement gaps in math and science have all but disappeared, but gaps in pursuit of science education and careers have not. The natural sciences remain heavily gendered and the gaps grow wider the higher up the science education and careers ladder you look.

Researchers, educators, and parents tend to talk about these gaps in terms of demographics. Numerous reports on women, minorities and persons with disabilities in STEM are produced each year by government agencies, professional organizations, and educational groups. 

This is wrong.

No, I don’t mean the data is wrong. The numbers are consistent and verifiable. 

What is wrong is the entire way the discussion is framed. There isn’t a problem with women or girls in science. The problem is with the culture of science. The problem is with the culture in general. The problem is with social messages that constantly tell girls (and most people who are not white males) that science is not the right place for them.

There are messages that say you must be effortlessly brilliant to be a scientist. 

This is wrong. Science takes creativity, and persistence, and hard work to master. Just like anything else worth mastering.

There are messages that say scientists are highly competitive and work in isolation on abstract projects that have no relation to real lives.

This is wrong. In practice, science is highly collaborative and generally only gets funded if it has potential to be useful.

There are messages that tell girls that they aren’t as naturally talented at science as boys.

This is wrong. Gender and sex-based differences in math and science ability have been thoroughly debunked.

There are messages that tell girls and women they will not be welcome in the world of science

This is wrong . . . but also true.

Female scientists receive less recognition for their accomplishments, have trouble finding peers and mentors they relate to, and have to struggle to walk the impossible line between gendered behavior expectations and science culture. The social construction of what it means to be a scientist and the cultural construction of acceptable ways to be a woman are directly at odds. The iconic Draw a Scientist Test continues to produce the same results today, even after decades of gains in girls math and science achievement. When asked to draw a picture of a scientist children (and adults) produce remarkably consistent images – fuzzy haired, maniacal, white men with beakers full of chemicals. 

Image Credit: B. Todd (2018)

Image Credit: B. Todd (2018)

Not exactly a relatable role model for aspiring young scientists, particularly girls trying to navigate what it means to be feminine in a culture that disproportionately values maleness and whiteness [4].

Imagine you are a 13 year old girl, deciding how to fill your one elective class spot for the term. You love science. You could take the new robotics class your school is offering. It sounds fun. Who wouldn’t want to build robots? But you know that you will be one of, if not the only girl in the class. You know from past experience that you are less likely to be called on by the teacher, less likely to be acknowledge for your accomplishments. Your ideas will probably be ignored by male group members who will then later absently propose the same thing and take credit for it. You know you will be giving up the opportunity to take a class with plenty of other girls, where you’ll be recognized and welcomed. You will be missing out on sharing something else fun with your friends. 

What is the rational decision? Take a class that’s likely to frustrate and alienate you or turn your attentions to something rewarding, something that aligns with you identity and need for belonging? 

Digging into the sources of gender (and other) disparities in STEM disciplines, reveals that that the entire ecosystem is polluted and the only things that could reasonably be considered “right” are the women and girls who opt out of science. 

Given the circumstances, girls and women are making healthy decisions in staying away from STEM education and careers. Of course, we also know, that they are passing on careers with higher income and greater prestige than those typically more welcoming to women. Not only that, but society is missing out on the creativity and innovation that comes with a diverse workforce, particularly in the STEM fields, where the economic and quality of life benefits for all have been clearly identified.

Why do we need science summer camps and after school programs for girls? It’s not because there is anything wrong with girls. Girls are fine. Girls are great. What is missing is the messaging and the opportunity that boys receive every day. The sense of belonging in science, recognition, access to relatable peers, and the implicit assumption of competence that are bestowed on (mostly white) boys is an incredible motivational leg up. 

I’ve heard many parents lament that they cannot find a program like ours for their sons. For the sake of diplomacy I refrain from shouting, “Every day is SPICE camp for your son!” What I do say is, “I think my (white) son has lots of opportunities to connect with science, even without SPICE camp [5].” 

What we really need are camps for everyone who is not underrepresented in STEM. We need camps for parents, and teachers, and little white boys, and people who make movies and TV shows, and talking head pundits to teach them how to include everyone in sharing and loving science. But I don’t have the budget or the patience for that. So I’ve got a program for girls and a blog. They are wrong. But they are what we have got.

And fire. We need more fire. 


[1] I use science and STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) interchangeably in this post. 

[2] The murders are fake. The fire is real [6].

[3] OK, some people have a very healthy and reasonable fear of fire. My apologies for being glib if you are one of those people.

[4] Wow that’s a really diplomatic way of saying we live in a white-male-supremacist patriarchy. I really need to work on the heteronormative aspect as well. I’m getting there! This blog will definitely address intersectionality. Eventually! 

[5] Ha-ha! Successful deployment of my over privileged male yuppy larvae offspring to combat the patriarchy! 

[6] No girls have been burned in the course of making this blog, but I may have lost a few arm hairs [7].

[7] Footnote within a footnote. I’m SO META!