Guest Bloggers

Reader Rants: Girl Friendly Science? – Catherine H.

Did you know that a girl studying science in college is not necessarily a biology major? And she might not want to be a teacher? I’m still trying to understand. Catherine says girls can study physics… even though it involves math. Looks like everyone around her is just as skeptical as I am – from her dentist to everyone who needs photocopies.

Actually, I am not a biology major

Catherine H.

The summer after my freshman year I had my wisdom teeth removed. As I was being put under general anesthetic, the dental surgeon asked me where I was going to university and what I was studying. When I replied, “Science”, he stated, “So, biology?”. I paused, confused about why he would say biology. Had I said that I was studying biology, or that he thought I was someone else? I intended to correct him and tell him that I had recently declared my major in physics, but I don’t think I got that far because the next thing I remember is drooling on the window of my parent’s station wagon.

Last month, I defended my senior thesis. Next September I will be starting a master’s degree with a concentration in quantum cryptography. Although I am in a field that is dominated by men, I have not experienced any sexism or sexual harassment because of it. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to forget that I’m in the minority, but every once in a while there are little reminders. For example, I have known that I want to pursue a higher degree in science for a
while. However, when I asked my college advisor about what courses I need to take to get in to grad school, he instead went on a tangent about how you could easily get a job teaching high school with a physics degree, or how it looked good on medical school applications.

There are more amusing situations, such as the countless freshman who have walked into my office and asked me to tell them where their lecture was, or if I could help them with the photocopier. It happens almost exclusively in my office. My hypothesis is that the freshmen think that I am a receptionist, since I am young, female, and my office is on the first floor. The “not the physics office” sign on my door has not changed anything, though.

This rant is not against a person or institution, but against assumptions. And even the assumptions made about me about completely reasonable. If a woman tells you she is studying science at university, it is statistically probable that she’s studying biology. If she’s majoring in physics, it’s more likely she’s majoring in it because she wants to go to medical school or become a teacher than because she wants to be a physicist. If you are a young woman with an
office on the first floor of the physics building, you are way more likely to be a receptionist or administrative staff than a student or faculty member.

I already feel slightly insecure as about who I am and what my interests are. It’s human nature to make assumptions, but every time you do, it reminds me that I don’t fit who you expect me to be. It’s only going to get worse the further I go.

Catherine Holloway is a winner of a James Randi Educational Foundation scholarship and is working towards her Masters of Science in Quantum Information from the University of Waterloo.

The Skepchick Reader Rants, posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want!  To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org with the subject: My Rant.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I teach physics at a small liberal arts college, and a larger-than-average fraction of our physics majors are women, which is definitely a positive phenomenon. I’m pleased to see you are going into the theoretical side of things, which is (in my experience at least) still more male-dominated even than other branches of physics. I’m not sure why this should be, and as a theorist myself, I would love to see more women students interested in that side.

    Perhaps it is a process of attrition by societal pressures? First: girls and women are told (implicitly or explicitly) that men are better at math than they are. Second: they are told (again, mostly implicitly) that physics research is a field for men. Third: there aren’t enough mentors as it is, and the fewer people around, the larger impact a few assholes make.

    Anyway, random thoughts from someone who is cheering you on!

  2. I was the senior project manager for process engineering at my last job, where I was in charge of a $40 million processing plant design and installation. My office was one of the closest to the door of the building, and I was the only female when the receptionist was out, so every salesman, vendor, supplier, and delivery person who walked into the place came into my office.

  3. When I was a physics major I was assigned a physicist as an advisor….when I got a 3.98 GPA in the first semester (got dinged by a 1 credit lab), the advisor told me I should try for medical school. I hadn’t the slightest interest in being a doctor. I immediately lost interest in that advisor.

    And I’m a guy, so it’s not always a stereotype.

  4. Great rant! And for what it’s worth I had no idea there was some kind of assumption that women in science were all about the biology. My daughter likes math and is really enjoying her intro astronomy class; and I’m proud to say she want’s to be a third grade teacher. There are other kinds of assumptions that can be just as frustrating in that many men and women who want to go into primary and secondary education are often regarded as near morons in academia. I’d bet that a majority of people who go into the hard sciences make that decision at least in part because of the influence of a teacher in junior high or high school.

