By Example

By Example
By Jordan MIller
December 04, 2014

The browsing history of my internet search engine contains a medley of material that ranges from academic to unsavory. Among the latter are my much beloved stand-up specials, bolstered by comedic heavy weights such as Steven Wright and Louis CK. Perhaps the least savory of all performers in my rotation is Sarah Silverman, a comedienne known for her impassive delivery, dark humor, and satirically deluded sense of self. Her sets are shocking and often inappropriate, but rife with social commentary. In Silverman's most recent special, We are Miracles, she meanders from topics like childhood bed-wetting to her dog's bathroom habits before derailing the audience with a non sequitur:

Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it's a mistake.

She pauses, and the crowd laughs nervously before she continues:

Not because they can't, but because it never would've occurred to them that they couldn't. It's like saying, 'Hey, when you get in the shower, I am NOT going to read your diary'.

'Wait-- are you going to read my diary?'

The bit segues into something more vulgar, but not before leaving an imprint. Silverman's sentiments would not be entirely out of place here at CASHP, where the female students and faculty in our department meet several times a year to discuss the plight of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Education & Mathematics) careers. This focus group is not unjustified: while the number of female doctoral students in the United States has more than doubled since 1980, science fields experience substantial attrition of women as they ascend the rungs from post-doctoral to professorial positions [1]. While a myriad of causal factors contributes  to this "leaky pipeline",  it is evident that many early career female scientists choose not to apply to tenure-track jobs, despite the fact that those who do are more likely than male counterparts to receive job offers [1]. It is likely that this trend is due in part to family-based decisions, as acquiring a secure research position often postdates a woman's healthy reproductive years. While this seems like a singularly "female" issue, the estimated loss of 3,000 PhD-trained women from scientific careers per year represents more than a billion dollars in education and experience, often paid for by US tax dollars [2]. Not exactly an attractive sales pitch to a young girl considering a career in the STEM fields.

But from a psychological standpoint, is a young girl really more advantaged by being made aware of her disadvantages? In a career path that already faces limited interest from girls (a national survey of over 800 girls ages 14-17 found that while 74% express interest in STEM subjects, only 13% of girls interested in STEM consider it their first choice as a career option [3]), logic would follow that dismal, statistically derived projections for a young lady's future might do more to dissuade than encourage. In reflecting on my own childhood experiences, the strongest influences on my life were never didactic lectures, but living, breathing examples. As is probably the case for many people my age, I grew up idolizing Mia Hamm and her role in the 1996 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup. When she competed against Michael Jordan, arguably one of the greatest male athletes of all time, in the infamous "battle of the sexes" commercial for Gatorade and held her own, it just about blew my seven-year-old mind. I saw Mia. She was a girl. She played soccer. She played it well. Therefore, maybe I could too.  

The mere presence of a strong female athlete allowed me to envision myself as the same, and when it came time for an unfortunate mentor to rattle off the slim proportion of high school students who actually reach college athletics, I was more or less unfazed. Young women need examples, confident and positive role models that facilitate their ability to recognize similarity, connect the dots, and conclude that the same realm of possibilities exists for them. This may be especially crucial for the sciences: half of girls who demonstrate interest in STEM know a woman in a STEM career [3]. And the lesson makes sense at just about every juncture in the leaky pipeline. A high school student applying to college, a college freshman choosing a major, and a post-doc interviewing for a faculty position can all benefit from the mentorship of a woman who has recently shared, and succeeded, in that experience.

So, while discourse is important, perhaps the key is demonstration. To borrow the adage set forth in the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, "You can't be what you can't see" [4]. In a world that currently supports "Instagram Model" as a viable career option for young women, the least we can do is present a few alternatives. As Louis CK laments,

I have two daughters. I pray they don't grow up to be the 'hot girl' at the bar.

Let's try and help him out.

1] Shen, Helen. 2013. Mind the Gender Gap. Nature. 495, 22-24.

2] Rosser, Sue V. & Taylor, Mark Zachary. 2009. Why Women Leave Science. MIT News Magazine.

3] Modi, Kamla, Schoenberg, Judy, Salmond, Kimberlee. 2012. Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. New York, N.Y.: Girl Scouts of the USA.

4] Newsom, Jennifer Siebel (Director, Producer). 2011. Miss Representation [Motion Picture]. United States: Girls' Club Entertainment.