geek grrls: the next generation

Scientistjenluc_3 Imagine, if you will, a young girl, stepping into her high school chemistry class for the very first time. She’s one of those straight-A, over-achieving students, on track for class valedictorian. True, she’s more of the reading and writing type, but she loved her biology class, even the required dissection of the fetal pig, which she had to perform pretty much single-handedly after her squeamish lab partner threw up (just from the sound of the breastbone cracking and spreading apart). In junior high, she thrilled to ancient fossils and archaeological digs; memorized the major constellations visible from her suburban backyard; and occasionally fantasized about being one of those science types who help solve crimes (she is also an avid mystery buff). So she’s rather intrigued about what this chemistry stuff is all about, thinking it’ll be more hands-on fun in the lab.

That young girl was me, more years ago than I’d care to admit. And unfortunately, that high school chemistry class was so bad, it turned me off all of science for the remainder of my formal education.  Gone were the nifty hands-on lab experiments that typified my earlier science classes, replaced by dry, droning lectures and a lot of meaningless number-crunching. It was all presented devoid of any contextual framework: I dutifully did as I was told — indeed, I earned the only "A" in the class — but frankly, I took away no lasting knowledge, apart from a vague definition of a "mole." I’ve been highly suspicious of the standard metrics for measuring academic success ever since. (Really, isn’t the whole point of education to learn, not simply to rack up good grades?)

More importantly, I loathed every minute of that class. The chemistry teacher — rather than admitting that perhaps his teaching approach might need some adjustment, if so many otherwise decent students were doing poorly in his class — simply told us that we clearly weren’t cut out for the hard sciences, and that if we hated chemistry, we would really hate physics. It filled everyone with trepidation about senior year, if not outright dread. Physics phobia set in early for most of us as a result of one teacher too proud to acknowledge his own shortcomings.

Things didn’t improve with the one introductory astronomy course I took my freshman year of college.  It’s astronomy! The stars! Galaxies! Supernova explosions and black holes! How is it possible to make that stuff boring? And yet somehow, the professor did. Again, the focus was on dry, uninspired lectures, made even worse by the fact that on the first day of class, he told us that he didn’t give a damn about the course, or whether we learned anything. After all, we were only there to fulfill some stupid requirement, and why should he bother teaching those who would never become science majors?

One wishes such contemptuous attitudes were rare among science teachers and professors, but they’re more common than one might think, especially in challenging fields like physics. The emphasis is often more on "weeding out" the chaff from incoming classes, rather than encouraging all students to at least learn some science. And we’re paying the price with an ever-widening gap between scientists and the general public. The situation is even worse for young girls. Sure, there’s a lot of ongoing debate and study about innate "gender differences," but it’s the cultural prejudices that are most crippling. I certainly internalized the message at a very young age that girls just weren’t as good at math and science. Even if teachers actively encourage young girls (which is not always the case), they are often ridiculed by their peers for their "unfeminine" interests if they admit they like science or math. (Classic line from the film Mean Girls: "You can’t join the math club! It’s social suicide!")

In short, it’s tough being a budding Geek Grrl. So I was thrilled to learn that the Feminist Press is working with the National Science Foundation to produce a series of books to encourage junior high and high school girls to persevere in their nascent scientific pursuits. I had the pleasure of meeting the "team" of women working on the project: women of all ages and backgrounds, with one thing in common: all of us had some interest in science at an early age, that was summarily squelched. And now they’re trying to prevent this from happening to up-and-coming generations.

That’s why Cocktail Party Physics is taking a break from our usual gossipy scientific fare to publicize the Feminist Press’ just-released call for proposals:

Girls and Science: Call for Proposals

The Feminist Press, in collaboration with The National Science
Foundation, is exploring new ways to get girls and young women
interested in science. While there are many library resources featuring
biographies of women scientists that are suitable for school reports,
these are rarely the books that girls seek out themselves to read for
pleasure. What would a book, or series of books, about science that
girls really want to read look like? That is the question we want to

You’ll find several requests for specific proposals at our website.
One calls for scientific detective stories based on the life, research,
and discoveries of real women scientists. Another calls for stories
featuring real young women—aspiring gymnasts, ice skaters, actors,
dancers–using a knowledge of science to help them become really good
at what they do. A third recognizes how popular Manga and graphic
novels are with girls, and asks for imaginative new collaborations
between Manga writers and artists to create adventures about girls who
use real science to accomplish their goals. If any of these three book
ideas interest you, please check out our website ( for more information about deadline and how to submit proposals.