  5. Good rant – thanks for being fair about the statistical rationale behind the (nevertheless maddening) assumption.

    Similarly, I’m a female attorney who is constantly assumed to be a secretary or paralegal. Awesome.

    Go Science Chicks!

  6. Flipside of this, sorta:

    I’m the only white male in our library. Save one, I am also the youngest person who works here, and one of the few on the reference side who either does not have, and is not (currently) pursuing a MLS. One of the reasons I love this job is because of how little responsibility I have for pretty much anything (seriously; I have like one duty each week, which is done by Wednesday. Almost everything else is playing on the computer).

    And people still think I’m in charge. I have almost no authority to do anything… and I want even less… and I still have people trying to talk to me instead of the manager.

    That said, an excellent rant.

  7. When I was doing my chemistry degree (not THAT long ago), the division was very obvious: females dominated biology, psychology etc., whereas physics, maths, computers had a clear excess of males. Interestingly, chemistry was always about even, and as far as I can see (at least at the university I am at now) it’s still about 50:50.

    I think the situation is getting better, overall – certainly just a decade or so ago you’d never see any women in the hard sciences at all. Unfortunately I think that a large amount of people still think that women = “math is hard, let’s go shopping.”** Hopefully strong female scientist role models will be instrumental in changing those attitudes.

    **Simpsons quote

  8. Not to destroy a great and deserved rant, but I do have to stand up and defend all the biology majors out there, male and female, in regards of Elyse’s short introduction to this post.

    Catherine says girls can study physics… even though it involves math.

    So physics involves math, but what about biology? Biology is not all fluffy, cute animals, but actually a lot of chemistry (molecular and cell biology), physics (crystallography), and… *gasp*… shitloads of statistics (all)! The more cute and furry biology gets, the more abstract the “stats” can get, too (mixed models, spatial statistics, etc.). I guess those misogynistic (or at least gender-biased) teacher don’t realise this otherwise biology would quickly turn into an all male field of research again. “No, you just become a nurse: biology deals with scary numbers!”

    And yes, this comment is somewhat of a tangent, but I always get the impression that people think along the lines of “physics == math; biology != math”.

  9. Yeah..I have to agree with some other people here. Biology is not a math-free field. See..that’s why I’m a biology major. I thought, “Oh! I love science but I hate math…what can I do? Biology!” But it’s a total lie! Hehe. Biology is actually four semesters of chemistry, two semesters of physics and a variable number of semesters of straight up math (stat and calculus and whatnot). And don’t forget every horrifying math and physical science based biology course…ecology, genetics, cell biology, systematics, uhh..basically every other biology course. Terrible for me, since my lady parts (and/or math disability) render me unable to do the most simple math (I’ve only taken calculus twice!?).

    But yeah. I liked this rant otherwise! Hehe.

  10. Just to be clear, I do not think that biology does not involve math… on the contrary, I spent a summer in bioinformatics, applying techniques I learned in advanced math classes to the analysis of sequenced genomes.

  11. @CatherineH: Nice rant. The question I am left with is why your answer was “science” rather than “physics?” I am curious…I do understand the frustration. I am a structural engineer but I look more like someone’s stay-at-home mom. Of course, I have been that too, so the look is fitting.

  12. You know it’s funny, I never heard about that whole thing where girls aren’t supposed to be good at math until I was too late for it to matter. I already knew I was good at maths. When in school I never heard anything about there being a difference and I certainly didn’t notice any difference in boys and girls mathematical ability. I do remember being told Physics was ‘a boy’s subject’ by my Grandmother when I was in high school, but I didn’t pay any attention to her. She was a wonderful person but believed in all kinds of crazy things.

    I didn’t realise there was a girls take bio thing either. It seemed pretty 50:50 at my university. But when I was young I tended to focus a lot more on the boys in my classes so that may be the availibility heuristic there.

