Marie Curie was never my role model
By Heather Claxton-Douglas
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No one encouraged me to pursue a career in science. I didn't have a real-life scientific female role model growing up, nor did I play with a chemistry kit. Of course, my parents stressed the importance of doing well in school, but they never pushed me toward one subject or another — all were equally important. How then did I ever end up with a career in science?
In the latest attempt to get young girls interested in science, the European Union, as part of their Science: It's a Girl Thing! campaign, produced a commercial peppered with long-legged models, fashion runways, makeup, a hip-hop dance background, and not a single girl doing actual science.
Not surprisingly, the commercial was deemed sexist and banned with calls to "show real women scientists, like Marie Curie." This response made me pause. I didn't learn about Marie Curie until I was a sophomore in college — atrocious, but true. I didn't pursue a career in science simply because "other women were doing it" — or did I?
In lieu of watching a real scientist in action, my only exposure to what a scientist or engineer was came from the media. My two favorite cartoon characters were Gadget, the girl mechanic who could fix anything from "Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers"; and Penny, who could solve crimes with her iPad-like computer book in "Inspector Gadget."
I may not have had expensive engineering toys, but I played a lot of science-themed video games and watched "Star Trek" and "Mr. Wizard's World" with my dad. For the longest time, I wanted to be an archeologist like Indiana Jones, and I loved dinosaurs and "Jurassic Park."
However, I also had a lot of nonscience entertainment, and a good scientist wouldn't cherry pick her data before coming to a conclusion. Even though one of my all-time favorite cartoons was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," I never wanted to be a journalist like April O'Neil. I may have wanted to be a crime-fighting mutant reptile, but never a journalist.
There has to be more to influencing a girl than simply showing her a woman with a specific career. Then, it occurred to me: There were a lot of popular shows that I didn't watch.
Unlike many of my female classmates, I didn't watch "Scooby-Doo" or any other show that made me choose between identifying with the pretty girl or the smart girl. And while we are all taught that what's on the inside is more important than what's on the outside, we are also biologically hard-wired to want to be physically attractive to a potential mate. Why then, should we perpetuate the stereotype that looking pretty and being smart are exclusive?
Let's revisit the failed EU commercial. It's obvious where it went wrong, but where did it go right? It showed that it's OK to like fashion and makeup and still be a scientist. Competing with men doesn't mean you have to check your femininity at the lab door. Nor should you feel like you need to choose between being the smart one or the pretty one. You're both, dammit!
I didn't need someone to encourage me to pursue science, I just needed people to get out of my way — and perhaps that's the answer to solving the gender gap. Perhaps we need to stop making girls sacrifice the things they love to become scientists.
I would never take away my son's toy cars or soccer ball to encourage him to be a computer programmer. Why then, would I tell my nieces that they can't wear their princess costumes beneath a lab coat? It's not like wearing pink is going to lower their IQ. Nor will reading a fashion magazine stop them from understanding quantum mechanics.
Instead of asking, "How do we encourage women in science?", maybe we should be asking, "How do I stop discouraging my daughter from being herself as a scientist?"
Heather Claxton-Douglas received her Ph.D. in biological chemistry from University of Michigan in 2011. Currently, she is in the process of launching ScienceSolved.com — a website that connects science researchers with volunteer programmers.