But we do not want to limit our exploration. If you are a writer and
have an idea for a book or series of books that is guaranteed to get
girls excited about science, we want to hear from you. You may want to
create a girl detective series featuring a set of friends—from geeks to
sports nuts to mechanical geniuses—each with a knowledge of science
that helps in solving crimes. You may want to create a story about a
shy girl who goes on field trips with her favorite aunt, a forensic
anthropologist, and helps to solve problems as she learns to think like
a Dr. Bones. You may want to tell the story of a young science fiction
writer who needs to study different fields of science in order to
create her adventures. Whatever your vision, if you can write like a
dream and can create works that are guaranteed to instill a curiosity
about science in girls and young women, send us your proposals. We want
to hear from you.

All proposals will be reviewed. Several proposals will be offered standard contracts.

Publisher: The Feminist Press at City University of New York as part
of a National Science Foundation grant. (see

Deadline: October 31, 2006

Format: Proposals should describe the project, the plot, characters, and length. No more than ten pages please.

How to submit: Electronic submission (word doc) to
with the subject line "Girls and Science." Please include in the body
of your email your address, phone number, email address and a short
bio. Please also attach a brief sample of your writing (about five
pages), and a resume that includes information about publications.

I encourage our readers to pass this information on to any writers, or scientists aspiring to be writers, of their acquaintance. Let’s not abandon all the young Geeklings coming up the pipeline, just when they need encouragement the most.

38 thoughts on “geek grrls: the next generation”

  1. I’ve always been suspicious of the constant “science just isn’t taught right” themes. The most challenging year of my high school was spent in Albania where the text was in English but the lectures in Albanian. There, there were no “this has to be fun” themes, it was hard science and they expected you at 16 to be able to understand simple harmonic motion, fluid mechanics, Newtonian mechanics, and some simple E&M. Then, when I came to the U.S. and saw the plethora of resources someone can easily attain, and contrasted that at the same time with the “science isn’t fun enough, and neither is math” narrative, I came to believe the problem isn’t the teaching at all. “Fun” nearly always means “easy”. People want to understand advanced physics without understanding energy. Or they want to understand proteins and amino acids without understanding chemistry.
    Let’s face it; the teaching and the resources are FANTASTIC. On top of that, you’re only required to do 1 year of physics and chem. In Albania it was 3 (!). The problem is our own attitudes.
    I agree that its our cultural prejudices that cripple our scientific enthusiasm. Not just for women, but for everyone. Math is hard, science isn’t fun, and equations aren’t beautiful. That to me is the real problem, not our teaching. We should work to change these stupid cultural narratives, the classroom is just fine.

  2. Until 8th grade, I was also a math and science geek. Had a huge crush on my math teacher, followed him to (I kid you not) *calculator* seminars. I was totally into astronomy and absolutely sure I’d be a physicist.
    Freshman year of high school I had a biolgy teacher who hated children. Her biggest boast was that no one ever got an A on her assignments. Math was Geometry – which is logic not math – taught by a woman with a singsong voice and no off switch. I learned to sleep sitting at my desk.
    Sophomore year science was Chemistry taught by a man named Nigel who needed surgery on his adenoids. He went away halfway through the year, to be replaced by an ex-college professor with absolutely no understanding that he was now teach sophomores in high school. I learned two things that year; my mother worked with his wife and flattery WILL get you everywhere, and; how to lose at calculator balckjack. The calculator cheated, so me and a couple of the other girls kept a running tab on how much we were losing to see who could do the worst. Math was Algebra 2, which I should have enjoyed, but simply didn’t. The teacher was having a rough time with her relationship with another teacher.
    Junior year, I did not take physics. The physics teacher was dry as a bone, completely uninspiring – and hugely out of date. I knew this because he was my homeroom teacher. Math was trigonometry with a CRAZY motherfucker who used to slap the pointer he carried down dangerously close to your head when he thought your attention was waning. He also had “Trig Dog” contests. Unfortunately he was unable to answer my one question – give me *one* example of when I am likely, in a daily situation, to need to triangulate.
    Does science have to be fun? No, absolutely not. Should it be relevant? Absolutely.
    If any one of the six classes above had had an inspired and inspiring teacher, I might have become a scientist. Instead I publish lesbian porn. There’s clearly a lesson here. 😉
    Okay, okay, that’s not fair. I am a biomedical researcher, as you know – but I am not an astronomist, despite my great love for astronomy, nor a physicist despite my great love for physics. It wasn’t any one person’s fault, but I agree with you – “the system” has to take at least part of the blame.

