This weekend I will be volunteering as a college student “buddy” to one of hundreds of girls in grades 7-9 that attend the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) conference at Cornell. According to the event website, “EYH is a one-day conference for 7th-9th grade girls. The girls each participate in three workshops organized by Cornell students and faculty. The goals of the conference are to stimulate the participants’ interest in math and science through these hands-on activities, to provide them with female scientist role models, and to foster awareness of opportunities in math and science-related careers.” I myself participated in EYH in middle school, and now I am returning for my second time as as a mentor, experiencing the conference from “the other side.” However, this is not a blog post about my own personal experiences at EYH.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the EYH planning committee, confirming my application to be a buddy. The email also notified us of a shortage of college student buddies, and encouraged us to ask our friends to participate. As I was sitting in the chem lounge at the moment, I looked around me and posed the question to some friends sitting nearby. As some of them began to express interest, I explained the event, told them the date, and – oh wait – you have to be a girl in order to be a buddy. Oops. EYH is an event for women, by women. Sorry guys…
I often hear the question of why are there so many science and technology related organizations and events targeted specifically towards women and minorities. Why isn’t there an “Engineering Society for White Males?” Well, the situation is that men still outnumber women in a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the goal is to remedy this problem. But what kind of “problem” is this, and are these STEM organizations and events really the remedy?
While STEM fields have been historically dominated by men, it’s hardly news that women are fully capable scientists and have made (and will surely continue to make) great contributions to science. Any notions that studying science is inappropriate for women, or that men inherently make better scientists are largely if not completely gone. So why is the gender ratio so skewed? Is it a lack of interest? I don’t think so. I would argue that it’s partially just because girls aren’t exposed to as much “interesting science” at a young age. You’re more likely to see little boys designing towers with their Lego blocks or trying to explode things with their chemistry kits. Insect zoos are hardly typical little-girl toys. And when those girls who do grow up interested in science reach the point where they find themselves in computer science or physics classes, it can be a little awkward and a little intimidating to be the only – or one of very few women – in a class of largely men. Granted, the classroom is usually a professional formal environment, but somehow when the gender ratio is that skewed, the humor or the overall social environment can seem just a bit alien and hostile. And no, we women shouldn’t have to just “man up.” We should feel comfortable just as we are.
I think this then justifies and explains the existence of events such as EYH. However, often these events will try and put a “feminine spin” on science. Do workshops that offer the chance to distill perfume and make lip balm help to genuinely interest women in science or do they only play off of stereotypes and send the message that science has to be about cosmetics in order to get girls interested? It seems disconcerting to me that lip balm and perfume need to be the “hooks” to get girls interested in science, but if it works – if it takes rose petals crushed and soaked in ethanol to get a girl to realize that chemistry is fun an interesting – then I think it’s worth it.