Where is Physics Barbie?

This article first appeared in Times Higher Education on 25th August 2011. The title is as it appears there.

Diversity matters, be it in the make-up of Parliament, among our television presenters or in our boardrooms. It matters in science and technology, too. However, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, the numbers of women remain persistently low.  Articles about the lack of  senior women in science abound, with a recurrent visual motif of a leaky pipeline out of which young women spill in depressingly large numbers.

However, in subjects such as my own – physics – or engineering or mathematics, the problem is compounded by the fact that, too often, women never even enter it in the first place. The contrast is stark with subjects such as biology and chemistry, for which the undergraduate cohort is approximately 50:50, even worse in comparison with veterinary medicine or nursing, where the undergraduate population is overwhelmingly female (which in itself is hardly healthy).

Nevertheless, for subjects with a substantial undergraduate intake, the leaky pipeline remains an apt metaphor: as you lookfurther up the career ladder, for each of these subjects there is a steady decline in the number of women.

We need to ask not only why the pipeline spews out the women as they progress, but also why some subjects are never seen as attractive in the first place to our brightest young girls. Maybe there is an element of nature in this debate, but I’ll leave that hotly disputed topic aside. It is remarkably difficult to construct clean experiments to resolve the issue, ones in which no hint of cultural bias can enter into experiments to work out whether male and female babies really do differ in their reactions to people and objects (the split that researchers such as Simon Baron-Cohen like to make).

But whether such a difference exists or not, undoubtedly our society – as in most developed countries – conveys not-so-subtly different messages to boys and girls about cultural norms.

Wander into a toyshop and it is obvious that toy manufacturers want to segregate toys by gender, which sets a tone of differentiation between what boys and girls are expected to do and be from the earliest age. Never mind the ridiculous body proportions of a Barbie doll, most of her “career options” are stereotypically female, and even the computer engineer version’s laptop and clothes are unremittingly pink.

Boys’ toys also promote a very narrow range of apparent career options, with no “action” vet  nor nurse on display. Advertisements for boys’ toys stress words such as “power” and “battle”, for girls it’s “love” and “magic”, implying an unhealthy degree of passivity.

Maybe  it’s progress that Barbie is at last allowed to aspire to be a computer engineer, but she hasn’t spread her wings far enough in my view. Stroll next door to the Disney shop and you’ll find numerous “princess” dresses to fuel a young girl’s imagination to grow up to be, well, a princess. Hardly a realistic career aspiration for the majority, Kate Middleton apart.

Go online to buy a T-shirt for your daughter and you can find one with the catchy slogan “I’m  too pretty to do math” blazoned across the front in fetching pink letters. The message is clear to young girls and they appear to be heeding it. Society expects them to be wafting around with long hair, long Snow White dresses adorning impossible figures, and ignorant of how to work out their credit card interest or the mpg of their nippy little car, let alone get to grips with relativity or design a bridge. What they are allowed, even encouraged, to do is to cuddle a cute kitty (hence, I would assert, the large number of female vet students and biologists), or exhibit their nurturing side in preparation for a lifetime as a nurse or childminder.

Why are we as a society so inert in accepting these gendered (and other) stereotypes that permeate the way we bring up our children? Some scientists may be geeks, but female geeks should be just as acceptable as male ones.

Some scientists may be scruffy, but if you’re pretty (or handsome, nicely gendered words there) and like clothes, it doesn’t disqualify you from being a scientist. Female scientists can have families, you’re not excluded from that either. In short, we need to celebrate the fact that scientists and engineers, collectively, are smart, interesting people with rich lives whose other attributes are just the same as the rest of the population.

Recent statistics show that boys in England are twice as likely as girls to do the combination of physics, chemistry and biology at A level, and (if only a single science is taken) five times as likely to do physics on its own. Girls taking a single science overwhelmingly opt for biology.

Choices at A level clearly determine what university courses can be taken. By 18 it is too late to rectify this imbalance. If we are convinced that diversity matters, we need to work a lot harder at overturning cultural stereotypes, and try in every way we can to ensure that girls believe the full spectrum of opportunities is open to them.

We must identify and promote new role models to alter the resolutely passive and decorative young women who represent “success” as girls encounter it each day through their TV screens, and ensure that work-experience placements offer them the full breadth of opportunities. Only then can we be sure that their aspirations are not limited and thereby their choices implicitly curtailed.

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14 Responses to Where is Physics Barbie?

  1. alice says:

    Back when I was an undergrad I had to write an essay entitled (something like): “If Barbie’s first words were math is hard, what hope for women in science?”. I think I argued something about the pipeline, but it was a while ago. I do remember, however, that I found a postcard of Barbie dressed as an astronaut and stuck that on the cover.

