Category Archives: Society

A Roundup of the Government Shutdown

Congress voted to repeal the affordable care act dozens of times. Yet, with 15.4 percent of Americans uninsured, there needs to be a discussion around health insurance.

However, instead of a discussion about health care, the government was shut down. A 72% majority of Americans disapprove of the government shutdown.

Here are just a few of the impacted agencies that have been impacted by the government shutdown.

The redirect for the Women Infants Children Program (WIC) website

The redirect for the Women Infants Children Program (WIC) website

NASA

The redirect for the NASA website

A message from Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency. The shutdown of US government is having impacts in countries outside of the US.

A message from Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency. The shutdown of US government is having impacts in countries outside of the US.

A message from NOAA

A message from NOAA

The National Parks are closed.

The National Parks are closed.

The National Institute of Standards (that place that oversees the atomic clock as well as other cool research) is closed.

The National Institute of Standards (that place that oversees the atomic clock as well as other cool research) is closed.

The department of education is also shut down.

The department of education is also shut down.

Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Veterans Affairs: "The President, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the administration strongly believe that a lapse in appropriations should not have occurred on October 1, 2013"

Department of Veterans Affairs: “The President, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the administration strongly believe that a lapse in appropriations should not have occurred on October 1, 2013”

Department of Transportation

Department of Transportation

National Institutes of Health: "Research into life-threatening diseases and other areas will stop, and new patients won't be accepted into clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health."

National Institutes of Health: “Research into life-threatening diseases and other areas will stop, and new patients won’t be accepted into clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health.”

Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental Protection Agency

Small Business Innovation Research website

Small Business Innovation Research website

Department of Energy

Department of Energy

National Science Foundation

National Science Foundation

Jet Propulsion Laboratories

Jet Propulsion Laboratories

Meanwhile, Colorado has to pay the National Guard using state funds so that 200 miles of state highways can begin to be repaired, and some members of congress are still accepting salaries during the government shutdown.

Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

In the most recent years, the gender gap in STEM interest has been increasing.

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by papers with equations scribbled all over them. Believe me, I wasn’t pretending to be a savant for the world’s attention. I went to a public place so that I would stop saying aloud “Ugh, you moron, you don’t know any of this.”

To my surprise, a woman stopped me on her way out and asked if I was majoring in math. I looked up and responded with a hint of defeat that I was trying to study engineering. Then I asked if she had previously studied math.

She responded that she had, and then proceeded to tell me about all of the different options it gave her, and about the different jobs she had which finally led her to the marketing of accessories (she pointed to a purse she had with her). We had a short discussion about all of the opportunities that having a background in math and science offers you. It doesn’t force you into one single career; it opens a road to opportunity.

Yet, in the United States, it seems we are still stuck in the belief that math is hard, or that it is reserved for only the smartest students. Believe me, you don’t have to be a genius to learn processes that go with math and science.

Pursuing an education in STEM doesn’t shovel you into a basement corner where you have to sit and endlessly pump out math equations, or drink coffee and write computer code all day. STEM fields teach you a way of thinking. Of course, there are engineers who will go into “hard-core” engineering, just as there are English majors who will devote their lives to researching a single form of literature from a very specific time period and geographic location. Certainly, there are people who have specific passions and talents in life, and pursue education based on this. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, many people want an education leading to a career of sorts that contributes to the world in a positive way and provides a stable income. My concern is that young women are being discouraged from educational paths that provide this because they are mislead about what studying the sciences or engineering entails.

The Interest in STEM Fields

Below is a plot of male versus female interest in STEM fields. You can see the whole report here.

The gap in STEM interest between high school freshmen males and females has been increasing.

Seeing that the overall interest in STEM has been increasing makes me incredibly happy. It is wonderful that students are becoming more interested in STEM fields. Many new and upcoming jobs have some component of science or engineering. Just look at how often we use computers and modern technology outside of what is considered “the engineering world.”

What is disappointing is that female interest in STEM fields has been declining since the class of 2010. In fact, the gender gap in STEM interest is steadily increasing. In addition to the declining female interest, the study also states “since the graduating class of 2000, African American interest in STEM majors/careers has dropped by nearly 30%.”

Engineering and science are fields that should include everyone. The skills learned allow for numerous career paths from medicine to business. While I think it is excellent that we see an increasing interest with male students (specifically Caucasian men), I must ask, what is it about our culture or the way that we are currently portraying engineering and science to high school students that is causing women and African American students to have a declining interest in more recent years?

Marriage Helps Male Professors Get Ahead

It does not help women. At least according to a study done with history professors in academia.

I realize this study did not focus on STEM fields, but I do notice something similar occurring in my area of study. I’ve had this discussion with many of my female friends as well. What happens when you are a female academic and you want to have a family?

It seems that much of the expectation and responsibility falls on the women. I’ve heard some people say it seems un-masculine for men to take paternity leave. Many of my mentors and role models are men who have wives that not only take care of the kids, they take care of day to day living tasks like paying bills, buying groceries, car and house maintenance, and anything else non-work related. My own mother was one of these amazing women, and there is no doubt it helped my father succeed.

