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“The Trouble with Girls…” is Really the Trouble with Sexism

Recently The Nobel Prizing winning scientist Tim Hunt made some controversial and sexist remarks about “the trouble with girls” in science. In this essay, Stephanie Medley-Rath uses her daughter’s STEM camp experience to argue that the real trouble in STEM fields is not with girls, but with sexism.

This summer my daughter attended a STEM-themed day camp. While STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, I really think the S could stand for sociology, but nobody asked me. The day camp was open to any child, but really it was mostly the children of middle class parents who were able to attend. The camp cost a fair amount of money and required parents to drop kids off at 9am and pick them back up at 3:30pm. There aren’t too many working class families that could both afford the tuition costs and have work schedules flexible enough to handle the drop off/pick up times. While I could go on about the social class implications of this STEM camp, I want to focus on gender.

In sociology 101 classes we often talk about social class, gender, and race individually, but in reality each of us lives at the intersection of our class, gender, and race[1]. To this end, sociologists emphasize a concept called intersectionality. What this means is that there are many characteristics that influence our life chances. You are probably most familiar with race, class, and gender stratification. But these things do not exist in isolation. For example, I know what the world is like for white middle-class women because I am one and have been one my entire life. Race, class, and gender work together. People perceive others on the basis of all of these things. As you have also learned in sociology, however, sometimes one of these characteristics becomes the most salient or trumps the other characteristics.

At this STEM camp, gender appeared to play a more significant role than social class. (Race mattered, too, but seemed to reflect the racial make-up of the school and wider community as a whole.) The gender make-up of participants was notable.

My kid was one of the first to arrive. Yes, I have one of those flexible work schedules, but my class times are not negotiable. My summer class began at the same time as camp, so she was dropped off the minute drop-off was allowed. My point is that there were only a couple of kids there when she arrived so I couldn’t draw many conclusions about the program based on my morning observations. Afternoon, pick-up was very different. I ventured into the cafeteria along with the other parents and was immediately struck by all of the boys. Boys were everywhere. I knew there was at least one other girl in her age group ahead of time because I was sharing pick-up duties with her parents. I asked my daughter if there were other girls in her age group. There were three girls in her age group including her and her friend. There were approximately 16 children in her age group. The older groups of children looked like my daughter’s age group.

Where were the girls? There were camp leaders who were older girls and women, but this does not change who the students were.

“The Trouble with Girls” ?

Coincidentally, my daughter attended STEM camp as the story broke about Nobel laureate, Tim Hunt’s comments regarding “the trouble with girls” in science. As reported by The Guardian Hunt said at a conference, “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 criticise them, they cry.”

His words came when parents were choosing to send their sons but not their daughters to STEM Camp. I get it. Sexism within the STEM fields is well established (Here’s some evidence and even more evidence). As a parent, one of my assumed duties is to protect my child from the ugliness of the world. Should I send my child to a camp that sparks her intellect and possibly develops an interest in a field even if that field is riddled with sexism? That seems a bit like bad parenting to me.

However, the reality is that STEM fields are not special. Women earn less money across industries. Women are less likely to earn tenure at research universities (even in sociology) (see Weisshaar)! Women are expected to dress to impress in Hollywood (see Rose McGowan, Hotel Transylvania 2 photo call). Women even lose in occupations where they are the majority: librarianship, social work, elementary education, and nursing (see Williams 1992, more evidence). The glass escalator refers to the practice of men being promoted more quickly in female-dominated occupations–and oftentimes promoted out of the occupation altogether (e.g., the promising young male first grade teacher is encouraged to become an administrator, so he does).

The trouble isn’t with girls as Dr. Hunt put it. The trouble is with sexism. Choosing to not send my daughter to a STEM camp won’t shield her from sexism. In fact, I believe that keeping her from the STEM fields would only make me complicit in the continuation of sexism.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think about the field in which you are majoring. What examples of sexism exist in this field? If you are unsure, google sexism and whatever your field is (for example: “sexism in sociology”). What did you learn?
  2. The author began this piece by discussing how race, class, and gender intersect with one another, but then focused solely on gender. Do your own research. How are women of color impacted by sexism compared to white women? How are women of different social classes impacted by sexism?
  3. Think about how your life experiences are affected by intersectionality. How do all of your social characteristics collide to produce your unique life experience?
  4. What actions could we take within the STEM fields to reduce sexism and grow the number of female scientists?

  1. We could also include in this list any other social characteristic like our sexuality, religious affiliation, age, ability status, and so on.  ↩