Monday, May 18, 2015

#GirlsWithToys

"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys.' I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it." These are the words of Caltech Professor and Optical Observatories Director Shri Kulkarni, shared with NPR's Joe Palca on Weekend Edition Saturday May 16, 2015.

The photograph of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin on the left shows that women have also been fascinated by scientific instrumentation since before Kulkarni was born. They just haven't always had access to it, unlike the boys.

Kulkarni himself has supervised several female graduate students and postdocs, so his choice of words was surprising. They do seem like a prime example of unconscious bias. Are there still scientists, or others, who believe that they are completely objective and fair? If so, please share with them the Implicit Association Test, so that they can match their wits against a computer. For a little background, see this nice explanation within the SPLC Teaching Tolerance curriculum.

Words matter. When a leading scientist excludes girls, it sends the message, whether intended or not, that girls should not apply because they do not belong. The same  message is regularly heard by people of color, transgender people, and others. We expect better of our community members.

Fortunately, social media enables us to advance a different narrative, one that shows women (and, one hopes, people of color and other genders) playing with their scientific toys. I don't know how Twitter views compare with the audience size of Weekend Edition, but I know that it can have an impact. If more young people are drawn into STEM fields through the inspiration of  role models showing up under the #GirlsWithToys hashtag, Kulkarni's comment will have served a useful purpose.