By Isabel (15 year old granddaughter of Newport, Oregon resident and Central Oregon Coast NOW supporters Joseph and Christina). November, 2016
As I open my laptop, I see my familiar screensaver of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. Every day I see his foot caught in mid-step, his golden visor, but this time, I can hear his famous words laced with static. I can imagine the American flag finding its place in the gray sand. I can feel my own longing to be in his place, to feel the weightlessness, to take my own first steps on martian soil. The picture reminds me of my goals and aspirations.
There is a question that never fails to embarrass me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s benign to the adult who asks, something to fill the silence in a conversation with a child. The simplicity of the question requires an equally complicated and loaded answer. It requires a release of deepest hopes and an exposition of passions. My answer isn’t typical.
I want to be an astronaut. Since I was young, my parents remember my youthful eyes always finding their way upwards, my head craning back trying to take it all in. I remember books talking of the ice and rock rings of Saturn and TV shows discussing the immensity of black holes. I remember my raw fascination with everything outside of and far away from our own planet. But there are so many other professions a woman like me could pursue. It could be so much easier. I could be a teacher, a musician, a writer; becoming a scientist is just too hard.
Or at least that’s how it feels. In higher education, in the professional field, in the mind of society, there is an underlying bias against women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
We are passing by the days of outright derogation and insults, but we tow these shadows of ideas behind us like bricks. The image of the common scientist is someone who is isolated, nerdy, awkward, naturally gifted—and distinctly masculine. This alienating image and its
negative connotations push away anyone who doesn’t fit, women being the largest group affected.
Where do we see this stereotypical scientist? Where we go to for news, entertainment, and an escape: television. Along with other media sources, television is the number one perpetrator of white lab coats and pocket protectors. Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” portray characters like Sheldon and Raj as smart researchers, but with no social skills. Sheldon is childlike in his tendencies and Raj can’t say a single word to a female. On the other hand, Penny, their female neighbor, is without a college degree and works for minimum wage at a restaurant. The show does include a female researcher, but she is portrayed as less feminine and less womanly than Penny. Since television is a pinnacle of American society, these shows are widely known and watched, further extending negative and non-inclusive stereotypes of scientists.
I’ve felt this weighted past and its ripples. I see it every day in my science and math classes; boys outnumber the girls, we learn about the famous men who shaped science, and in the students who lose confidence. As I get older and my classes become harder, my female peers are shier than their male counterparts and are drained of the confidence to participate in class. Often times, boys will get the answer wrong and proceed to give three more incorrect responses. Most girls in my classes are quiet and reserved. Teachers label them as shy and suddenly all hands raised and answered are attached to a boy and no girl gets the chance. People tell me to be confident and bold and fearless, but when I have to act that way everyday, without interruption, I get exhausted. I get discouraged.
Science is famously called a “boy’s club”, and women rarely break into that. Every person desires an environment with people similar to them, those who share the same experiences. And when a girl goes off to college to find her astrophysics class filled with 30 male
students and only a few women, she has a right to be uncomfortable. Sure, “no pain no gain,” but does it have to hurt? Can’t women push themselves mentally, just like every other student, and try for hours on a math problem, without having to worry if they’ll be ignored the next day when they volunteer an answer? Women avoid “STEM” simply because they struggle to find support groups for themselves.
The most important part of gaining an education or pursuing a career is to have someone behind you, supporting you at every success and failure. I can’t count how many times my mother has helped me refocus when I get stressed under piles of homework. Or how many times stress has brought me to tears and she is there for me, simply an ear to listen. She supports me now, while we are close, but when I grow up, and I move away, who will I find? Maybe my roommate in college will be studying education, music, or writing. We could be the greatest of friends, but when I step foot into that 30-to-none astrophysics class, who is there for me?
Critics say that shyness in women is natural, or that we just don’t like science as much as men do. I can tell you, on a thousand accounts, this is wrong. Take it from my younger self or the women that are leading research in fields from biochemistry to theoretical physics; women like science just as much as men. In the campaign for women, ongoing since Eve came second, an image of frailty and ill-judgement has surrounded leading women as they rise to challenge men in their own game. As the Suffragettes fought for the vote, men claimed the female vote would be clouded by emotions and that women would never care enough to be up to date with current politics. The 19th amendment came and the men were soon proved wrong. Just as we say that racism didn’t pass with the 15th, sexism didn’t with the 19th. Yet, women have continued to be just as capable as the men they work with.
High schools, colleges and scientific organizations around the country are trying to get women to pursue sciences. They see the disparity, and create programs like “Girls Go Tech” and “Chip Camp” aimed to get those of “underrepresented groups” involved in the sciences. These projects are all well-meaning, but the best way to involve women is to change the way we view scientists in American society. Celebrate the women that revolutionized their discipline or industry. Steer away from the scientist stereotypes of antisocial, nerdy men and broaden the public view of what it means to be a scientist and express diversity positively. You can’t change someone’s mental perspective in one day or one seminar, but you can easily shape future generations. Teach and educate our children that women can be scientists and doctors and astronauts just like the men can. The American idea of the scientist is archaic and uninformed; young girls just don’t know that other women are out there, just like them, staring at the stars, wanting so badly to feel their hair float about their head, to bounce from moon rock to moon rock, taking their own first step on unfamiliar soil. America has to take its first steps, but this time on familiar soil, towards progress.
But do I still want to be an astronaut? Have my dreams of space grown up with me as I have? Science is still my passion, I still see the night sky clearer than the sun at noon, but I enter this field with a different perspective than my naive younger self. I know that it won’t be easy. I will be looked at differently than my male counterparts. People will say any scholarships I received or awards or praise I earned will be due, in some part, to my gender. But I come accepting the challenge. I will do what I love for myself. I owe it to the young girl crying with delight when she first saw the moon through her own telescope. I will be proud to know that my successes and failures will be forever preempted with a warning; she is a woman.