Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science
When it was time to discuss band instruments in elementary school, I know of one young boy who expressed an interest in playing the flute. His father discouraged him from pursuing the flute by saying the flute is an instrument that girls play. While I’m sure the father sincerely perceived he had his son’s best interest at heart—not wanting his son to be teased because he was breaking stereotypes—it is yet another example of how our society continues to stereotype interests and professions into male and female categories. There continues to be a need to remind society that we have mistakenly genderized so many things including who should pursue and will be successful in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pursuits. Athene Donald argues this specifically by reminding readers that “somehow our society’s belief that there are boys’ subjects and girls’ subjects persists, hurting boys too.”
Athene Donald’s book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science provides numerous examples and convincing data argue that there are still conscious and unconscious attitudes and barriers in our society that prohibit individuals from seeing the multitude of career possibilities. The author challenges both those of us in STEM and those who aren’t to recognize that systemic issues limiting some people from even recognizing there is a place for them in STEM persist. Specifically, she calls for an un-gendering of science. While the author mostly focuses on being an advocate for women in scientific fields, she also calls her readers to recognize the unjustified disadvantages that individuals who don’t identify as white, able-bodied, heterosexual, male (WAHM) face.
While the point the author makes in her book is not new, she does a nice job of providing multiple examples of the difficulties and successes women have had earning advanced degrees in science as well as difficulties women continue to have once they’ve become scientists. She takes time to explain the steps it takes to become a scientist, and points out how women proceed up the academic hierarchy in a disproportionate way, utilizing the leaky pipe analogy. She also works to dispel the misconceived notion of what it takes to be a successful person in a STEM field—too many people fail to recognize that STEM careers require teamwork and creative thinking which are skills that are not limited to people based on their sex. She strongly advocates for more seats at the STEM table and nicely weaves in her own experience of being interested in physics and achieving a successful STEM career.
Reading this book was uncomfortable. Not because of the writing style (though there were instances where examples and points were repeated in multiple chapters, nothing a bit more editorial work couldn’t polish), but rather because of the all-too-true reality that Athene Donald describes. It is a reality that I, and my female colleagues, have experienced time after time again. False assumptions, implicit bias, microaggressions, and a lack of allies willing to speak up, make it difficult for individuals to explore a multitude of career options let alone thrive in such careers. Reading of the shared experiences of others triggered my justified frustration and will hopefully evoke the same in other readers with the hope of recruiting active allies.
I encourage people to read this book with the goal of thinking about how they can be allies for people that are not adequately represented in many areas of life—being an ally not just with word, but also in deed. Limitations to opportunities are not poised at the start of one’s career after high school or college, but are in place right from the start of one’s life. The assumptions of potential-limitations occur perhaps even earlier with the increasing popularity of gender reveal parties. Therefore, individuals who work with young kids should also be reminded not to categorize interests and abilities as male or female when such interests and abilities have nothing to do with their reproductive organs. In addition, anyone who doubts there is still a problem for non-WAHM individuals should read this book. I hope readers will take time to listen to the stories of others as told by the author, but also create opportunities to listen to people in their life and be open to hearing the challenges they have encountered.
Throughout her book, Donald challenges readers to break stereotypes and encourage others to do so also. She reminds her readers that there is a need for allies and affirmations to support individuals willing to pursue their interests and develop their skills. A growth mindset and exposure to what this world has to offer is needed in order for there to be a seat at any table for all people. It is only when we expand the table that we will all benefit from that diversity of perspectives and experiences.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Y. Heeg, PhD, Professor of Biology, Northwestern College, Orange City, IA 51041