Women in Science.

15 Oct

Women in Science.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 13, 2013.

You may want to download the pdf of the presentation that goes along with this sermon. Slides are referenced in the sermon below by their numbers.


Who was Ada? from Finding Ada: Celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths


A fierce unrest seethed at Ada Lovelace’s core – an unrest that drove her to excel in a field in which she, being female, was not supposed to excel. She is often referred to as “the first computer programmer” and, in fact, the Ada programming language of the 1970s and 80s was intentionally named after Ada Lovelace. This week, on October 15, we will be celebrating Ada Lovelace Day [IMAGE 1], which is a day about sharing stories of inspiring women in the STEM fields (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM fields.

There are a lot of women, today and historically, whose stories inspire. Women like Ada Lovelace. Women like:

  • Unitarian Maria Mitchell [IMAGE 2], who was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, and who discovered a comet.
  • And Emily Warren Roebling, [IMAGE 3] who was in charge of the day to day construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • And Marie Curie, [IMAGE 4] who discovered two elements, and in 1903 was the first women to win a Nobel Prize, and then in 1911 was the first person ever to win a second Nobel.
  • And Rosalind Franklin, [IMAGE 5] in the mid-20th century, who made the first X-ray images of DNA.
  • And Dian Fossey, [IMAGE 6] a zoologist who extensively studied gorilla groups in Rwanda over a period of 18 years.
  • And Mae Carol Jemison, [IMAGE 7] a physician and NASA astronaut who became the first black woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992.
  • And Elizabeth Blackburn, [IMAGE 8] a biological researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the telomere, and was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

And so many more. The list goes on. [IMAGE 9] In fact, the list is large enough that one is left to wonder why we don’t hear more about these women, and then, with even more puzzlement, to wonder why there aren’t more women in the STEM fields today.

Because there still aren’t that many. If we took all the physics professors in the United States today and put them in one room, only 14 percent would be women. When we look at all the physics Ph. D’s that are awarded each year in the United States, only 1/5th (20%) go to women. And of those that go to women, only HALF of them are American women, the rest were raised in other countries.

The percentage of women in the Computer Science field [IMAGE 10] peaked in the 80s and has been declining ever since, hovering around 25%. Fewer than 20% of people studying engineering in college are women. The outlier is medicine, where 47% of the people in med-schools are women, but if you dig deeper into the data, you will find women concentrated in particular fields of medicine, with the more specialized, elite and more highly paid fields are still dominated by men.

Now, let me be quite clear that I have a horse in this race, four of them actually, and these horses come with a particular pedigree. My father is an electrical engineer. My mother was a registered nurse (which technically isn’t STEM but feels pretty darn close to me). They raised their kids to believe that they could be and do whatever they wanted to. My sister and I both attended one of the top public high schools in the country in Fairfax County, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. [IMAGE 11] When I attended there, the ratio of boys to girls was around 2 or 3 to 1. In my 9th grade biology/geometry block course, there were 3 girls and at least 17 boys.

My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, and I briefly enrolled in a Masters in Computer Science program before seminary. Being in seminary and in ministry has been an odd experience for me, because for Unitarian Universalists, there are more women ministers now than men. But I digress.

My family’s experience in the STEM fields goes even further: My sister is a pediatric epileptologist who has done extensive medical research, my brother has both undergrad and graduate degrees in computer science, my spouse was a math major who is now a computer programmer. The horses I personally have in this race are two daughters and two nieces. So this is a topic with which matters to me personally.

But it would matter to me even without these girls in my life. And it should matter to all of us. Because if we are only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available, then what are we missing out on??? What might we be capable of today if we were not unintentionally excluding half the population from participating in STEM fields? If the cure for cancer is in some little girls head, will we be able to find it?

Bill Gates [IMAGE 12], founder of Microsoft, tells a story about speaking in Saudi Arabia around 2007. He found himself in a segregated audience: 80% were men, and they were sitting on the left side of the auditorium; the remaining 20% were women, sitting on the right, all of whom were covered in black cloaks and veils. At some point, during the question and answer session, a man asked if it was realistic for Saudi Arabia to become one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010. “Well,” responded Gates, “if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”

Now, we can sit in superiority, thinking how much better off we are than Saudi Arabia, but when we look at the gender disparity in STEM fields, the numbers tell us we really aren’t! [IMAGE 13] In Computer Science, in Engineering, in Physics and beyond, we are hovering at only 24% of the professionals being women – just slightly better the same percentage as were in that auditorium in Saudi Arabia six years ago.

