Why I Write...or Girls in Science

Girls still staying away from the hard sciences

In an article entitled "Missing From Science Class", the New York Times reported this week, that despite modest gains, women are underrepresented in the fields of science and technology – particularly the more physical sciences, such as physics and computer science. In an earlier article, Eileen Pollack noted that only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in the United States are awarded to women, and only 14 percent of physics professors in the United States are women.

There are many reasons for this. But one of them is that it is believed that girls have internalized the belief that they are incapable of mastering these fields as well as men. The lack of women in science is problematic, not just because it means that some females are missing out on a pursuit that they could truly love, but also because we need more scientists, and perhaps we need what women could potentially bring to science.

What does this have to do with writing you ask?

Despite my obvious predilection for writing, a question that I often ask myself is why? Why do I write? Anyone who has read some of my previous posts knows that I could engage in far more lucrative activities, such as raiding the local school bottle drive bin, and potentially experience equivalent success trying to become an Olympic figure skater.

Orwell, in a 1946 essay, claimed that there are four basic motives for writing: sheer egoism (fairly self-explanatory), aesthetic enthusiasm (you love beautiful language and a perfect plot), historical impulse (you want to record history for posterity’s sake), and political impulse (you have a message to share). Pardon my loose bracketed translations – I THINK that is what Orwell meant. I will deal with the ego issue in a separate post sometime in the future, but all I can say is these days, trust me, few writers write for ego fulfillment.

I definitely write because I love complex and perfectly interwoven plots (aesthetic appreciation). American writer, Edmund White likened writing to building a sandcastle or a Lego tower. And that is how I feel when constructing a novel, trying to find just the right piece to fit in each part. When I wrote A Pair of Docks I imagined I was building this:

Lego Tower.jpg

Of course it is entirely possible that I was producing this:

Lego Mess.jpg

But I suspect I may also be possessed of political impulse. My novel, A Pair of Docks is about a girl, Abbey, who is a genius, and has a particular talent for, and interest in, physics and chemistry.

When I was a girl, I, too, had somewhat of an ability in physics and chemistry. Enough to be at the top of my class in both subjects in my, albeit small, high school and win a reasonably sized four-year science scholarship. I thought physics and chemistry were cool, and I planned to become a physicist.

In case you had not already guessed, I did not become a physicist. There were many reasons my science career went off the rails. For starters, university science is hard, and I had no experience with not getting almost-perfect grades. I was alone in a swathe of young men (which was less fun than you might think), and the TA's and professors were not interested in spending time to help us understand the material. The four-year science scholarship would only be renewed if I maintained straight A's. I didn’t. I lasted four months before finding a safer more welcoming haven in the environmental sciences. I’m not blaming anyone for my failure to succeed in the hard sciences. Perhaps it was not in my cards. But I have long since wished I had possessed the tools to take a better run at being a physicist or a chemist.

Reasons girls (and boys) do not become scientists

Eileen Pollack contends that the lack of women in science stems from two factors:

1)   A lack of self-esteem and confidence in their ability of succeed in science due to the subtle, and not so subtle treatment of women by their male peers, parents and society at large. This starts in childhood when boys are encouraged to play with Lego sets and girls are taught to dress up dolls. But continues often in high school physics, where girls will find themselves a minority in a class of boys who will often tease girls that physics is for boys. And yet in my day, girls had clearly internalized this message, too. It started in Physics 11 when most of the girls claimed they did not understand, and it was too hard – in a very dramatic fashion, as if it was cool to break down in class. I was mystified by their behaviour. I was the only girl in Physics 12. I got some teasing smiles from a few classmates but I proceeded to get the highest marks on all the tests and they accepted me. But my science self-esteem was evidently not as solid as I would have liked as it did not take much in the way of failure in university calculus for me to believe I did not have the math chops for physics. Pollack was surprised to find that in interviewing young female physics students in 2010, that in some ways, these issues seem more prevalent than they did when she went to school in the 70s.

It is possible, of course that boys are simply more interested in physics than girls, but it is also possible that, as Pollack argues “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”. Pollack notes that her physics professor at Yale received D’s in some of his early university physics courses. D’s? I bolted from physics at the first sign of B’s.

2)   Women discouraged from studying the hard sciences by their parents and peers because these sciences “are for nerds and losers”. Pollack presents sitcom The Big Bang Theory, whereby scientists are characterized unfavourably next to a stylish, cute, wannabe actress character, as evidence for this hypothesis. I am not sure if The Big Bang Theory is total evidence of our casting of scientists as nerds and losers, but I do think we are failing somehow to convey the coolness and elegance of math and science to both girls and boys. When I was in high school, I found it thrilling to do algebra, draw momentum diagrams, and balance chemical equations. I try to sell the same excitement to my own children, but so far, I’m not sure if they’re buying. Many of our novels for children and teens are becoming more profoundly not about education and science. They are about kids being warriors or popular or vampires. I know kids like to read these books and I am not opposed to them. I have read them too. But I wanted to offer the counterpoint, a book that made being a scientist exciting, where mysteries could be solved using the scientific method, and sometimes not (because let's face it, sometimes you need a good battle scene), and where a girl could be obsessed with the periodic table. I wanted to write about a likable brilliant girl, who loves science, and despite her beliefs that she is a geek, is really not.

I didn’t set out to write a story with a political message. I just wanted to create a grand adventure and build with Lego blocks. I’m not suggesting that girls must become physicists or chemists, I just want both girls and boys (and adults) to be offered the opportunity to get excited about science, and feel that they are fully capable of pursuing science careers if they so desire.

Photo Credit Lego Scene: Dunechaser  via http://compfight.com

Photo Credit Pile of Lego: LostCarPark   via http://compfight.com

Photo Credit Beaker: Express Monorail  via http://compfight.com