  3. Jennifer,
    My condolences on the death of your childhood dreams of being a scientist. I’m glad you have found a career that allows you to express an aspect of those dreams now that you’re an adult. The best explanation I can come up with for why my own path didn’t come to the same result as yours (given my succession of awful science teachers) is pure stubbornness on my part. Having fallen in love with science at an early age (thru sci-fi books), I decided that being a scientist couldn’t be as boring as my science classes would imply, or NOBODY would want to be one! Fortunately, I was able to glean enough excitement from the interesting bits and pieces that I was able to convince myself to continue on in the process. To be honest, it wasn’t until graduate school that I decided I had been right all along. I really “clicked” with Materials Science, probably because that was where science and the “real world” first seemd to interact in a meaningful way.
    Here is where I reject Eddie’s contention that “science isn’t fun.” It most certainly is… if you’re studying the right things (for you)! I do “science” all day, every day, and I really love my job. It’s a blast! If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. That being said, I will certainly acknowledge that there are many aspects of science I don’t find fun (or even comprehensible!).
    My point here is that Physics (and Chemistry, and Math, etc.) is not some monolithic thing. It is an incredibly diverse field, with aspects ranging from true, real-world applicability, to esoteric theories that only five people in the world are likely to ever understand or care about. Sadly, Physics (even at the graduate level) is frequently taught in a way that emphasizes the latter, rather than the former. Given that study after study has shown that people learn faster and develop a deeper understanding of a subject if they can relate it to their own life, I have long felt that we should invert the typical teaching process. Think about all the concepts in Physics that could be studied (and demonstrated) by taking apart a DVD player and showing how it’s parts work. I would have LOVED a class like that, at any point in my studies! You could teach that class in high school, college, or graduate school just with (vastly) different levels of detail.
    I don’t know if this would have any gender-specific effects on encouraging girls to study science. Hopefully, it would encourage inquiring minds of both genders to realize that things like Physics are not so much about string theory as they are about DVD players and iPods.
    Sorry for the long post! Class dismissed.

  4. That sounds like a fun thing to work on! I’ll have to get in touch with my manga-drawing friend; I can cook up a story, we’ll hash out some character sketches, and then she can draw something besides hentai. (The etymologist in me would love to ramble about the tangled word-web of “hentai”, “H” and “ecchi” — but this is neither the time nor the place for that. . . .)
    Somewhere in the last five years (the details get Heisenberg-fuzzy the closer I look), I wrote a science-fiction novel. It was certainly better than working through any of the problems in my own life: just shift them onto imaginary people, and let the folks on paper figure themselves out! They can die trying, while I don’t care to; thanks to the magic of “revision”, they can be smarter and sexier than I’ll ever be. Now that I’m actually looking for somebody daft enough to publish it — I am even more vain than I am timid! :-/ — it occurs to me that I could use its feminism as a “hook”. My imaginary people include female scientists just because my female associates at MIT were intimidatingly smart and very good at what they did. I “wrote what I knew”, but maybe I could convince somebody I was making an ideological point?
    Normally, I deplore didactic fiction. I’ve always considered art to be about asking questions, and asking them in unforgettable and subtle ways. Art which attempts to provide answers is, well, just software for Randroids. But who am I to argue if others think I provide answers and want to laud me accordingly?
    (Just joking: that hasn’t happened yet. A couple writing contests and my prolific blog-commenting records don’t count.)

  5. You know, just the tenor of the comments here show how necessary this project is.
    We have Eddie, who thinks that there should be no fun allowed in intellectual challenge (let me kill myself now) and who equates “fun” with “easy.” I teach a fun (according to my former students) writing class in which you will work your ass off and actually learn something too. Teaching methods matter because not everyone learns in the same way–and this is not necessarily something gender specific. Our brains are not VCRs and do not simply absorb information that’s droned into them. Humans learn by, among other things, taking notes, watching demonstrations then mimicking, reading, memorization, copying written information over by hand, experimenting, repetition, and independent exploration. Unless one’s teaching methodology includes as many of those techniques as possible, you’re losing some of your students, and not necessarily for lack of intelligence.
    And just because it’s tried and true in Europe doesn’t mean it’s the best way. It worked for you, Eddie. Obviously it didn’t work for Jen, and probably wouldn’t have worked for me, though I have a pretty vast capacity for dry and boring lectures on science. Does that make us dumber than you? Or just different? I actually stuck out my science and math classes all the way through my undergrad years before defecting to English. But I had some fabulous teachers, who made the work (marine biology in my case) both challenging and fun. Did I hate memorizing all those marine invertebrate phyla? Hell, yes. But dissecting them and reading about them and finding them in the field, that was fun.
    What’s missing in a lot of teaching of science is also passion for the subject on the part of the teachers. If you are excited by what you know and what you do, you want people to share that excitement. Shame on that college professor of astronomy who could not muster up the excitement for his own field. He should have been fired long ago or left to his telescopes.
    And Blake, I say go for it! Fiction doesn’t have to be didactic to teach a lesson. Every scientific discovery is a mystery and a drama. After all, science is done by humans and those human elements of emotion will creep in: excitement, frustration, anger, depression, jealousy, rivalry, disappointment, exhilaration, the thrill of victory. It’s all there. How did Watson and Crick feel when that tinker toy model of DNA snapped into place and suddenly made sense? That’s as dramatic as anything else humans do.
    Then we have Uncle Al, who’s obviously a misogynistic crank not worth commenting on, except to say that IQ, BTW, is actually a notoriously poor indicator of performance, especially since its original intention was to measure the intelligence of the “feeble minded.” Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent book, The Mismeasure of Man, has some great history on this largely meaning-free test and IQ tests in general. And I hope Uncle Al likes the world his kind of men have made. Sorry you have such rotten luck with women, dude. Try not being so rude to them. That often helps. Or you could just go play with, whoops, by yourself.

