Laura Schmidt is a writer from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she currently attends University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, pursuing a degree in English and Journalism-Strategic Communications. She has previously written for the University of Minnesota Women's Center Blog about social justice and women's rights. Her plays and other creative works have been performed across Iowa and Minnesota; you can find out more about LASchmidt.net.
This past Monday, Tim Hunt, a recognized and established Nobel laureate and professor at University College London had some misogynistic words to share about female scientists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Female and male scientists took to Twitter and other social media outlets to share their outrage. Connie St. Louis, a lecturer of the science journalism program at City University London wrote ““Really does this Nobel Laureate think we are still in Victorian times???” And it is not difficult to agree with St Louis’ sentiment, especially since this is hardly the first time sexism against women in science has been brought to the public eye.
This year, a PLOS ONE reviewer stated that a research paper penned by two females should find “one or two male biologists” to be “co-authors” because some interpretations could be “drifting too far away from empirical evidence to ideologically based assumptions.” Essentially, this reviewer stated that the female biologists were too sentimental to fact-check their research. In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers argued that men outperform women in both math and science because of “innate” and biological differences.
The list could go on. The brighter side of all of these public remarks is just that: they became public. Tim Hunt has resigned from his position at University College London after he attempted to issue an apology that many are calling a “non-apology.” PLOS ONE got rid of its sexist reviewer. Lawrence H. Summers resigned in 2006.
But that’s a temporary solution to a long-standing problem in an industry where women make up only 12% of engineering students, according to a 2012 PEW study. What is most discouraging is that some people still agree with Hunt and Summers.
Milo Yionnapoulos had a debate with Dr. Emily Grossman on June 11 to discuss sexism in the STEM industry, based on Hunt’s comments. Yionnapoulos not only stated that there are differences in “male and female brains,” but he went on to argue “women don’t actually want to go into sciences on the whole, and when they have every option available to them, they tend to choose not to.”
This is a misinformed answer to a very complicated question of why so few women enter the STEM field. A research study done by Florida State University states that girls who perceive their own math abilities or science abilities as “strong and open to growth” were about two times as likely to pursue a science- or math-based major in college. The “growth” part of this study is vital: Girls in 10th grade who reported that they felt they could “grow” their math or science ability were also twice as likely to pursue a college major in that field. Also, it was showed that males overestimated their math abilities while females underestimated them.
Confidence is hard to come by for young girls, especially when being bombarded with sexist comments like that from Yinnapoulos or Hunt. The solution is not to separate men and women into distinct labs because the women are “too distracting.” The solution is not to tell women that their brain isn’t fit for this line of work because they are too emotional. We need to start encouraging young women that they can excel in these fields and keep discouraging people like Hunt, Summers, and Yionnapoulos. The “trouble with girls” isn’t that they cry too much – it’s that they have to face a lot more criticism and sexism when they try to enter STEM fields, even after obtaining their degree.
The entire climate around females in STEM fields needs to change; the public outrage that has erupted against Tim Hunt is a start, but there is so much left to be done.