Improving Science by Raising A Better Generation of Women

I hope to God that you clicked on this page because you’re outraged at the f*cked up title above.  It was a trick you see, so I can haz lulz about old guyz finding time to read what might finally be some sensible constructive commentary on the whole women-in-STEM issue.  But as long as I’ve got you here, let me tell you how deeply troubled and frankly increasingly suspicious I am of how said discourse produces a perennial effluent of frothy lamentation describing how women FAIL.  We fail to like math when we’re teenagers.  We fail to major in Science as undergraduates.  We fail to finish our Ph.Ds.  Even if we get a degree in science, we fail to “use” it the way we should.  We fail to get faculty jobs, and even if we get a faculty job we fail to get cited the way we would if we were Doing It Rite.  Just between you and me, I had to stop reading all that STEM shit after I found myself getting up in the morning worried that I would fail to hit the toilet when I peed.  My iPhone can testify that I know a f*ckload of women, and you know what?  I can testify that NONE of them are failures.  What we are doing is The Best We Can.  And bygawd if we don’t do it to a passive-aggressive dirge of a soundtrack helpfully reminding us that our best ain’t even close to what it should have been.

Personally, I’ve been horrified to see Barbie become a pawn within the Great Game of herding-women-into-STEM.  But can I tell you a secret?  Here goes.  I don’t care what Barbie is wearing nowadays.  I tried.  I put it on my iCal.  I sat down and said, “Today is the day that I fully appreciate how the way we dress our dolls is a true measure of Revolution.”  I concentrated for quite a while, but it didn’t take.  Perhaps I lost interest when I was six years old and realized that the diameter of Barbie’s waist was smaller than the diameter of her neck.  “What about her internal organs?” I had wondered aloud, unable to shake my vision of a terminal bottleneck in both of her kidneys1.  Notwithstanding that Barbie has taken her biohazard training more seriously than most of the graduate students I have had over the years, I submit to you that Clothes Do Not Make The Woman.  I don’t have a little girl, personally, but I vaguely remember being one, and I can’t imagine myself busting Lab Coat Barbie out of my stocking on Christmas morning and thinking, “I want to grow up and be a scientist so I can wear THAT!  Talk about camouflaging one’s waistline … Damn, girl!”  Others seem to care more.  In fact, there seems to be real concern out there as to whether Barbie has been adequately pressured towards a career in Science.  Why Science though?  I have no doubt that Lawyer Barbie, Mom Barbie and Politician Barbie consistently put in eighty-hour work-weeks and put off their mammograms year after year, just like me.  As do Waitress Barbie, Real Estate Agent Barbie and Pole Dancer Barbie, I’d venture.  I hereby declare that I bear no Barbie ill-will a priori and would hand any one of them a wad of toilet paper under the stall in a New York Minute.  But I really don’t care what they are wearing while I do it, and I hope to God that they feel the same way about me.  The vast majority of my experiences with other women lead me to assume pretty confidently that they do not, indeed.

I read somewhere (or I made it up) that ninety percent of career mothers feel like stay-at-home mothers judge them to be lesser women for “working”.  I flipped the page and read that ninety percent of stay-at-home mothers feel like career mothers judge them to be lesser women for not “working”.  Tracking the older the citations on JSTOR I found that ninety percent of ALL mothers don’t care if another woman is “working” or “not working” nearly as much as they care about whether she gave you a spontaneous hug after you told her that you’ve just had to put sweet old Bowser to sleep.  Because my scientific mind immediately sensed a disconnect, I put this data into a spreadsheet and ran the numbers.  My calculations suggest that we might not be the ones judging us after all.  “But why aren’t there more successful career women, particularly in Science?” we still ask ourselves, and Lordallmighty it’s an important f*cking question that I’ve dwelt upon during countless small hours of the night.  But my answer is usually the same.  “Because this shit SUCKS! I think to myself, usually when I’m under the mass spectrometer feeling blood run down to my knees and I can’t find which valve is leaking and I’ve been too obsessed to walk away and change my maxi pad for six straight hours2.  And goddamit, I might be right.  Science sucking may indeed be the answer as to why women don’t gravitate towards Science, but it still doesn’t explain very much because lots of women routinely do many other things that also suck something awful.  So what the hell is going on?

