Where Is Jill Nye the Science Gal?

I am in the process of trying to start an Association for Women in Mathematics chapter at my University. I was not really inspired to do this until recently when I came to a sad realization while viewing the "people who inspire you" section on my Facebook profile … none of them are women.

What is worse is that when it comes to literature, history, and business I know of many examples of women who figured prominently and made significant contributions, but in science and mathematics I can only think of a few. Of those few, most are in the social sciences and some met with some pretty terrible fates (ie Marie Curie). I am also well aware of the stories of women who would have had their names in the history books, but alas their work is overshadowed (and not credited properly) in history books by their male contemporaries, even thought their work is what made it possible for those men to make important discoveries.

I began to also realize that as a child growing up I had no female role models in math or science when it came to pop culture. I loved Indiana Jones and wanted to be an archeologist for the longest time. I watched Beakman's World and Bill Nye the Science Guy every chance I could. All of my childhood science heroes were men.

Even today when I watch television or go to the movies it is still mostly male characters that dominate the world of math and science. Women, when cast as scientists, are often characterized as brilliant, but so socially flawed that they are to be pitied.

In the media women who are gifted at math and science and who are also cool, fun, interesting, and desirable are mostly portrayed as doctors, psychologists, or nurses. All of these are noble fields, but these are not the only science fields. Women are rarely portrayed in the applied and theoretical sciences such as engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and researchers.

Even my favorite shows like Big Bang Theory and Bones do this. The one "normal" character Bernadette in the Big Bang Theory still had to contend with the possible emasculation of her future husband by her earning a PhD. Although she is normal, especially in comparison to most of the other characters in the show, Bernadette's character is subjected to the sexist storyline that she should walk on eggshells because she dared to be an accomplished female scientist who would make more money than her less educated and less completed husband to be. Other characters like Amy Farah Fowler are meant to comically mirror the bizarre Sheldon Cooper character, or as in the case of Leslie Winkle are characterized as women who behave as men do (even sexually); one would assume because she is in a male dominated profession.

In Bones Dr. Brennan is so dependent on her logic and facts that she pushes people and her feelings away because they are not as reliable. She is brilliant but damaged, so damaged that the audience often wonders if she can ever really be happy. In one of my favorite canceled shows Numb3rs, Amita is portrayed as a brilliant and beautiful mathematician, but her role is considerably supportive of her love interest Charlie Epps. This support even threatens her ability to move forward in her career. The audience is led to want Amita to give up her goals for Charlie for the sake of the love story. Amita does not really get a chance to focus on her own work until the show ends or when she is briefly broke up with Charlie; thus emphasizing to the audience that her work is not as important in the grand scheme of things, or that women in the sciences must choose between love and success.

One of the few positive featured female role models in science pop culture right now (that children would be exposed to … sorry Dr. Ruth) is on the TV show Mythbusters. Kari Byron has been on the show for years and shows young kids that women can be good at science and be just as successful as men. We need more Kari's so that little girls can have that woman that makes them feel that they can be a mathematician, scientist, or engineer.

I was lucky. I had parents that encouraged my interest in the sciences and made it clear to me that I was capable of doing anything I wanted to in any intellectual pursuit. I am also lucky that social norms did not stifle my exploration into math and science. But if the media is still portraying female mathematicians and scientists in sexist and denigrating ways, how do we encourage young girls into math and science? How do we change the perception in society to women who are good at math and science are normal, interesting, cool, and desirable? I do not know the answer yet, but I'll keep trying to think of one.