I first met Rachel and Teah when they were only five years old. Their mother used to bring them after kindergarten to see the animals at the nature center where I work.
Can we hold the ferret, please? they’d ask in that kind of sing-song harmony that only a pair of twin girls could muster. Sugar and spice, those two little blondes. It was hard to say no to anything they’d ask, what with all four of their enormous green eyes staring up in supplication.
Mom continued to bring them for regular visits, allowing me the pleasure of watching them grow. I celebrated birthdays and graduations, welcomed them into the fold as young adult volunteers and camp counselors, and even met a few of their boyfriends—some of whom I liked better than others.
Today, these girls are still tiny little blondes who can pull off a vocal harmony that’d melt your soul. They’re also both retired now from the United States Marine Corps, and I don’t doubt that either one of them could lift me right over her head. Rachel and Teah: the few, the proud, the petite.
What’s cool about watching women like this succeed in male-dominated roles is in knowing they can do it without a lot of concessions made for being female. To be fair, there are currently some gender-specific fitness guidelines in Marine Corps boot camp, but nowhere have we altered the fundamental concept of military service just to accommodate women. The philosophy of the Corps itself, along with what it means to be a Marine, remains unchanged.
If the job—any job--requires a certain level of physical strength, or intimate familiarity with an M-16, then either you can do that job or you can’t. Some of us are meant to stay on the porch while the big dogs play.
I understand some people will disagree with my opinions here, and that’s okay. I’m open to hearing different views about the roles women and girls might play in any arena. Except of course, when it comes to science.
Much like military procedures, the rules of scientific investigation are there for a specific and important purpose: Science is the only appropriate tool we have for figuring out what’s true about our world. Who in their right mind would argue that the very essence of science itself must adapt and change to accommodate the fairer sex? Enter Miss Laura Parson.
Excuse me—that’s Ms. Laura Parson to you, pal. She is a hardcore feminist after all, by her own definition if not mine.
Parson recently made waves at the University of North Dakota, where she put forth the theory that science instruction is hostile towards women, because college level classes are—in her words—unfriendly, intimidating, competitive, difficult, and chilly.
Chilly? Better bundle up, ladies. It gets worse.
According to Parson, college-level science courses are too dismissive of the uniquely feminine qualities of emotion, intuition, and collaboration. This is evidenced when professors lay out written course requirements using “masculine” pronouns such as I, me, and you, rather than the “feminine” pronouns we, us, and our.
Yes, you read that right. I is masculine, you is feminine. Now you know.
Parson has her supporters—like-minded feminist thinkers who believe the scientific method itself is overly masculine. Just so we all have a clear understanding of this method—the very foundation on which our technologically advanced civilization lies—let’s have a quick review.
I know this may be hard for you, Sally. Just put down the lipstick and try to follow along. I’ll type reeeally slooowly…
The Scientific Method, in a nutshell:
Take a guess about some possible explanation for why the world is the way it is
If you can, learn what other scientists think about the questions and ideas you have
Come up with a way to test what you think is true—design a test or an experiment
Run the test and watch what happens
Compare your initial thoughts and ideas with the test results
Talk to other scientists about what you found out, so they can learn from you
The beauty of the scientific method is that you don’t need an advanced degree to use it. You don’t even need a grade school education—or a pencil! A six-year-old with some patience and a hand lens can make some remarkable discoveries. I know because I’ve seen it happen.
Science requires curiosity, observation, critical thinking, discipline, and attention to detail. It asks you to learn from others, admit your mistakes, and be a good communicator.
Does that all sound overly masculine to you? Or maybe more like a skill set the average mother of two might call upon on a daily basis?
If you’re picking up on my sarcasm here, then good for you. Keen observation. Because while I don’t doubt for a minute that women in science face obstacles of gender, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that science itself needs to change just for them.
I may not always be the sharpest tool in the shed, but to suggest that my pair of X chromosomes hinders an ability to wonder, to observe, and to think critically, is an insult to me and you both, Sally.
What’s worse, this line of logic doesn’t address the real problem, one that stretches all the way back to childhood, to a time long before young women find a seat in one of Parson’s “chilly” college classrooms.
According to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, adults subconsciously relate differently to infant boys than they do to infant girls. In one study, adults labeled the same exact behaviors as angry and distressed in boys, yet happy and socially engaged in girls. In another study, parents consistently underestimated the physical abilities of their own baby daughters, though not those of their sons.
You can do your own study on the messages we send to boys vs girls. Just take a walk through your local toy store. Notice how all the really cool toys--construction sets, robots, chemistry labs, and things that explode—are marketed almost exclusively to boys, while girls are offered dolls, strollers, nail polish, and kitchen sets.
Think of how much fun we allow little boys to have—how much we let them get away with—when they climb, yell, run, fall, bleed, fight, and roll around in the dirt. Now, is that any way for a young lady to behave?
Sometimes we send the message that girls must choose between being feminine and enjoying science, between caring about their appearance and admitting that they like biology class. It’s as if microscopes and mascara or frog guts and a French manicure are mutually exclusive things.
Sometimes—oftentimes—we deny them role models. Maybe that’ll change when more women have walked in space or been given proper credit for their contributions to science.
Did you know that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, was a brilliant mathematician in her own right? That she outperformed Einstein in applied physics, and is often credited with inspiring his early theories? That Albert’s mother found Mileva “too intellectual” for her son?
Yeah, your daughter didn’t know it either. Go tell her. And while you’re at it, remind her that she’s capable of self-discipline and analytical thought. Cultivate her curiosity and let her get her clothes dirty. Buy her a chemistry set and let her blow something up. Because that’s how ladies behave.
She may not choose a career in science, and that’s okay. The world needs more women and men who excel at traditionally female qualities of nurturing, patience, and peacekeeping. But we need her to know she has a choice. She may well end up the next Rosalind Franklin, Dorothy Vaughan, or Barbara McClintock.
Not everyone may know about the groundbreaking contributions these women have made to science. But that’s now only part of the problem. As long as ideas like Parson’s are given merit, adults must step up to teach our girls—all our children, really— that DNA doesn’t hinder anyone from taking up the challenge of discovering what’s true about the world.
Scientific investigation is a noble enterprise, open to every age and gender. It’s neither a masculine nor feminine pursuit; it’s a human one. No accommodations necessary.