And the bad news does not end there. Last week, the NY Times ran an article by Eileen Pollack entitled “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” The article (which is very readable and I highly recommend) quotes a Yale study from last year, in which professors at six major research institutions were presented with two imaginary applicants, and the only thing different was their name: John, or Jennifer. [IMAGE 14] It turned out the the professors were “significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s.” The age of the hiring professor did not seem to matter. Nor, surprisingly, did the gender – women professors were just as likely to prefer the male applicant.

Those of us who were watching the interwebs this Spring are probably not be surprised. Just seven months ago, in March, the popular science blogger [IMAGE 15] “I f*ing love science” (who also maintains the less offensively named “Science is Awesome” site) was asking folks to follow her on twitter, when some folks finally made the connection that OMG, “I f*ing love science” was a woman! The internet exploded in shock, and many of the comments explicitly sexist. As the blogger herself, Elise Andrew, shares “It’s a sad day when a woman being funny and interested in science is considered newsworthy.”

Just as racism is far from being dead, so is sexism alive and kicking. And both can be found in some surprising places. But as unbalanced as things are now, all hope is not lost. We are starting to understand some of the reasons behind this disparity, and as we do, we learn ways to work to counteract it. Because if we are only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available, what are we missing out on? There are 5 particular issues – and ways to address them – that I want to talk about today.

First, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson in her article “The Trouble with Bright Girls, “part of the issue is how we talk to girls, versus how we talk to boys. “In elementary school, girls and boys perform equally well in math and science. But by the time they reach high school, when those subjects begin to seem more difficult to students of both sexes, the numbers diverge.” Why is this? Well, a study from the 1980s found that when bright, intelligent girls, [IMAGE 16a] where given something to learn that was difficult or complex, they were quick to give up – “and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” Boys, on the other hand, looked at the difficult material as something to conquer [IMAGE 16b], and they were more likely to try even harder, energized by the challenge. Why was this the case? Young girls, when learning something new, are given feedback about how “good” they are, and told how smart or how clever they are, or praised for being a good student. “This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.” Whereas boys, who often have a harder time sitting still for school in those early years, get feedback like “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” or “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder but girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart.”

We see how this plays out later, when the girls are in high school. Eileen Pollack writes that “Boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counselors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” So we need to put up a fight to encourage our girls to stick with it, to not drop the course.

[IMAGE 17] And when girls struggle, we sometimes blame it on their gender, whereas with boys we do not.  That just isn’t true! There is no biological difference between the ability of males and females to understand math and science – but there IS a difference in how they are treated. In fact, according to Pollack, girls who attend girls STEM classes or all-girls schools don’t struggle nearly as much as girls in gender-diverse classrooms.

So we can begin to change how we talk to girls about their abilities, and help them to see that there is value to be had at working hard on something and getting a reward from the effort.

A second issue isthe gender disparity found in toys. If you have been down the toy aisle recently, you know what I am talking about. There is a definite difference in toys that are marketed to GIRLS and toys that are marketed to BOYS. And rarely is there anything that is marketed to kids in general. In the girls aisle, there are the usual suspects, like Bratz dolls and Monster High dolls.  Barbie, by comparison, is relatively enlightened – in 2010 that Mattel released Computer Engineer Barbie [IMAGE 18] and she is pretty darn hard to find these days.

The gendrifiction of toys has even expanded to things like LEGOs. Take a look at how the marketing of LEGOs has changed in the last 30 years.  Here is an ad [IMAGE 19] for Legos from 1981. Heck, this almost could have been me. And here is what an ad for LEGOs for girls looks like today [IMAGE 20]. Quite a difference!! And the differences extend beyond marketing. Last summer, out of 112 lego figures, 91 were male and 21 were female. [IMAGE 21] One online blogger points out that “With the honourable exception of the Surgeon and the Zookeeper, the female characters are a collection of stereotypes that would make Jeremy Clarkson blush. They include ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Hula Girl’, ‘Kimono Girl’ and ‘Viking Woman’” Thankfully, the newest series, which just came out in the last month or so, includes a minifigure of a female lab technician. [IMAGE 22] But there is still a long way to go to catch up, and really, this made the news!!

