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My story from the ScienceOnline 2012 banquet.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This year at ScienceOnline, the conference banquet featured storytelling organized by The Monti, a North Carolina non-profit organization dedicated to building community by getting people to share their true stories with each other. Conference goers were asked to share stories on the theme of “connections”. The stories had to be true, and storytellers had to tell them without notes.

The seven stories told at the banquet provided a kaleidoscopic view of what “connections” might mean to a bunch of people involved in doing science, or teaching science, or communicating science, or trying to negotiate their own relationship with science in their personal and professional lives.

I feel honored that I got to tell my story as part of this event. My narrative was about connections between what things were like for me as a kid and how I’d like things to be different for my own kids, between online discussions and outcomes in the three-dimensional world, between my comfort zone and situations where I know I am out of my depth.

You can listen to the audio of me actually telling my story here. (It’s #3 in the list; I haven’t been able to figure out a way to grab just my story and embed it here, and you probably want to listen to the other stories, too, because they’re all really good.)

Here’s a photo of me telling the story (taken by official ScienceOnline 2012 photographer Maggie Pingolt.

Partway through the story, it will become relevant.

And, here’s a transcript-like text version of the story. I’ve taken out umm-like things.

So, like a lot of people in the room, I guess, I have always known that I loved science, but I grew up in a culture that told me that I shouldn’t, because I’m a girl.

And, between the TV, and the toy commercials, and my peers, and the teachers, the message was: “Look, science is not girls’ stuff. Science is not something girls are supposed to like. You are supposed to spend your time figuring out how to be like girls are, which is pretty, and pink, and neat, and well-behaved.” I did not want to be any of those things. I did not know how to be any of those things. I did not see how being any of those things was going to get my hands on the science-y stuff I wanted to do. So what was the point?

So, as you can imagine, school was not a lot of fun, because on the one hand, I had my peers making life crap because I could not perform femininity. And, I had teachers making my life crap, saying: “Look, no, I don’t care that you can do the math and do the science. It’s impossible that you can do the math and do the science because you’re a girl. So, stop that!”

And, one gets through this. And, I kind of figured by the time I was a grown-up, and had kids that I was raising of my own, we were going to be past all of this in our culture — that we would have fixed this particular blind spot we have. But the first time we cracked open the educational toy catalog, when our kids were old enough for those: hit in the face with the heavily gendered science kits.

And they come in two flavors: they come in the science kits, and the science kits for girls. And the science kits for girls of course come in a pink box, and they are science that concerns what girls are supposed to want to do, which is make lip gloss, or make bubble bath, or maybe grow pretty crystals. And the pictures on the box have cartoon girls with eye shadow and off-the-shoulder blouses, as if to say: “Look, dear, there’s nothing about doing this activity that is going to get in the way of your really important task of figuring out how to be conforming to our gendered expectations of you.”

The boys’ kits, meanwhile, had cool stuff — I mean, you got to take things apart. You got to blow things up. You got to examine the world on a really small scale. This is stuff I wanted to do — and got to do, luckily, when I was a kid, but only because my mother was as much of a rebel against this as I was.

What the girls are offered is the pink microscopes that don’t magnify as well as the blue microscopes do. Instead of getting kits where you get to blow stuff up, you get to make bath bombs, and as it turns out, bath bombs do not actually explode. Which is kind of a rip off.

So, of course, when I started blogging, this was one of the things I blogged about — because a good rant is what keeps a blogger going in the morning. And this was like five years ago. So I got my rant on. And of course, this November, those of you who watch the Twitters knew that Ed Yong tweeted about the WILD! Science* website selling extremely gendered science kits.

So it’s still going on! And people were like, “Yeah, we should blog about this some more!”

I’ll be honest: I was tired. I did not feel like blogging about this again. I said, I have been banging my head against this particular wall with this culture, and, you know, maybe I’d like to bang my head against a different wall that might move a little. But, I took a breath. I said, OK, everyone’s doing it, so I’ll try to explain again what it is about these kits that I find problematic — that they’re not really trying to interest kids in science so much as saying the only hook we’ve got with girls is their femininity. And, they’re not actually cultivating an interest in science so much as reminding girls: even in science, you are expected to do this femininity thing or you will get crap.

So, I blogged about it, and then a really exciting thing happened in December. In December, Edmund Scientific announced on their blog that they had noticed these blog posts, and letters they had gotten, emails they had gotten from customers, and they understood the criticism, and they recognized that they were sending out a message that they did not want to send out as they were selling science kits. And they said, we’re going to stop. They said, we are going to no longer sell boys’ science kits and girls’ science kits; they’re now all science kits for whatever kind of kid wants to do it.