There’s no shortage of people who believe they can’t do Science because Science is Hard.  But what if the real secret got out?  What if the dirty secret got out that Science is Easy?  What if it got out that Science is a helluva lot easier than many of the things that women are already doing with their lives?  OK I admit it, my job is really hard sometimes and I vaguely remember having been harassed once or twice but I’d be willing to bet that it’s still a f*ck of a lot easier day-in day-out than pole dancing.  There are very few meetings where, if I get a call from my son’s school, I can’t get up and leave with a polite, “I know you losers want me to stay and write a comprehensive report evaluating Why The Library Still Smells, but it appears that my son just smeared two different colors of fingerpaint together and I really need to go see how it all turned out.”  Oh yeah, and I also get comprehensive health care.  These are the two foremost reasons that I’d feel justified in blatantly encouraging a woman to be a Tenured Science Professor over a Starbucks barista, which is a profession that I understand to be much less flexible.  My point is that somewhere along the way we started talking about Barbie Dolls and Where’s The Underwear Aisle?3 and forgot that real Revolution entails every woman being able to try for what she wants and getting rewarded with what she deserves.  Let’s see … I just can’t remember where I read that … Oh yeah, it was in the dictionary under “JUSTICE”.  In fact, I looked at a few different dictionaries, in a few different languages, and no where did I see “justice” defined as “women becoming whatever it is men have recently decided they should now get their asses in gear and be.”

Then there’s the small matter that Science yields moments of profound wonder and soul-shuddering joy, and that I, selfishly, would love having more people who Get The Whole Woman-Thing at my workplace, so OK, what the hell, let’s do something about this.  I am ready to unveil my new “Increasing the Participation of Women in STEM” program.  Are you ready?  We are all gonna write emails to our colleagues and say, “Cheerio Old Chap, Why I’ve got an opportunity afoot!  I’d like to hire a part-time post-doc for twenty hours a week and no more!  Could be perfect for some new mom who doesn’t want to work full time, but is more skilled than the guys she graduated with.  Why, this will probably give me the equivalent of more than forty hours a week from some dimmer male bulb!  Know anyone who might be interested?”  The next steps involve relentlessly applying doughnuts to the desks of pea-brained administrators until they work out the hiring details, clinging to the principle that where there’s a will there’s always a way.  Oh what else?  I know I’m forgetting something.  Oh yeah: we won’t sexually harass her until she leaves Science.  Instead, we’ll let her decide what she wants for her future, and then help her get that.  I’ve seen this work more than once.  We’ll open the door and see who walks through, and let go of our obsession with her gait.  Because, at the end of the day, Barbie has her life and I have mine, and that has to be OK.  I offered her a part-time position in my lab once, secretly psyched that it’d also save me on one labcoat, but for various reasons it didn’t work out.  I’m pretty sure she’s somehow cobbled together a meaningful life for herself outside of this vast Disneyland that we call “Science”.  And just because she’s a girl and I’m a girl doesn’t mean we are going to necessarily like each other.  Then again, if that Ken ever lays hands on her she can crash at my place while she’s got the Po-Po all up in his f*cking face.  Us women are like that.

1The irony here is that about nine years later I would embark on a teenage Odyssey of trying to make my waistline smaller than the diameter of my neck, so don’t kid yourself, that f*cking Mattel always gets its pound of flesh in the end.
2Did you hear that?  It was the sound of people unsubscribing.
3This is an oblique reference to the whole Womanspace Dee-Baw-Culle.  If you don’t know what that is, and you haven’t had enough HopeJahrenHilarity for one day, you can read my thinly-anonymous take on it here.

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