  6. I have a really smart 7 year-old girl and I’m worried about her science education, not just because she’s a girl. But certainly I’m extraq-vigilant due to her gender. I’m already telling her all the great and awesome stuff she asks about, in as honest a manner as I can. She knows that static electricity is caused by shearing off electrons, she knows the circulatory system helps move oxygen about, and carries white blood cells to invading disease, and I always answer questions as accurately as I can and we look up what I don’t know.
    She knows that fairy tales are nice, but that she can find or discover the real answers when she needs to.
    And still I worry.

  7. The Trollmeister, “Uncle Al,” has been duly deleted. I was gonna let it slide, but Jen-Luc Piquant was less forgiving and chose to give him a virtual kick in the nuts. I personally would have gone for the face… We’re glad they inspired Blake to poetry, though. 🙂
    Lee pretty much said everything I wanted to say: eg, “fun” does not equal “easy.” Did I say I was calling for watering down the curriculum? Hell no! It’s been watered down too much already. My point is that students are more driven to learn and pursue knowledge when they’re excited and passionate about something and encouraged at critical junctures to follow those passions. Too often, they are squelched. So while there are some excellent physics and math teachers out there — I would have killed to study under Chad Orzel in college — there’s just as many who are under-qualified and bored or uninterested… not to mention grossly underpaid.
    C’mon: I was a classic overachiever, hard worker, not a victim of peer pressure, and I’m stubborn as hell. Just ask any one of the guys I trained with for 7 years at my jujitsu dojo in Brooklyn: they literally beat the crap out of me during training, but were so warm and supportive before and after, so equally excited about the sport, that I kept coming back for more. And still, science lost me — for awhile at least. (I’m stubborn; I found my way back.) But junior high and high school is a very vulnerable age, halfway between childhood and adulthood; a single mentor encouraging me rather than simply concluding I “wasn’t cut out for science,” would have made a world of difference. (added note to Matt: yes, you have cause to worry, but your daughter has you encouraging her, and that could make all the difference.)
    Also as Lee points out, IQ tests are neither good indicators of “future success,” nor are they “unbiased,” etc. Although my point about standard measures of academic success was actually meant to criticize the distinctly American over-emphasize on grades, with far too little attention being paid to what knowledge is actually being acquired.
    It never occurred to me that such an innocuous post would generate this kind of debate, but I guess it’s one of those “red flag” topics. The book project isn’t intended to solve this complex, multi-faceted issue, merely to address some of the cultural issues like gender stereotypes and peer pressure that contribute to girls opting out of math and science. In a creative and non-didactic way, one hopes. 🙂

  8. Jennifer, I think I was exactly opposite of you. I never worked very hard for my grades, subsequently although I often got good grades, I occaisionally got poor ones, but I think I retained the information better than any of my peers. I seem to recall having a lot of conversations wherein my friends who got As clearly hadn’t any memory for the material, but I with my B was better equipped going forward.
    I have no idea what that indicates, except that I am a very motivated self-educator, lo these decades later.

  9. Jennifer,
    Sorry if I sounded like I was implying that you lack stubbornness. It’s pretty clear from reading this blog that you have a lot of stick-to-it-iveness. In fact, you sound like the kind of girl I would have pined over in highschool, but would have been too scared to ask out!
    Perhaps a more accurate description of what led me to pursue science in the face of awful teachers is – arrogance. I was “right” (science is fun) and they were “wrong” (science is boring), despite the significant evidence they produced to support their point. I simply refused to accept their position! So here’s your typical conflicted high scool student: arrogant, yet completely lacking in self confidence regarding members of the opposite sex! Can I see a show of hands among the males out there that recognize themselves?
    The book/comix/etc project sounds fascinating! Please keep us updated, as I would like to purchase anything worthwhile for my stunningly intelligent 9yo daughter. She loves Nancy Drew, and I would love to give her books of scientific detective stories. She would devour them.

