It astonishes me that, in 2015, portrayals of women in the hard sciences still seem to fall under several caricatures. One enduring image of female scientists is the Big Bang Theory-esque sketch of shrill-voiced biologists with poorly groomed eyebrows. At the other end of the spectrum, the Barbie computer-engineer-book fiasco and promotional materials that imagine women in STEM fields smash subatomic particles together while wearing feather boas and solving systems of equations on pink, bedazzled calculators. I find the first image almost laughably foolish, and the second image an ineffective marketing tactic at best, an insult to dynamic scientists at worst.
In an effort to set the record straight, allow me, as a woman in the hard sciences myself, to introduce you to a few friends who also embrace their careers in the field.
If you met my friend Ellen on the street, her elegant walk might lead you to suspect a career as a dancer. While working toward her PhD, Ellen also works at the National Grid and competes in amateur ballroom dancing competitions around the United Kingdom. Ellen helped me not to take myself too seriously in science. In graduate school we would work problem sets until our brains exhausted themselves. Then we fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos (les chats ninja, to name one), laughing until our sides ached. At our departmental Christmas party, we co-wrote a highly nerdy math song that we sang to the tune of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” from the The Sound of Music.
I met Ameé at the McDonald Observatory in far West Texas. We spent the summer navigating the world’s fourth largest telescope under the skies, hiking in the Davis Mountains, and researching the crystallization of white dwarf stars. Besides her passion for naming constellations, minimizing light pollution, and thinking creatively about science education, Ameé writes poetry. She is a talented astrophysicist from Arkansas with a penchant for writing poems and short stories. When we worked at the observatory, 300 miles from the closest Wal-Mart, we spent a few nights out at the Boy Scout camp hosting telescope parties for a group of scouts and their leaders in the quest for interaction with other humans. Ameé caught the eye of the lifeguard that trip, and they married three summers ago. She has also worked in Chile and coordinated a research exchange program at the University of Arizona this past summer. Ameé embraces both her scientific and domestic passions with an exuberance I continue to find positively contagious.
Jenn is a friend I met while we were both jetlagged and disoriented as random roommates in Budapest. Together, we backpacked across Central and Eastern Europe with a small mathematical library in tow. Friendship with Jenn taught me about endurance—we braved blizzards and abstract algebra, armed with little more than Nutella and the Mulan soundtrack. After our hiking escapades in the Balkans, Jenn pursued rock climbing as a hobby. She took a coding job, combining her love of language and culture, to create a new app before returning to graduate school. She has worked in India and Nepal, testing and designing projects focused on sustainability.
In graduate school, Ellen and I were the only two women in our cohort to embark on a Master’s of Complexity Science. Similarly, Ameé and I were the only two women at the observatory internship, and Jenn and I tackled an advanced hypergraph theory course as the only two women.
We may be rare birds as ladies in STEM careers, but it’s fair to say none of us really fit the stereotype society projects for us. Nonetheless, the stereotype is strong, and it can be tempting to feel a need to fit it in order to be taken seriously.
During graduate school, I remember hesitating to bring baked goods into the department. I personally like baking, but I cringed at being stereotyped as “that girl that bakes.” Somewhere I acquired the idea that baking—or generally enjoying domestic things—lessened my street cred in mathematical physics. About halfway through my first term of graduate school, utterly bested by a coding assignment, I decided I didn’t have any street cred left to lose and launched the parade of baked goods—plates of brownies, tea cakes, and memorably, a biscuit cake shaped like a hedgehog. It was glorious.
That’s where my friends Ellen, Ameé, and Jenn come in. Meeting these confident, complex women working in STEM careers, with infinite other facets to them beyond their interests in science, alleviated the pressure to fit myself to a one-dimensional stereotype.
I’m not sure I would’ve had the gumption to simultaneously embrace my love of domestic arts and the hard sciences without the opportunity to adventure in mathematics with women like these.
When I think of a career in the hard sciences, I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s encouragement “not to go where the path may lead, [but to] go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Even more profound to me is how some truly talented and generous women joined me along the trail—how they changed my perception of women in STEM, including myself.
The prospect of coding in high heels is a cheap, ineffective portrayal of the dynamic women in the hard sciences. It’s a caricature, not like a single woman I’ve met. Instead, the women I’ve met in my STEM work are as drawn by the love of the sciences as they are to their many other life pursuits. Bedazzled calculators or coding Barbie books never lured anyone to the STEM fields. I am enough of a geek to understand the coding jokes in the rewriting of the Barbie book. But more than a rewriting of that particular book, we need a revision of the narrative we tell about women at the frontiers of science. Taking a look at the real women around us—like my partners in crime Ellen, Ameé, and Jenn—is a good place to start.