One of these days, I will have to have a talk with a colleague, who has an administrative role in a physical science field. His heart is in the right place and he is one of the men who really support women and their advancement in the physical sciences, as evidenced by him propelling his female colleagues and students. However, I think he might have inadvertently gotten lost in the thick forest of benevolent sexism.
For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.
One the one hand, I understand what his real motivation is. Being head of a department, his role is to bring in students, because high enrollments mean high importance to the college and the university. In that sense, one cannot begrudge him for wanting to cast a wider net by any means necessary.
On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her — nay, trick her! — into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.
I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist. *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.
Women geeks and men geeks do not necessarily look and act as the stereotypes. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and at the same time also look perfectly presentable and be perfectly socially adjusted. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and also have long hair, boobs, and/or lipstick.
Not all women are motivated by helping those around them. In my choice of career, helping people didn’t figure out one iota. I like what I like because it’s intellectually challenging and fun. If anyone had come to pitch math or physics as a means of helping people when I was young, I would have probably run away from them as fast as I could. (Women can be misanthropes, just like men.)
Not all men are motivated by the same things, either (shocker, I know). There are plenty of men who want to help others. It boggles my mind that we as a society seem okay with stereotyping men as robot-loving geeks. I bet there are many boys who went into premed majors and whom we could have perhaps swayed into the physical sciences with the “physical sciences — because we are all about helping people!” pitch, the same one that supposedly mesmerizes the ever elusive girls into majoring in STEM.
There is a variety of reasons why people choose to do what they do. We should try to understand the reasons and expand the appeal of our field as best we can when we to try to attract more students. But please let’s do that in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes.
Let’s not insist women don’t come unless you appeal to their inner nurturer. Some girls simply like computers and robots, period. Pitching soft as women and hard as men only further perpetuates the ideas that women are not real physical scientists. It also pushes away the men who may care about their fellow human and would be motivated by the human-centered aspect of the physical sciences. And it also makes many men resentful, because they perceive that the field is being softened and moving away from its essence because of those darn women.
The physical science fields are what they are. Let’s be honest as well as open-minded when we report about the opportunities the fields offer (good job prospects, anyone?). But let’s also be honest about the skills and interests that are required to succeed, and let us enhance the appeal without benevolently perpetuating the stereotype that women could not possibly be capable of swallowing the bitter science pill without the sugarcoat of nurture.