And I was really, really excited. You know, all of us sort of being cranky eventually, I guess … every now and then we get this incremental piece of change.

I was so excited that afternoon, and I had to tell my kids, because, you know, you’ve got to share your excitement and your tweeps get tired of it so your kids have to listen to the overflow.

I should tell you something about my kids, something I sort of keep on the down-low on blogs ’cause of creepy internet stalker types. My kids are daughters.

The oldest one’s in seventh grade, the youngest one’s in fifth grade. So, they’re twelve and ten. The older one … I think maybe there was a six month stretch in kindergarten where she experimented with officially sanctioned femininity as recognized by our culture and then decided it just was not worth the trouble, and hasn’t really bothered with it since.

The ten-year-old is a pretty pink princess.

Which makes our relationship with each other complicated, because as I told you before, I don’t really do femininity. She actually tried to help me with my outfit for tonight, but in the end she said, “Please don’t tell them I was involved in this.” We’re different, she and I.

But, she was the one, when I told her this news about this company selling science kits that decided to drop the heavy gendering, she was the one who got really excited and gave me a hug and gave me a high five.

Because both of my kids — the tomboy and the pretty princess — both of them love science. The ten-year-old who loves to dress up, who loves to wear pantyhose, for God’s sake, who asked for a lint-roller for Christmas — she loves to do science. She is also a fierce goalie for her soccer team, and she can tell fart jokes with the best of them, and this is because, unlike what the marketers would have you believe, a pretty pink princess has facets.

So, as we’re celebrating this, I’m sort of keeping up with the discussion in the blogosphere. And there’s some discussion going on saying, “Well, OK, heavily gendered science kits: probably problematic. But, maybe we’re doing some pink-bashing here. Maybe we’ve got to make the world safe for pink microscopes, too.”

There was sort of this “click!” in my head when I remembered — oh wait, it’s not just that we live in a culture that says “Girls can’t do science,” and we’ve got to deal with that; or that girls need to be feminine, and we’ve got to deal with that. We live in a culture where we have this idea that scientists need to be a certain way.

So we’ve gone from where I was when I was in school, having teachers tell me, “You can’t do science ’cause you’re a girl,” to now maybe the teachers are saying , “Well, you’re probably not going to be into science because you’re a girly girl.” You can do science, but you’ve got to be one of those girls who thinks the whole femininity thing is not something you want to spend any kind of time with.

And that’s a problem, too.

And I thought back to my misspent scientific youth in a physical chemistry lab, where absolutely the smartest, the best scientist in that lab aside from my PI was a fourth year graduate student who graduated after her fourth year with a ton of publications in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. But people outside of our lab thought she had all kinds of help, or that her work must not be too significant, and the main reason they seemed to think that is ’cause she did her hair, and she wore make up, and she did her nails, and she was kind of a grown up pretty princess. If they had bothered to talk to her about her science, if they had bothered to look inside her notebooks — which, I grant, were kept in loopy script, sometimes in pink ink — they would have seen that she was fiercely intelligent and frighteningly organized in her attack on the research questions that she pursued. She was an astonishingly good scientist, and she was made to feel like an outsider in our scientific community simply because she did femininity.

And we’ve got to cut this out. We have to cut this out.

We not only have to, as a culture, get over the idea that boys have to be a certain way and girls have to be a certain way, and that the certain way girls have to be is not compatible with doing science. We also have to get over the idea that to be a good scientist you have to be a certain kind of person, and that’s not the kind of person who’s going to get his or her nails done.

Because ultimately, the world I want to be in, the world I want for my daughters — for the tomboy and the pretty princess — is one where they can be authentically who they are, and they can love science, and they can pursue science, and it doesn’t matter what else they like.

Thank you.
_____
*At the banquet, I erroneously said “Mad Science.” Ah, the dangers of telling a story without notes!

If you want to go back and relive the discussion of gendered science kits as it was happening last November and December, here are some links:

Science kits … for girls.
Some reasons gendered science kits may be counterproductive.
Gendered science kits aren’t so great for boys either.
How do we make room for pink microscopes? (More thoughts on gendered science kits.)

The WILD! Science selection of science kits for girls.
The Edmund Scientific blog post that filled my heart with joy.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. CogSciLibrarian 5:46 pm 02/5/2012

    I enjoyed your talk that night. Thanks for bringing up so many interesting points — pink ghettoes aren’t helpful, but also, it’s not helpful to force girls out of being girly girls if that’s what they want. We can be girly girls AND something else at the same time. :-) thanks again!

    Link to this
  2. 2. chemjobber 7:22 pm 02/6/2012

    That’s a pretty cool little story. I like it.

    Link to this

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