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Girls and Boys with Science Toys

I’ve just come back from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. I was wowed and stunned by the amazing projects and smart young men and women from all over the world doing science and engineering of all kinds. On the way to the airport, I check in online to find that science is once again being described as “boys with toys.”
SIGH…
Oh, and it’s even in my own field. In a recent NPR interview, an astrophysicist admits that “Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys.’ ” The interviewer takes the time to repeat it. Twice. With emphasis. The “toys” idea even becomes the focus of the piece’s title. As a woman in astronomy, I can’t help but be annoyed, and I wasn’t alone. Sometimes I think we’ve made it so far as women in science fields juuuuust to get that nice little reminder all too often that a large segment of our society is still okay thinking of science as a “boys’ club.” Me and my lady parts are just odd for being here. Gee, thanks.

Now, yes, I do understand one crucial part of what he’s saying in that quote. Even if you are a Very Serious Scientist doing Very Important Work, some part of you is a super-thrilled little kid who gets to play with some of the biggest and baddest toys that humanity has ever built. This doesn’t just hold true for astronomers, but scientists and other STEM professionals that use supercolliders, build airplanes, or manipulate DNA. That is a sentiment worth sharing and only helps to further humanize scientists in the public eye. Humanizing scientists, after all, seems to be a very important goal of this NPR piece. But the focus on boys is disturbing.

Girls are constantly bombarded with the messages that science is not for them, though many initiatives are at work to change that. It’s high time that we stop adding to the stereotype threat faced by women and girls in science and be a bit more mindful of inclusivity. This goes for scientists talking to the press AND to the press talking to and about scientists. How hard would it have been to add, “Ah yes, boys AND girls with their toys”?
Nicole at telescope controls

A much younger me at the controls of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia

I’ve worked with and helped to build some truly amazing astronomical instruments. I understand that feeling of, “Oh WOW look at this cool thing!” Many of the men and women I’ve worked with share that passion and that child-like joy, even as we do that Very Serious Science with our Very Important Instruments. I’m encouraged to see so many women now posting photos of themselves and their science using the hashtag #GirlsWithToys. Although originally about astronomy, I hope women in all STEM fields join in sharing their favorite science “toys.” Let’s remind all the girls out there that playing with science is for them, too.
UPDATE (5/18/15 9:40am CDT): The #GirlWithToys hashtag is still going strong! Woohoo! In the continuing conversations on this topic on multiple platforms, I’ve realized two additional things. First, maybe it was best from a journalistic standpoint that the editors of the NPR piece left the quote as is, and even drew attention to it. Second, some people expressed an issue with the “toys” part of the quote as well. As publicly funded scientists, we should be careful not to act so cavalier with our very expensive equipment. That’s important, although continuing the humanize the scientists and share the child-like excitement is wonderful.
Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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2 Comments

  1. May 17, 2015 at 7:15 pm —

    But, but, but, “kids with toys” doesn’t rhyme, so it can’t be true, we all know snappy short phrases are accurate if and only if they rhyme or have alliteration/assonance!

  2. May 23, 2015 at 4:24 pm —

    My daughter bucks this trend. As an eighth grader, she has already met the POTUS as the result of one of her science fair projects, is the captain of an award-winning robotics team, programs Raspberry Pi mini-computers and has 125,000 visits to her blog about her adventures (raspberrypikid.wordpress.com), has 800 followers on her science and technology Twitter feed (@kid_pi), and has a YouTube channel with videos about cool science experiments for kids. She had worked in 4 different science professors’ labs and had collected more than a dozen autographs from astronauts including Buzz Aldrin and the late Sally Ride. She attends an amazing STEM school (Western Center Academy). There is hope it there.

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