  10. Thanks for the info! I’ve passed it on to all those who read the physicschicks community on livejournal (, as well as directly to some budding fiction writers I know (with a link back here of course 😉

  11. Matt, you’ll be pleased to hear that I turned INTO a very motivated self-educator, starting in college. That’s when I noticed that I tended to learn more (i.e., lasting knowledge) in the tougher, challenging classes — even my English lit classes — where I got, say, a B as opposed to my usual “A”. And I enjoyed those classes more. My focus as a science writer has shifted more and more towards evoking that initial spark of wonder in general readers, and fanning it sufficiently that they thrill to the challenge of learning more, rather than shying away.
    Steve, you raise a terrific point: the difference between high school boys and girls in terms of assuming they are “right” and the teachers are “wrong.” Unlike the controversial question of innate gender differences in aptitude, this is clearly the result of social conditioning, and young girls could learn a thing or two from their male peers in that respect. Something happens to us when we hit puberty: we lose our early confidence and daring. I see it in my two nieces (both 13), and I’ve seen it in the girls who trained in jujitsu. At 7 or 8, they are as tough if not tougher, than the boys. The shift begins around 12 or 13. Hence the focus on that age group and higher of the Feminist Press project.
    And I’ll definitely be posting updates as things progress — I’ve submitted a proposal myself, although in an editorial rather than a writing capacity. The group has some terrific ideas, and there are lots of talented writers out there who can help make it happen.
    Clearly, I need to check out the Live Journal Physics Chicks. 🙂

  12. Jennifer,
    As to whether or not there are innate gender differences in aptitude (science or otherwise), I would argue that they may well exist. HOWEVER, in the end I don’t think it is a relevant question. There is clearly (from my experience) such a large overlap in the distributions of aptitude that any variance in the medians is lost in the noise. If it exists, it simply cannot be filtered out from the huge effects of environment and upbringing.
    What I think are far more interesting and important to study are the reasons for this loss of early confidence and daring that occurs in (especially) young women. I remember so clearly how mystified I was at that age to see smart girls that I knew suddenly (it seemed) declare themselves unable to do something. In high school, I tutored a couple of girls in beginning calculus that were clearly smart enough to “get it”, yet they refused to believe me when I told them so! Since I still have no idea where this loss of confidence originates, I am unsure of how to innoculate my daughters against it. It would crush me to see them decide they are not smart enough to do something! They are both so clearly smarter than I was at their age, with so much unbound potential. How in God’s name do I preserve that? Do I have to build a box around the family to keep out bad influences? Pick her friends for her? Since I know I can’t do either, I spend a LOT of time worrying.
    Thanks for the opportunity to vent.

  13. I too was insane about science when I was a child; science AND math. Then I had my own experience with disgruntled members of the teaching profession… only this one had active prejudice against deaf people. After that I firmly committed to literature: but still wistfully read science websites,, and the like…
    Thanks for another cool post. I keep coming back.

  14. Re: “they are often ridiculed by their peers for their “unfeminine” interests if they admit they like science or math.”
    Remember, it works that way for boys, too. In my school, any boy who liked math or science was a sissy.

  15. If you had read my reply carefully, I was not saying that science was not fun. In fact, I was ridiculing exactly those types of cultural narratives which say that science isn’t fun, and that math is hard, ect. I do not mean that classes should be taught strictly and that fun should have no place in classroom.
    What I mean is that all these things are already there! Science in the U.S., for those who take advantage of it, is just great. I do not find any problem in the actual teaching of science; rather I find the problem in our preconceptions of how science is before we arrive at the classroom.
    I find it telling that you would think I said “there should be no fun allowed in intellectual challenge (let me kill myself now) and who equates “fun” with “easy.” When in fact, what I am saying is that the fun is already there, for those who take advantage of it.
    Also, on the subject about women. This falls exactly into my “hypothesis”. The real threat to women comes from their preconceptions about women and science, which of course are determined culturally. “Women can’t do science, women can’t do math,” those frames are the real problem. In the classroom women can, and often do, excel. Many of the traditional blockades of entry into physics or chemistry have been broken, but yet an imbalance still exist. I think this is more due to the fact of how we are condition to think about science and less that people are truly holding women back in science, although the latter obviously still exists.
    This extends to blacks, other minorities, and even men (as a quick example, nursing is a “woman’s” profession. The problem here isn’t that men can’t go into nursing, it’s the cultural ridicule many of them face, the same with women in science.)

  16. Steve T:
    Not fool proof ideas but some that kept me in science (and now working towards a PhD).
    -Every year on my birthday I knew I was getting approximately $1 for every year I was alive in addition to whatever else my parents had bought me. The trick was that my dad would give me some math equation just a bit tougher than what I was doing in school and I couldn’t get the money until I told him exactly (down to the cents) how much I was owed. It was lots of fun. In retaliation one year in his birthday card I figured out how many seconds he had been alive.
    -My parents would admit to not knowing the answers to my questions if they didn’t and would take the time to send me on the right track to find the answer. This was before the internet so it would probably be even easier now.
    -Parents can’t do it all/outside mentorship of sorts is important. Kids know that parents are biased to think that they are great. I had a violin teacher who also had a degree in Chemical Engineering. While I never got more than passably good at the violin I learned a lot of other seemingly useless useful things (reading upside down, how to use a micrometer, basic waves and acoustics). Having someone whose intelligence I respected respect me and mine gave me a bit of a buffer against the opinions of people I had less respect for. As an assistant instructor of a kids karate class I’ve watched girls come in tentitive and leave after a few months carrying themselves with more confidence because they know we believe in them and because we’ve helped them prove to themselves that they are more far more capable than they thought.
    Best of luck 🙂