Of course, simply putting faces with makeup on them in more diverse vocations is not going to be enough, because a third issue we have to face and address is that, whether through nature or nurture, boys and girls often care about different things. Girls tend to be more relational, and boys tend to really be into things that blow up. This awareness is the brilliance behind a new toy that was very well funded on kick-starter: Goldieblox. [IMAGE 23] These are engineering toys, designed “to inspire the next generation of female engineers.” Sure, pastel colors are a part of the package, but so is a story line. The girls create engineering feats as a part of a narrative – they get sucked into the story and creating, and then are inspired to new acts of creation as well.

Like anyone, girls learn better with examples that they relate to, that they care about. This is also the logic behind Danica McKellar’s series of math books. Most people are familiar with McKellar as “Winnie Cooper” on the TV Show “The Wonder Years” but she also is a graduate from UCLA with a degree in Math, AND is one of the authors of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem in mathematical physics. Her books have titles like “Math Doesn’t Suck,” [IMAGE 24] “Kiss my Math” and “Girls get Curves” (about geometry). Her approach is partly to use problems that involve things like best friends, beads and Barbies rather than involving speeding trains and baseballs.

McKellar also addresses a fourth issue that prevents girls from continuing in STEM fields: image. The Big Bang Theory [IMAGE 25] is one of the most popular shows on TV right now. Some folks think this is a good thing – it brings geekdom more into the realm of normal and acceptable. Besides, they point out, doesn’t Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy) actually have a Ph.D. in neuroscience? But as Eileen Pollack asked in the NY Times article last week, “what remotely normal young person would want to enter a field populated by misfits like Sheldon, Howard and Raj? And what remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?” Especially when Amy isn’t even in half the promotional material?

This was one of the reasons why Iron Man 3 has become one of my favorite movies. Not to give away any spoilers, but the writers intentionally wrote in some strong women characters who turn long-entrenched stereotypes on their heads. One of them is Maya Hansen[IMAGE 26], a a gifted Biologist who specializes in nano-technology and is an old friend of Tony Stark. She is brilliant, single, does not need a man to complete her, and the entire movie would not exist without her story. And, she has a lego figure! [IMAGE 27]

The last reason, and piece of the solution that I want to address this morning is that girls  (and young women) need to see that a career in the STEM fields is not only possible, but can be quite fulfilling. That though there may be challenges, they are often more than worth it. This means helping girls & young women who show an interest in math, science and technology to find relatable mentors they can talk to about their struggles. This one issue, more than anything else, makes me wish I had stayed in the computer field – so that I could be a mentor to girls & young women who show an interest and enthusiasm for these important areas of study. If you know of a girl or a young woman with STEM interests, help connect her to a woman who might be able to mentor her. Not to put you all on the spot, but would the women who are in science, technology, engineering or mathematical fields please stand for a moment?  Note: A large number of women, from their 20s to their 90s, stood and were applauded!

Astrophysicist Meg Urry [IMAGE 28] earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, completed a postdoctorate at M.I.T.’s center for space research and served on the faculty of the Hubble space telescope before being hired in 2001 as a full professor by Yale. She points out that “If society needs a certain number of scientists and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we understand our personal experience to be a source of truth. And we believe our own individual searches for truth and meaning become deeper, more responsible, and more enlightened when diverse people with varied life experiences come together to share with one another. How much truth and understanding are we losing by only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available? With problems the size of many that our world faces right now, we cannot begin to solve them without our best and brightest, which means not leaving out half the population. In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, let us imagine, and work for, a future where the fields of science, technology, engineering and math welcome all to the table. [IMAGE 29]

One Response to “Women in Science.”


  1. After Work - October 16, 2013

    […] “Women in Science” A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley Delivered at First Unitarian Church,… “Lego – an everyday story of mini […]

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