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How important are role models, anyway? 
13th-Sep-2012 12:27 pm
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)?
14th-Sep-2012 10:32 am (UTC)
In my case, it was also a combination.

My parents gave me self-confidence (they were saints, actually, as I discovered when I got into the parenting racket myself). My father in particular directed me toward a serious career in an environment that didn't necessarily do that for girls.

I did need to know that women *could* do the things I wanted, for which role models were useful. Not in a "I will pattern myself on this person" way, but more like "Of course women can, look at ...." It was very encouraging to meet women who were happy and successful in their careers.

But it was also my peer-group. Of my closest friends in the all-girls school and college I went to, all have gone on to worthwhile careers.

- Keyan
14th-Sep-2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
Peer group is definitely important as well, although it's always hard for me to tell to what extent my peer group influenced my interests, and to what extent I chose my peer group because we had common interests.
14th-Sep-2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Here's the thing: I think role models are important in a general way. Knowing that you will not be The First One or The Only One can be a pretty big deal. But I also think that asking people how they picked their current career might well skew the data set away from how they decided against the careers they didn't pick--particularly if those factors were not entirely conscious.
14th-Sep-2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
When I talked to my grandmothers about how they got started in their first jobs, it was pretty clear that they had ruled out certain careers because "women just didn't do that." So, yes, establishing that women definitely do "do that" is clearly important.

And I realize that I'd actually answer the question "How did you choose your current career?" very differently depending on whether you frame it as, "How did you decide that a career in science and technology interested you?" (which is more or less what I answered in my post above) versus, "How did you pick technical writing as a career?" (to which the short answer is something along the lines of "I didn't so much pick it as stumble into it when the career I thought I'd chosen didn't pan out.")

You may well be right that asking why women don't pick scientific or technical careers (or why they leave such careers) could be the more relevant question here.
16th-Sep-2012 12:33 am (UTC)
I think it's more important to look at why women don't stay in STEM, and much of that research has been done - because men drive them out. The male behavior and the sexism and the lack of credit and the subtle deniable harassment and the jokes and the experiences of not being heard when you say something but the man who says it is heard...

eventually anyone who isn't intensely devoted and willing to suffer all that...


I'm deeply torn about this, because I loved science enough to stay in it, despite all that. What drove me out was money. I wanted to earn enough to have my own apartment and pay for a car, and that wasn't going to happen in academia. I got told I wanted to much and was materialistic.

I wish there were a way to make a living in science and be treated decently, for men and women. I've not found it yet, and I'm very sad.
16th-Sep-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
When I got my first job with Dave Stout, he asked me to read The Double Helix, "because I don't want you to have romantic notions about how science is done." He didn't go so far as to say, "and so you'll know exactly what you'll face as a woman in science," but I wonder now if that was implied. (Looking back, I can now see that Dave's lab was something of a haven for smart ambitious women. I really didn't have the perspective to appreciate that at the time.)

I do know a few people who seem to have managed very civilized, balanced lives as academic scientists. I haven't quite figured out how they did it - they're certainly vastly outnumbered by the very talented people I know who left academic science because the lifestyle was pretty intolerable.
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