  17. This is starting to become seriously important reading. I have a very smart 7 year-old daughter, and I too, am scared that I will fail to launch her with enough confidence to pursue her natural course, intellectually. She is clearly smart enough, her mother, grandmother, aunts (and plenty of the males, too) are in science/engineering based careers, so that’s there. But I can see culture doing it’s bad works.
    In the car a few years ago we passed a Morman Tabernacle. Margot asked what it was, and my wife told her, “it’s a church, isn’t it pretty?”
    Margot said, “But Mommy, it’s not pink. It can’t be pretty if it’s not pink or rainbows.”
    Jenn, thanks for the tips. Perhaps we need a forum on-line where parents can go to brainstorm about how to keep their daughters heading in the direction of intellectual and emotional freedom.

  18. Eddie,
    If I misconstrued your comments, I’m sorry, but I can’t entirely agree with you. Most of the time the fun is sucked out of science (and many other subjects) in school, as Jen (one n) points out. It’s true that the fun is inherent in the subject and the intellectual pursuit, and then some wretched teacher hunts it down and strangles it before presenting its dead carcass to the class as a boring lecture divorced from real life. Mixed with the cocktail of stereotypical preconceptions about who can (or is it should?) succeed at science and math, this is deadly and deadening to the most important thing a child brings to school: curiosity. Education shouldn’t involve the stubborn determination of the student to succeed in spite of the teacher, rather because of the teacher.
    Steve and Matt, take a look at Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia for an interesting exploration of when and why girls begin to lose confidence. (If you search for “Ophelia” on Amazon under books, a whole bunch of related books crop up too.)

  19. I’m intrigued by the comments by Joseph, Andy S. and Eddie extending the notion of cultural stereotyping and prejudices beyond women to deaf people, boys, and other “minorities.” It’s true that just about anyone who is different, or doesn’t easily fit into one of society’s pre-labeled boxes, is going to experience some degree of ridicule, active discouragement, often outright harassment. That’s partly due to human nature — the mob mentality fears antyhing outside the norm — and partly due to the very strong anti-intellectual wave sweeping through the US these days. (Although I still hold out hope that the tide is starting to turn, just a little…) Puberty sucks, peer pressure is unbelievably powerful when you’re a teenager, and high school is often hell, although in the long run I’m sure we’d all say we’re stronger for it. But when it comes to math and the sciences, it seems to impact girls much more significantly — because of the specific KIND of cultural conditioning that takes place, as Steve T pointed out, i.e., boys seem to be a bit more likely to exhibit defiance, a trait girls aren’t generally encouraged to emulate.
    There are resources out there to combat this insidiously pervasive negative conditioning, and if the Feminist Press project succeeds, there will be even more. Ultimately, I would like all my nieces (and my nephew, who currently wants to be an astronomer) to realize that it takes courage and a bit of stubborn defiance to follow their natural interests and passions.

  20. I’m reminded about a discussion over at Uncertain Principles after a post about women and physics when the point was brought up that not only do not very many women go into physics, but not very many people either. In high school and the AP test, physics is the least taken. So the question is, which do you think is stronger: the bias against women in science or the bias against everyone in science?

  21. In response to Matt’s comment about his daughter saying that something can’t be pretty if it’s not pink or rainbows–I see a comment like that as an opportunity to talk about the refraction of light that causes this beautiful phenomenon!
    Rather than bemoaning that the daughter thinks that pink is prettier (and pink was considered more appropriate for boys over a century ago, being considered too vibrant and jarring for girls), this interest can be coopted to start an informal lesson about nature. I’ve been volunteering at the Exploratorium, and somewhere in my to-be-cleaned office I have a paper that showed that even at science museums, parents were observed to spend less time explaining how exhibits worked to their daughters than to their sons. (This was fairly recent research, too.) The cultural assumptions that girls are less interested in understanding how the world works run deep–it’s not just the outside culture to deal with.
    So rather than bemoaning that your daughter prefers pink and rainbows, use that interest to get her curious. I mean, my mother didn’t buy me Barbie dolls because she didn’t like the plaything message they conveyed, so I went over to the house next door where a girl my age lived and played with her Barbies (the drawback was that Stephanie had chewed all of her Barbies’ toes off, so putting on the shoes was a challenge). Despite my Barbie fascination, I still achieved a Ph.D. in physics later on (though if I had a daughter I would encourage her in the direction of engineering or biosciences instead, and not necessarily to the Ph.D. level).
    Anyway, my point is, the more you can use your daughter’s interests to show her how beautiful it is to understand the world, the more she’ll know that there *is* light at the end of the tunnel when she gets to high school and has to do solve all of those tedious but unavoidable problems with weights and pulleys. (Does anyone find those exciting? At least with gravity you can bring in some history with Newton and Galileo. Did Leonardo write anything about pulleys in his notebooks? Seriously, if any physics topic could use some sexing up, it’s surely weights and pulleys.)

