Saturday, April 28, 2012

Feminine scientists fail to motivate girls

This was the title of a bizarre article in our local on-line paper. Initially I thought it was a misprint; didn't they mean female, not feminine? But no, they did mean 'feminine'. So what would that be? Women dressed in pink and wearing make-up apparently. Middle school aged girls were exposed to two groups of female scientists: one group dressed in pink, wearing lots of make-up and the others, plain Janes, no make-up and drab clothes. The thesis is that the girls would identify more with the pretty scientists but instead they did not take them seriously.

I was a female scientist who often spoke to groups of students of various ages: preschoolers up through grad students. Since I was usually demonstrating something, I wore a lab coat and lab glasses, which I guess would not make me look very feminine. I do wear make-up because without it, my fair, bland features would make me look washed out. I did want to interest girls in science but often found it much easier to reach boys who seemed much more engaged in what I had to say or what I was doing. High school girls in particular seemed especially bored though one became so interested, she became my lab assistant for a few months. (her twin became internationally famous when she was abducted by the Taliban as a reporter; fortunately she was released after 6 months of intense worry). But it is gratifying to know that I didn't lose my female audience because I wasn't pretty enough or because I failed to wear pink.

And just how feminine am I? Growing up, the answer would be not very. A 6th grade teacher took me aside one day to tell me that if I continued to walk the way that I do (stomping my feet as loudly as possible) I would NEVER have a husband. Feminine girls were petite and soft-spoken. I was big and loud. If someone hit me, I would hit back, which I was told repeatedly was not the proper response for a girl. Although I read just fine, I was always stronger in math and science. I was told by several adults that I had a 'man's mind'. Later I had mainly just male friends because I couldn't grasp the nuances that were involved with women. My mom once told me that I would never have a period because I was so unfeminine. But I can cook, sew, embroider, crochet..all those girlie things.  I do want to look pretty.

And for the first ten years, I was one of the few women in my field. If I wanted to have friends at work, they would have to be men. I had fun. Later, more and more women started working in my department. I actually received an e-mail from one of them yesterday needed advice for a chemical problem. It's been a while since I've dealt with chemistry.

Shanna and her family returned to Boston today. But in a month or so, they will be back for good.

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