September 13th, 2012


How important are role models, anyway?

I've seen The Trouble with Barbie Science linked and discussed in several places lately. To briefly summarize, the article talks about research showing that presenting "glamorous" female scientists to girls as potential role models actually decreases their interest in pursuing science and technology careers.

The article has prompted a lot of interesting discussion about what makes a good role model, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if we're just putting too much emphasis on the idea of role models. How crucial is having a role model to your choice of career?

Trying to analyze where my own interest in science and technology came from is tricky. The most obvious thing that occurs to me is that math and chemistry and computers were fun, but let's presume just for the sake of argument that both boys and girls have the same intrinsic capacities to find science and technology fun.

The next most obvious thing is parental encouragement. Not only did my parents tell me that science, math, and computers were great things to study, but they also gave me very free reign to pursue those interests. (And I'm sure there must have been times when they'd have wished they didn't have a daughter who was constantly on the computer, or collecting samples to stick under the microscope, or soldering bits of wire together in the garage.)

Next up would probably be mentoring - specific people who took notice of my interest in science and technology and provided guidance and support. I owe a lot to my high school science teachers in this regard, and I owe a tremendous amount to C. David Stout at the Scripps Research Institute, for whom I worked as a scientific intern straight out of high school and during summers through my college years. (In some ways, Dave spoiled me - I never found a scientific lab that was as much fun to work in after that.)

Role models were probably next in importance, although the role models who were most important to me were mostly other women that I worked with, not so much women scientists or technologists who were portrayed in the media. (Though, I do remember the distinct pang I felt when I finally realized that no matter what I did, I'd never grow up to be Liz Shaw. I think I was 27 at the time. Childhood dreams die hard.) Many of my role models were also mentors.

I'm sure that if we want lots of girls to go into science and technology, we need to create a culture where it's normal for girls to go into science and technology. And having lots of images of female scientists and technologists helps with that. But I wonder if we focus too much on providing "role model" imagery because it's easier to make a three-minute commercial proclaiming that science is a girl thing than it is to make sure that girls who are interested in science have real tangible support and opportunities.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear what other people think. I'm generalizing wildly here from my own perception of my own experience, which might not be at all representative. Do you think role models were important to you in choosing your career (be it science-y or not)?