    This is a long-winded way of saying I’m slightly skeptical of a focus on role models. I suspect your point about work experience is more likely to have an impact. This is just a hunch though – happy to be proved wrong by more rigorous research on teens’ images of science and I do think cultural issues like toys are really important. The OU have done some (invisible witnesses, I think it was called), but there needs to be more work on this.

  2. Ironically enough I wanted to be a scientist as a little girl (or an engineer like my father) but was allowed myself to be convinced at school that I was not good enough at Maths, and that nice, thoughtful subjects such as English were a better expression of an articulate, creative personality. So far so normal, except that this was at an all girls’ independent school, and all my teachers were female. My physics teacher, a Cambridge grad who had been a postdoc at the Cavendish tried to encourage me, but by the time I was taught by her at 14ish it was too late. So I’d like to blame the patriarchy but it doesn’t work in my case.

    At least I wound up being the closest thing to a real geek that I can manage: doing digital humanities, and I’m a professor, so almost a success story despite my school’s best efforts.

  3. Alice, I was worried when I saw the sub-ed’s title things would get distracted by Barbie! The broader point of what I wrote is that cultural norms are pervasive, Barbie is just one symptom. The differences in expectations of and interactions with boys and girls start essentially at birth (as Hannah Devlin wrote about in her Eureka article at the start of the year; unfortunately I can’t find a link for this on the web). Role models will be important at a certain stage of life, toys probably at an earlier stage and work experience maybe even later. All these things feed into what a girl thinks is expected of her, and in turn that may colour what she is prepared to aspire to.

    Claire, even if at an all girls’ school, teachers may (but certainly not necessarily) still have expectations which are coloured by society. I get so cross when people try to say science isn’t creative, though that is not gender-related as a problem. But I wonder if the assumption about your maths was, and the fact that you were rather readily persuaded – despite your father being an engineer – may mean that you were picking up social cues at the time without being aware.

  4. MGG says:

    What about the pink and blue baby stuff in the US? I think it all begins there. Even when they are 2 years old, kids seem to think that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. We need to have colors such as green or yellow for babies and not categorize things that early as pink or blue.

    What about the songs that kids sing like this one that my son sang a few years ago” Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider, boys got to college to get more knowledge”. The first time I heard it I was apalled. Thinking poorly of the opposite sex is normal for 7 year-old boys, but I sat him down and asked him if he really thought girls and women were stupid and he turned to me and said, “Mommy you are a girl and you are definitely not stupid”.

    I usually ask about the girls in his class as to how many like Math and try to teach him that we must value the differences in individuals–that we are first individuals with our own personalities, then a boy or girl, white or black or Asian. It is interesting that he notes that most ‘smart’ girls are also ‘bossy’ (??).

    I am quite interested in what we as parents can do to prevent the establishment of stereotypes in our children and esp, what you, as a woman physicist would recommend.

    Perhaps we need Barbie dolls who like cute kittens AND math/physics and T-shirts that declare ” I love puppies and math” , so that girls feel more comfortable that they like math or physics in addition to all the girlie stuff.

    In India, a veterinarian’s job is considered very strenuous for women (majority of the patients are large animals such as cows and buffaloes, rather than cats and dogs) and for many many years, there were only a handful of women who opted this career path. Things are changing now, and more and more women are opting for this line of work, so it was interesting to read your views.

  5. Laura says:

    I have two young children (currently 3 & 5), one of each flavor. We’ve established a rule in our house that there is no such thing as “for boys” or “for girls” — anyone can play with/draw/be anything they want. Occasionally one or the other will come home from day care (usually my daughter, who’s the elder) and say something like “princesses are just for girls” and we just respond by reminding her that a lot of people would say that Darth Vader (who she’s a big fan of) or dinosaurs are “just for boys” which both makes her indignant and shows her why “just for girls” is not okay, either. Or if it’s my son, we remind him how much fun he has when he plays the part of “Rapunzel” when they play “Tangled” or how much he enjoys coloring pictures of princesses. We’re not quite to the schoolwork issues yet, though we are already encouraging them to play with numbers as much as words (both can read, and they’re starting to do math a bit) and introducing them both to science as much as we can and on an equal basis. I dearly hope that we can keep my daughter especially on track with math & science as subjects not to be feared — I was always told I was “bad at math” and it turns out, I’m quite good at it! I wish I’d had a teacher at a young age who encouraged me instead of making me feel like it was something that had to be hard for me but I’m glad I managed to overcome it eventually, since I use math pretty much every day at work, sometimes in pretty abstract ways.

  6. Delighted to see the BBSRC CEO Doug Kell pick up on this post and alert readers of his own blog to the importance of these issues. He floats the idea there that BBSRC might follow the Department of Health’s lead and require institutions to have got/applied for an Athena Swan award, but invites other suggestions too.