  22. the difference between high school boys and girls in terms of assuming they are “right” and the teachers are “wrong.”
    I see this happen with graduate students as well. I know that another first-year graduate student observed it with others in his class several years ago. (When he was a first-year graduate student.) This guy was in his early thirties, and was observing typical early-20’s grad students; I don’t know if that is relevant or not. But he did notice that when students were sitting around discussing homework problems, the male students tended to be assertive and agressive and assume that they were right (or at least carry on as if they assumed that), and the female students tended to back down and accept what the male students were saying… even when the female students understood it better and *were* right themselves. This isn’t a perfect predictor, of course, but it is a tendency that matches with what I’ve observed anecdotally.

  23. Kristin,
    Thanks for the comments. In fact I do turn lots of things into lessons (mostly science). That pink and rainbows comment was not the time, and in fact I really don’t care if she’s a lifelong fan of pink and rainbows (come to think of it, I love a good rainbow, and pink’s got a lot going for it as well), it was the influence I could see creeping in around the comment that had me annoyed, not her particular likes and dislikes. It just meant I had a fight ahead of me, I guess.
    She (and my (younger) son) get science from me, but also as much other real thinking as I can shove down their throats. I read them poetry and they love that, but really, is Mary Howitt so rare these days? Their friends barely know what a poem is beyond Green Eggs and Ham and my kids are asking every night if we can read some more Poe (The Bells or the Raven, not the horror stories), Houseman or Kipling. I’m so gratified to find out that they still compete favorably to crappy contemporary stuff. If you just put in the effort to expose them to great things, they’ll gravitate to it because they really do engage the mind more fully — as you said, refraction is inherently cool.

  24. I hereby nominate Matt for “father of the year.” 🙂 Seriously, explosing your kids to poetry, literature, science, and encouraging critical thinking at a very young age will only help them navigate the real world that much more effectively, and withstand the inevitable peer pressure.
    And Rob’s anecdotal evidence of women assuming they’re wrong even in graduate school strikes me as pretty accurate. I don’t know where this tendency comes from, and while women grow more confident as we age and rack up a few encouraging successes — to be honest, I still catch myself automatically assuming I’m wrong sometimes, even when deep down, I know I’m right… No idea how to combat this, but I doubt it’s something that’s “innate” to my gender.

  25. 08 27 06
    Hello there:
    I think it is worthwhile to bring more women into the fray. There are so many things that women have traditionally done which involve physics in some way, but we are never taught that. Good example, my Mother and sisters like to sew. They make their own patterns. My Mother took two polygons and attached them together to make a pair of pants. This is second nature to her, but she didn’t know about Teichmuller spaces and the pair of pants construction. I also know a lot of girls that braid hair or twist hair, and it is something that we have always done. However, many of us don’t know about braid theory and its greater applicability to the theoretical physics etc. A few days ago, I chanced upon a young girl with braids and was so intrigued that I began to examine the symmnetry of each of her braids. Then I showed her a paper on braid theory. She was so surprised that such a branch of mathematics existed.
    The point I am trying to make is that learning should not only be fun, but RELEVANT. A good teacher should be able to motivate the students with examples that are tangible to the students. With women, I think that is doubly true. One thing I am curious about is why chemistry and biology always have wayyyy more women than physics. Hmmm
    Wonderful post, lots to think about and motivate….

  26. Another couple of datapoints:
    There is a lot more of a macho-subculture in the sciences than appears at first glance. For example, the quotes “Nobody gets an A in my class!” Or “You guys aren’t cut out for the sciences.”
    I don’t know if you found those discouraging, but for young boys, those kinds of statements are challenges. They don’t discourage extra effort, young boys get told they can’t do stuff all the time, and it doesn’t seem to stop them.
    Check out this entry in Gordon Watt’s blog (
    It’s about the Quals for physics grad school. Gordon in the article and Dave Bacon (in the comments) wax nostalgic about how painful their quals were.
    If the same message encourages the boys and disheartens the girls, maybe we should give same sex education another look.

  27. Oh, this is so great! I’m officially the Cocktail Party Physics Father of the Year! Can I make myself a seal to put on my web page?

