Beyond Pink: Getting Girls Into Science

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Image courtesy of Alatariel Elensar

Earlier this month, Lego unveiled their new female scientist minifigure set on YouTube, to be available in August 2014. Now I haven’t paid attention to the evolution of Lego minifigures over the years but I had heard there weren’t many female figures and was curious to see what the previous characters were, so I went to their website to find out.

There are 11 series of figures, I started with Series 1:

Male figures: Zombie, Robot, Magician, Deep Sea Diver, Forestman, Ninja, Skater, Spaceman, Super Wrestler, Tribal Hunter, Cowboy, Circus Clown, Demolition Dummy, Caveman

Female: Cheerleader, Nurse.

Hmm, I thought. That’s pretty grim. Perhaps those were the early days and things evolved over time? I scrolled through a couple more series, caught sight of Intergalactic Girl, Flamenco Dancer, Alien Villainess and then... Red Cheerleader! Really?! You have male characters outnumbering females sevenfold, and you add another cheerleader?!

I skipped ahead to Series 11:

Male figures: Scientist, Evil Mech, Yeti, Saxophone Player, Holiday Elf, Constable, Scarecrow, Barbarian, Welder, Mountain Climber, Island Warrior, Gingerbread Man.

Female: Lady Robot (she’s pink), Pretzel Girl (she dresses up in traditional clothes and yodels), Diner waitress, Grandma.

I was duly convinced that adding a female astronomer, paleontologist and chemist to the mix was a major step and something to celebrate, though tinged with the realization that I had no idea how bad things had been.

Role models are important and I realize I was very lucky: both my mother and my grandmother completed degrees in mathematics. If it ever crossed my mind that girls don’t do science, it was only because I thought they might be too busy doing math! I also enjoyed math and the theoretical side of physics, and I was accepted to Oxford to study Physics and Philosophy.

After insisting to my feminist high school English teacher that I hadn’t experienced sexism and thought things had changed since her time, I arrived at my Oxford college, where the ratio of male to female students was ten to one.  It was the first time I had encountered men who seemed to need convincing that women might actually be intelligent. I started to get involved in women's groups and was elected women's representative for my college. But I wasn’t always comfortable with the feeling that I needed to align with the other women, march alongside them with a single voice. I am a woman and I have my own voice. Isn’t that the point?

Women are significantly underrepresented in science and technology, and recent interest in STEM subjects has provoked discussions about how to entice girls into these areas of study. Do we try to “pretty up” science to make it more appealing to girls? Do we paint the robot pink and call it Lady Robot? I think the problem is the same one I encountered in college: women are people, some will like pink robots and some won't, and the presumption that any single approach will solve the problem just ends up revealing bias rather than alleviating it.

People – yes people – arrive at interests in science and technology by many different routes. Some have a fascination with the methods and tools themselves, whereas some encounter them in the pursuit of other passions. I worked with newspaper computer systems for years: the computers didn’t inherently interest me, but using technology to do journalism was an interesting challenge. I joined a “women in technology” group and observed that a number of the other women had similar perspectives: they were less interested in the tools themselves than in the context in which they were used.

No, this doesn’t mean ALL women are this way, or that ALL men are not. But it means if you want to increase interest in science and technology, you can’t just argue about what color the toolbox is going to be. Girls – and boys – need to be able to imagine themselves doing science, in all the different ways that science can be done: opening the toolbox, making it their own.

When I first visited the lab in which I am now a doctoral student, my tour guide was a graduate student who impressed me with her smarts, her professionalism, and her awesome boots. I thought, here is a female scientist. This is something I can be. (I have a passion for both science and boots.) Apparently the new Lego figures have provoked debate because the characters look just like the male figures but with different hairstyles. Is anyone debating whether the Thespian minifigure is masculine enough? No, because there are 100 other characters to choose from.

If Lego is stuck for ideas for their next female character, instead of a blue cheerleader, how about a neuroscientist with awesome boots?

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