  13. I work with a lot of female scientist and engineers. I find that aside from being more pleasant to look at, they seem to exhibit the same range of competence as do the men I work with. As with the men, their competence ranges all the way from that of the average “bottom feeder” (my level) all the way up to the hyper competent superstars.


  14. @Mark Hall:
    Mark, you totally hit on something that has been bugging me since my library days. I don’t have the statistics, but a very large majority (I believe it’s in the 85-95% range) of people who hold MLS degrees are women, and yet the majority of library directors are men. Even in a profession dominated by women, men are still preferred for the top positions of authority. It drives me nuts.

  15. @Elyse: I thought it was funny.

    @CatherineH: Nice rant. When I was in high school,I wanted to be an astronomer. Several teachers and counselors tried to convince me to become a teacher or go into Biology instead. It never occurred to me that it could be because I was a woman. I assumed the teacher thing was because people thought it would be easier to get a job.

    I had no clue at the time as to why they were pushing biology on me. I’m interested now, but at the time, I had no interest in it at all, and I reached a point where I was ready to scream at the next person who told me I should be a teacher.

  16. @Elyse: I know it was tongue-in-cheek, but even then, biology, in a way, receives the “not a real science” treatment, perpetuating the myth. Hence my small rant.

    Back to topic: can any female here explain this guy some math? I just barely managed to pass my stats courses, including all the stuff I had to do for my short stint in ecology before I went back to the really cool science of molecular and cell biology. I think my math gene on the Y-chromosome is busted or something!

  17. Besides the idea of people playing the probabilities and people falling for common stereotypes (partially valid ones or not), another ingredient I see is people’s tendency to assume an answer in the process of asking a question.

    Presumptive question: “Is this the physics office?”
    Less presumptive: “Hi, I’m looking for the physics office, can you help me?”

    When I was teaching, I realized early on that keeping the questions assumption-free was not only more encouraging to students, but also a lot more respectful to them. I’d respond to a student telling me his or her major by saying something like “Cool, what are your plans?” or “What do you like about that program?”

    I think a question that assumes an answer is all too often more of a statement, saying “this is what I think”, like a challenge for the other person to refute.

  18. I love this rant, even as a biology major who’s going back for more biology.

    Actually, the question I always got about my major was, “Oh, are you pre-med?” Fuck no. It was after I graduated that I got told I should be a teacher all the time. That always makes me wonder what the hell drugs the person who says that is on, since I my personality is so very clearly not the teacher-y type.

  19. Heh. I was a geology major who was going into Paleontology. And my real name is neutral-gender, but usually male.

    My whole life is about assumptions. When people learned I was a Geology major, they asked if I was into “Mother Earth.” When I showed up in biology classes, people asked if I was pre-med or pre-vet (my favorite, because a) of course I was taking Comparative Anatomy to help all the puppies and kitties in the world and b) my brother went to vet school, and it’s about a billion times harder to get into vet school than med school but the asker never realized that) . Telling people I was in these fields because I had an interest in evolutionary biology and paleontology and stratigraphy meant I got some plenty weird looks.

    Now, when I say I develop web sites, they think I’m a graphic designer (not dissing graphic designers, because I rely on them heavily. Since I can barely design myself out of a paper bag). When I tell them I specialize in cross-browser CSS/HTML development, user-testing studies and accessibility development – because I found programming boring – I usually get a “oh, you use Dreamweaver, like my [insert young-adult familial relation here].” Yeah.

    Best yet, is when I have a relationship by someone solely by e-mail, and then I finally have a phone or personal contact. About 1/2 the time, I get “Wow, you’re a woman/girl/chick? But your work is so good!” Uh huh.

    Worst it ever got was a misogynistic math professor declaring broadly that he remembers the good old days when women weren’t even in math or science and if they were in school, all wore long skirts. (I kid you not – I can’t make shit like that up.)

    I ended up dropping his class after the first exam – I had asked a legitimate question about something during the exam (not the only person who asked the question, actually), and he loudly declared I must not be very bright and couldn’t handle math. Not that I found Calc I and II a breeze, but 100-level Statistics? I’d had it.

