In a ten-page snoozer published in the New York Times, Eileen Pollack, a creative writing professor from the University of Michigan, identifies American culture as the culprit behind women’s relatively poor showing in the sciences. To make her case, she singles out the popular Big Bang Theory television show:
For proof of the stereotypes that continue to shape American attitudes about science, and about women in science in particular, you need only watch an episode of the popular television show “The Big Bang Theory,” about a group of awkward but endearing male Caltech physicists and their neighbor, Penny, an attractive blonde who has moved to L.A. to make it as an actress. Although two of the scientists on the show are women, one, Bernadette, speaks in a voice so shrill it could shatter a test tube. When she was working her way toward a Ph.D. in microbiology, rather than working in a lab, as any real doctoral student would do, she waitressed with Penny. Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Amy, a neurobiologist who becomes semiromantically involved with the childlike but brilliant physicist Sheldon, really does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is in no way the hideously dumpy woman she is presented as on the show. “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom, of course, and therefore every character is a caricature, but what remotely normal young person would want to enter a field populated by misfits like Sheldon, Howard and Raj? And what remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?
So the problem is really that science isn’t sexy enough, and that drives women away. Although she doesn’t come out and say it, the implication here is that men are not as concerned about the sexiness of science.
Although Americans take for granted that scientists are geeks, in other cultures a gift for math is often seen as demonstrating that a person is intuitive and creative. In 2008, the American Mathematical Society published data from a number of prestigious international competitions in an effort to track standout performers. The American competitors were almost always the children of immigrants, and very rarely female. For example, between 1959 and 2008, Bulgaria sent 21 girls to the International Mathematical Olympiad, while the U.S., from 1974, when it first entered the competition, to 2008, sent only 3; no woman even made the American team until 1998. According to the study’s authors, native-born American students of both sexes steer clear of math clubs and competitions because “only Asians and nerds” would voluntarily do math. “In other words, it is deemed uncool within the social context of U.S.A. middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.”
The study’s findings apply equally in science. Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France “dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.”
So let me get this straight: It’s all those terribly unsexy Asians and nerds who are to blame? How about just quarantine all the Asians and nerds in their own science room, and match every lady scientist with a Christian Grey type stud to pleasure her in the laboratory?
Surely fishnets, miniskirts and billionaire playboy boyfriends for every female scientist will result in a never-before-seen climax of sexy scientific achievement.