Yet, when it comes to the complete reverse, I don’t see it happening. In fact, looking at all of the women I know as mentors in academia, none of them have a thrifty stay at home husband. That’s not to say it never happens. I’ve certainly encountered a few stay at home dads outside the academic world. However, it comes as no surprise that marriage is still statistically a detriment to women.

Something that I am seeing more often with the younger and newer generation of employees is dual parenting. Men and women are splitting the duties of child rearing more often. Technology has allowed for more flexible work schedules, or just working from home. So, now it is easier for couples to split up time at home with a child.

Maybe it is not longer maternity leave that we need to keep women in the work force. Maybe it is offering more flexible schedules to women AND men. Not only does it offer children time with both parents, it would eventually phase out discrimination women may face about being the ones to take time off from work for family issues.

Students Debate the Gay Gene

Here is an interesting classroom debate on the gay gene. I think it is an interesting idea to have kids debate controversial issues using a scientific perspective. It is interesting that the opposing side does not use a lot of scientific evidence, and there are a lot of statements in the debate that seem to be started with “I believe that…”

I do think that a better science education can lead to a better society, socially and otherwise. Debating using reason and trying to go beyond the beliefs we are surrounded by can go a long way.

This was first seen on Ms. Geshke’s Science Hub. For more information, and the second debate video, please click here.

 

Is Science Sexy?

Sitting in the audience I cringed a bit. Why was this even being discussed? Should I be upset, or should I be enthusiastic that someone was discussing how society should view women in the sciences?

Ira Flatow gave a talk at AGU in which he brought up the viewpoint that science is becoming sexy. The talk was centered on making science more accessible to everyone and getting people more interested in science. He is well known for his NPR Science Friday, and he was now giving a talk to a large audience of scientists at the American Geophysical Union, a conference comprising of between 15,000-20,000 attendees. The response of the audience was quite telling.

During the talk, a clip of the highly controversial “Science. It’s a Girl Thing” video was played. This takes place during the video link at 39:05 (the talk video is at the bottom of this post). Listen carefully to the response. You can hear some of the men sitting near the front of the audience screaming “woo” and “yeah” after the video plays. Listen closer though. There are women whose voices are drowned out. One woman I was sitting near screamed out “BOO!” and several were joining suit.

Why was the video so controversial?

The video promotes the stereotype that young women are just interested in make-up and sexy things and being sexy. Ira did point out that this video was controversial and showed another clip of the Barber Lab Quartet saying that this is how many scientists think women in the sciences should be viewed– as in, smart, creative and fun.

Is science sexy?

A few of examples of famous scientists were used as examples of how science is “sexy” in the talk. They included a young Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Bobak Ferdowsi. Do I think they seem like freaking awesome people? You bet. Do I hang up posters of them in my room because they are sexy? Um…NO! In this instance, they were getting called sexy because they seem like cool people who are well-liked by society, and have done interesting things.

While Ira had some excellent points about getting people more interested in science, I was not as enthusiastic with his examples of why science was becoming sexy for women. These included a science site that teaches girls about physics by explaining things like how much pressure a high heel exerts on the ground, science cheerleaders, and Danica McKellar writing books for girls about why math doesn’t suck and why they should stick with it. Danica is also seen as a cool role model because she is good at math (she got a degree in it), she gives great advice, and she is still desired by men (she has posed in men’s magazines such as Maxim).

I am not upset with what these people are doing. Using cultural views of women may be necessary to get some women interested in science and learning. I don’t want the doors to be closed on anyone because they can’t look past a stereotype (like girls are supposed to be hot, and girls like fashion and high heels).  I also think that it may be one way to fight the view that you have to be ugly or unfeminine to go into the sciences if you are a female. These women are fighting back to show that that just isn’t true, and this may help more young women to not be turned away from things like engineering and physics. Since we place such a high value of attractiveness of young women, many young girls may be turned away from something that is perceived to be for ugly women.

What is upsetting to me are the stereotypes themselves. We have a stereotype that women like fashion and being sexy. Additionally we place high beauty standards on young women. This conflicts with the stereotype that women in the sciences are not attractive. Now the two have to fight it out in a culture war devoted to the appearance of women.

My Takeaway from the talk-

What Makes a Scientist “Sexy” to Society?

Here are two examples given in the talk of people who are making science sexy.

Females

Women are “sexy” if they have posed in Maxim. Danica’s scientific contribution as a mathematician is writing motivational books for girls about math. You can still be sexy and like math. She is great at math, and men find her attractive.