    When I went to his office to tell him I was dropping and I was doing so because I thought he was offensively misogynistic, he replied that of course I was dropping the class because it was too hard. Before I left, we were going to go over every wrong answer on my exam.

    Except, you know, I’d aced it. Including the extra credit. Highest score in the class. And he’d assumed that my name was attached to a guy because he didn’t give any of the female students the time of day. It was even more fun to tell him on my way out the door that I was at the top of the Geology Department – if he ever needed to contact me, just check in over there, anyone would be happy to direct him to one of the upper level labs I TA’d. I might have given him a TIA, I’m just not sure.

  20. My bias:
    I can’t walk into a school in business casual without someone thinking I’m a teacher. Students and parents have asked me questions a number of times during parent/teacher conferences.

    I’m not even wearing a tweed sport-jacket!!!

  21. @Dax:

    I know it was tongue-in-cheek, but even then, biology, in a way, receives the “not a real science” treatment, perpetuating the myth.

    I think that was part of the point of the whole snark thing, though….

  22. @MarianLibrarian:

    Not my experience in HPL; I’m rather new around here (just shy of three years), but we’ve always had a female director, and most of the library managers are female. However, I freely admit my limited experience in the field.

    @Chasmosaur: My aunt and uncle are both MDs. I occasionally tease them about being “specialist vets”. First time I did that, though, Jim pointed out the large number of his classmates who had dropped out of vet school because it was too hard.

  23. @Mark Hall:

    Heh. My Dad is a nephrologist (okay, was, he retired about two years ago from practice, but still works at a clinic for free). My brother – who is actually not just a vet anymore, but a veterinary pathologist – told my father how he envied him.

    Because not only did my father only practice medicine on one species, he focused on one particular subsystem of one species. Gave my Dad food for thought.

  24. @LtStorm:

    Another heh. I always thought Geology needed to be between Physics and Math. We have to used applied Biology, Chemistry and Physics!

    But per usual, us “earth scientists” get left out of the scientific field game. Unless, of course, the History Channel or Discovery Channel are doing a special on the current geological catastrophe du jour.

    Then they either have to find a woman to look balanced, a ruggedly handsome and photogenic outdoorsy looking guy, or a guy with a beard to his waist ;)

  25. @Amanda:

    Yeah I got that all the time too.
    Then they asked about vet school or teaching and I said no to those too.

    And then they always got real quiet like they were either thinking real hard about what else a biology major could possibly do…or maybe they were just trying to prevent their mind from imploding.

  26. I work in the military sector, and there’s similar issues around male-dominated industry & assumptions. I’m a senior analyst in a managerial position, and very often the only female in the room when it comes to meetings & presentations. I I think, if I weren’t such a dominant personality, it would be very easy for me to get turned into some gopher by the male higher-ups. :/

  27. @Mark Hall:

    Most managers of libraries are women, but as directors for public library districts, men almost always get the job. I wish I could find where that statistic came from, but I haven’t worked in a library for more than a year and don’t remember where to look for it. My library district actually hired a man without an MLS (that happens a little too often).

  28. That says more about the poor quality of undergraduate advising than anything. My adviser told me I’d never get into a PhD program so I should never bother applying. Year later, here I am.

    I also resent the implication the biology is science for people who can’t do math. True in some areas of biology math isn’t as common or necessary, but in most areas of biology math is an integral and necessary tool. Being a biologist who can’t do math is like being a violinist who doesn’t know how to tune her own instrument. You might get by for a while, but eventually no one will take you seriously.

  29. Catherine, Nicely done. I’m really glad that you said “science” instead of “physics”. Physics and chemistry (and math) are the only basal sciences. All of the “-ologies” are just organizations of chemistry and physics that define a specialized area of study.

    PLUS, physics is the #2 best major for financial rewards!

    @jonathanberman: math is 100% critical for biology, all facets. Calculus, linear regression and statistics are critical for any area, at least to be really solid. It is impossible to publish work without rigorous statistical treatment.

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