  28. Andy.S–
    Re same sex education–I think it’s a double-edged sword as far as preparing girls for a male-dominated world. I can speak from experience, having gone from attending two all-girls Catholic high schools, to majoring in engineering (10% female) at a university where overall the male-female ratio was 65:35, to being the only woman in my entering class of 25 in physics graduate school.
    What was good about single sex education in my experience of it over 20 years ago is that girls are more open about studying together. There wasn’t this pressure to put up a front of bravado to make it look like everything was infused knowledge–it was OK to be honest about not understanding some concept, because other students would be happy to help you figure it out. Competition was deemphasized, which was kind of frustrating to me in some ways because I actually was quite competitive then.
    The all-boys’ schools my brothers attended played up competition–sports, math teams, debate, you name it. That whole one-upsmanship thing that’s part of male culture was just totally absent from my high school experience (I did speech and math teams, but no sports). Even though I had seen my two brothers and their friends in action, it was still a culture shock to get to college where guys just projected confidence all the time, even when it wasn’t justified.
    The competition for dominance is the way of science and business, so girls should be prepared for that as much as possible, even though I think the world would be a far saner place if people could be as open and honest with one another as they were back at my all-girls’ schools.

  29. As a few people have mentioned, it’s not even necessarily a matter of teachers — it’s a matter of girls being socialized to lack self-confidence. I had some great science teachers (and some terrible ones), but I never even considered the fact that I might even plausibly have the brains to be a scientist. Just never even crossed my mind. I loved high school physics, for instance, but I got an 89 on my final, so I figured I must be dumb. Even doing well in college physics didn’t change my mind.
    I certainly hope Feminist Press manages to fund and promote some excellent books for girls, but I don’t know how hopeful I am… my press just put out a series of books about women scientists aimed at roughly middle school girls (, and it’s just getting no interest whatsoever (at least at the bulk level). They’re great little books, in my probably-somewhat-biased opinion, but organizations don’t seem willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to encouraging girls in science. Makes me really sad, actually. Hopefully Feminist Press’ NSF grant will allow them to provide some free copies to people who might be theoretically interested but practically unwilling to spend the money, because this is looking like something one has to force people into.

  30. Pedagogical abuse

    The marvelous Jennifer Ouellette has a post up announcing an initiative to promote scientific literacy, and possible career aspirations, in young girls. Its a great idea, and Im glad to help spread the word: The Feminist Press, in collab…

  31. Perhaps I can help reconcile the hard vs. fun camps.
    One of the biggest barriers I have had to surmount across my years in academia as both science student and teacher is frustration. One of the biggest and most important frustrations has been that of failing to immediately comprehend something.
    Different people respond differently to frustration. Some give up and try something else that is perhaps a little less challenging. Others, who are more comfortable remaining in that frustrating state of not-quite-understanding might persist and continue to work on their problem at hand. I am completely convinced that “Math Anxiety” is simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it. (Note that this can be both willful or subconscious, but I have had great success in surmounting this particular claim.).
    For some, the prospect of that anticipated spark of inspiration or delight that comes from persevering to the point of enlightenment drives them through the uncomfortable uncertainty period. Over time, students learn to be more comfortable and less bothered by NOT KNOWING, and can progress through harder and longer problems as their tolerance and comfort increase. Ultimately, people can learn to anticipate the challenge and revel in the idea that if they can just concentrate long enough, they are sure to eventually learn something and eventually delight in the whole process start-to-finish.
    I happen to believe this is NOT an innate ability. It is a learned skill. If there is no properly self-aware teacher available to guide and settle the student through the early frustrations, and the educational environment fails to foster the mental discipline or world-view of intellectual reward through calm persistence, we end up with people who equate “hard” with suffering, who give up on ever achieving profound and potentially life-changing realizations, and who will never know the real joy of figuring out complex and interesting things.
    Our schools need more teachers who understand this sort of thing.
    (p.s. check out my blog at for more similar musings.)

  32. I’ll blogwhore my old website for anyone who is interested in my past thoughts and a book I wrote ages ago (never published, though) about this topic. Feel free to explore it for background materials and ideas, and if you find busted links, please let me know. I really haven’t bothered to update it in quite some time now.

  33. I am always happy to plug science blogs. 🙂 I like Phillip’s take on math anxiety: “simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it.” The more passion and enthusiasm we can instill in kids about a given subject, I’d argue, the better we can help them get past that natural sticking point. And becoming comfortable with not knowing, thereby developing mental discipline and (one hopes) more rigorous critical thinking, can only serve students well in the long run. And this is probably not an innate ability, as Phillip also points out.

  34. “simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it.
    Or in the case of higher level mathmatics and Quantum Mechanics – withstand the frustration of not understanding until you get used to the idea and stop expecting it to make sense 😉 Anytime I want to blow my own mind I sit down and really think about wave-particle duality and the like. Paradoxes can be fun!

  35. The cultivation of girl geeks.

    It’s been cool to see my ScienceBlogs sisters Sandy, Shelley, and Tara represent in our little nerd-off. I’m inclined to say this offers at least some evidence that women can get as geeky as the geekiest men. Sadly, there seem…

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