Males

Men in science are “sexy” if they express their uniqueness, seem like cool, decent people, and do or say incredibly intelligent things. Bobak shows his individuality with a sweet Mohawk, and became famous after being seen with it in the control room for the Mars Curiosity rover landing.

~~~

It seems like we have a discrepancy in what is considered “sexy” for women versus men in the sciences. The word sexy for men in the sciences means they are cool or have made some sort of interesting science contribution. The word sexy for women in the sciences means they are sexy in a sexual way.

Maybe the conflicting stereotypes about women in the sciences being unattractive and the cultural expectations on female beauty will eventually cancel each other out to the point where we can quit talking about the appearance of women in the sciences, and we can start focusing on the interesting scientific contributions of women.

Why does everything have to be sexy?

I really do like the idea of showing that scientists and engineers are normal people who range from athletes to writers to models to musicians. There are projects out there devoted to showing that scientists are just normal, relatable people, for example, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. Showing that scientists are normal people may spark interest in the general population and show that science is something we can all make an attempt to understand.

I realize that we are currently living in an environment filled with sexual images and objectification. We have to work to promote science and education within this environment. It’s not easy. However, I don’t think the answer is to throw more sex at something to make it attractive. Sex may sell an image, but it’s not going to cause people to appreciate science the way we would like. We need to be a bit more creative than that. After all, science shouldn’t be about being sexy, it should be about the general population recognizing that science is for everyone. We should all be excited about new ideas and discoveries that can improve the quality of life and move our society forward.

The video below shows Ira Flatow’s AGU talk.

Women Have Small Brains and Other Biases of Science

But we must not forget that woman are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men, a difference which we should not exaggerate but which is, nonetheless, real. We are therefore permitted to suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.

-Paul Broca

Paul Broca 1824-1880

Back in the mid 1800’s there lived a professor named Paul Broca. His work on the brain was instrumental in brain anatomy and anthropology. He determined the part of the brain associated with speech, revolutionizing our understanding of human speech. His work was thorough, and he was ahead of the times in his scientific thinking. However, even the best scientists can be influenced by social bias.

Paul Broca performed measurements of cranial sizes of male and female skulls, and found that the female cranial size was smaller. Was the measurement correct? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Yet, the problem with the study was his conclusion. A great summary of some of Broca’s study can be found in this essay by Stephen Jay Gould (PDF). The issue is that there are numerous factors that may lead to intelligence, and not all are linked to brain size. In fact, with newer technology, we have also found that it is neural connections within the brain which make a great contribution to intelligence.

Female Brains Are Still Smaller

Now, the time of Paul Broca was very different from modern day. You would think something like using brain size to prove women are less intelligent would be a thing of the past. Not necessarily. A study from 2006 by Philippe Rushton claimed that men were on average smarter than women due to brain size. This debate was still going on in 2006.

This same author published a paper in 2002 citing differences in brain size in different races are what cause the IQ differences. The paper, called “Brain size, IQ, and racial-group differences: Evidence from musculoskeletal traits,” in which the concluding sentence of the abstract states “brain size-related variables provide the most likely biological mediators of the race differences in intelligence.” [Rushton, 2002].

When coming to scientific conclusions, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation.

The ultimate problem with studies like these is that they completely disregard cultural and societal contributions to intelligence. For instance, we are just now coming into a time where more women are applying to college than men, and more equal opportunities are available to minorities and women.

~~~

To end, I leave you with the most recent tidbit of information I could find. For the first time in recent history, women are scoring higher on IQ tests than men.

So much for that publication citing the reason for women’s lower IQ scores was due to their brain size.

My Thoughts As a Woman

I sit hear scanning papers, clicking on my computer, scanning papers some more, thinking about the mathematical equations and how they can be used to solve problems. I hold the academic papers like a tomb of truth from which information can be gleaned and used to discover more things about the world.

When I started this blog a very short time ago, I wanted to share facts about things I found interesting. I also wanted to bring attention to things within our society that I think need to be changed. I’m struggling with the best way to do this. There was this part of me that was hesitant to share my own thoughts and experiences while stepping away from the safe word of facts and academic publications I am used to. One personal experience does not make a fact. Yet, I’m finding through reading many other brilliant blogs, that personal experiences are so important to shaping the views of society. Through each other we connect, and we see underlying problems that need to be fixed within the society wherein we live through our similar accounts.

In an equal society, this blog title would be called my thoughts as a human. Unfortunately, being a female engineer has shaped my experiences in a way that reminds me I am a woman. I wish I could say that it’s only being in a male dominated field that reminds me of this, and that I can just focus on that, but when I step into the world I also must be ever cognizant that I am a woman. If I forget, there will be something or someone to remind me of what I am, and sometimes this can be dangerous, so I must never forget.

During my younger years, I didn’t understand the meaning of being a woman. I didn’t see a difference between my male classmates and me. I remember being in an advanced math group in my class and working with another male student. There was nothing to even consider about this situation. It was just two students who enjoyed math, studying math together.

When I was 12, my family moved to a very conservative town. By the time I had graduated from high school, it had been made very clear to me that I was a female, and that, far beyond the different body types and sexual attractions, females are supposed to be different from males.

The reasons why there is this imposed difference in the way men and women are treated need to be addressed. I’m seeing different aspects at each level of the female life that may pose barriers to success and happiness. These obviously vary with severity from person to person and in different areas of the world. I will do my best to bring to light the things that are within my reach, and I will continue to read about the things that are within yours.