  7. Andy Parnell says:

    I have some friends visiting at the moment one of which is a female GP and I was interested to learn from her that this once male dominated profession is now 60:40 in favour of women. From my friends point of view the job security, career progression and good work life balance make it an attractive occupation. She has gone through a number of years of training (not dissimilar in length to that of a scientist). I would suggest that a better structured science researcher system for postdocs would benefit women and men alike and also improve retention of women in science.
    The current trend of appointing academics after many more years as a postdoc makes it more likely that scientists will look for more stable empolyment.

  8. Andy, It would be interesting to hear why your friend opted to be a GP rather than a consultant – because that seems to remain dominated by men, as I understand it. However, much of the point of my post was about choices make much earlier due to socialisation issues rather than, in this specific article, the problems about career progression once one (man or woman) has embarked on a scientific career.

  9. Athene, re Andy’s point:

    My other half is a doctor (as are quite a few of our friends). The standard answers to the ‘GP or consultant’ question could be expressed a bit cartoonishly as :-

    – ‘specialism in bits, parts, and things” (hospital medicine) vs ‘whole people and their problems’ (GP)

    – (a bit) length of training (you could be a fully trained GP 5 yrs after graduation, while getting to hospital consultant would be nearer 10 yrs, and sometimes more),

    – and (typically more influential as people get through their 20s) the ability in GP to far more easily work part-time and to change your days or sessions/wk flexibly over the course of a career.

    The relevance of the latter point in particular to raising children is, I think, clear. So the gender issues do not disappear even when the profession becomes majority female.

  10. cromercrox says:

    Maybe there is an element of nature in this debate … I’d switch ‘maybe’ to ‘likely’ … but I’ll leave that hotly disputed topic aside. … Another time, maybe?

    Mrs Crox has an aunt who was raised as a pink girlie but became a physicist. And she still loves pink.

    • cromercrox says:

      I think the point I am making, if archly, is that the mater might be more nuanced than you imply in your post. It is known that men and women are wired differently, and a result of this is that they might be attracted to different subjects. The question is what affects the wiring in the first place. Societal stereotypes play a part, but sex differences do too, and there might be all sorts of other genetic and environmental factors (even such things as the intra-uterine environment) – some of these factors will interact.

      You might know this already (I have made no secret of it) but Crox Minor (now aged 13) is one of the rather few girls diagnosed with Asperger’s. The fact that Asperger’s and other facets of the Autism Spectrum is much more common in boys than girls – even if underdiagnosed in girls – speaks to some biological difference between male and female personalities and predilections. From my career spent interacting with scientists I have a feeling that scientists as a breed are borderline aspergic (the obsessive, trainspotterly devotion to minute abstract detail), which might predispose boys than girls towards science, particularly the harder sciences and maths.

      As for Crox Minor, she is more interested in girlie things such as fashion and make-up than she was – but she pursues her own path, is generally immune to the internecine politicking to which teenage girls are heir, and from her rather matey and coarse attitude we often think we have a teenage boy in the house.

  11. Cromercrox My point is simply that, whatever biological differences may exist, there is no need to impose such stark differentials in the way children are reared by using cultural norms that are simply no more than that. Two girls – as with your daughters – may be utterly different in what they want to do. As Laura said above, all one can do is offer lots of alternatives and allow any child to be/play with/draw whatever they want – and that should also include aspire to what they want and not be told it’s not for boys/girls.

  12. cromercrox says:

    all one can do is offer lots of alternatives and allow any child to be/play with/draw whatever they want – and that should also include aspire to what they want and not be told it’s not for boys/girls.

    Well, no-one’s going to disagree with that – not even me. However, thanks to a wake-up call on one of your earlier posts, I have told advised my daughters that they can do whatever they like provided that they do at least two science subjects (as seperate subjects, not this general-science fluff) and and at least one foreign language, in addition to the regulation maths and English.

  13. BB says:

    Having just had a baby girl I am now terrified about trying to bring her up as separate from the stereotyping of society as possible. I started out with a no pink, no dresses rule (which was easy as I inherited a huge pile of second hand clothes from a male baby) and was determined to never use words like beautiful or gorgeous (which I think are exclusively applied to women not men and also because I would like her to never even wonder if she is physically attractive if at all possible). This has already slid somewhat and is only going to get tougher once mixing with other children happens more.

    What can we do about it though? I dont really like the idea of my child wearing a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Smart’ any more than one that said ‘Sexy’

    The one area we might attack is our media image. Male scientists it seems can turn up to TV interviews in jeans with their hair as it comes, but female scientists always look glamed up to me, potentially reinforcing the idea that in order to be a successful woman you must be good looking first and good at your job second.

    Mind you the whole media needs an overall from that point of view – 50% of people are less than averagely attractive and we are almost completely unrepresented in the media, so how are children supposed to know that its okay to be who you are?

    Apologies for wandering so wildly off topic – I have baby brain in a major way!

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