On female scientists and engineers… and why toys matter

I work in a research and educational institution which specializes in (tropical) medicine. While the gender balance is quite good if we look at all employees, there is certainly much less balance if we see the number of women in leadership positions. In my department only 3 out of the 11 professors in tenured positions are female, so less than 1/3rd.

So why are there so few women holding leadership positions in research and academia? And why are there even less women in science than in other fields of academia? Recently I have had a number of discussions on these issues (mostly on Facebook), and it struck me how many men (and women!) think (=read: have been lead to believe) that women don’t study science and engineering because they are not interested, because their “brains are wired differently”, etc…

Some of these discussions ended up being about nature vs nurture, in which I was trying to argue that if, from an early age you wire little girls in way that they think that science is for boys, then they will not see that as a valid option for themselves regardless of their otherwise inherent interests. And where does this begin? Some argue it begins with toys. For example, there is a UK parent-led campaign called Let Toys Be Toys which is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Because if you so do, this is what happens:

so-few-women-engineers-comic

You may have also seen the video by GoldieBlox that went viral on social media after being picked up by Upworthy. GoldieBlox is a toy company that is trying to show the world that “girls deserve more choices than dolls and princesses. Their founder, Debbie Sterling, is a Stanford engineer who decided last year that girls need more choices than the pink aisle has to offer. She developed GoldieBlox, an interactive book series + construction set starring Goldie, the kid inventor who loves to build.”

OK. So what happens after these little girls grow up, and despite all the playtime with dolls and make-up, they still decide to enter the masculine world of science? In her video, Emily Graslie, the “Chief Curiosity Correspondent of The Field Museum in Chicago, former volunteer of the University of Montana Zoological Museum”, who has a channel a YouTube, gives the audience an honest (and funny) recount on some of her daily struggles…

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