Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Essential Skills

A number of studies have revealed how early experiences can lead to gender differences in certain skills necessary in science. Boys tend to play with Lego sets and to build things with wood, nails, and hammers. Basically, they learn to use a variety of tools and to gain confidence in their ability to fabricate things. Boys are also more often taken hunting and fishing by their fathers, learning basics about orienteering, dealing with adverse weather or other factors, and how to observe nature. Women who only played with dolls as girls may find that they are at a disadvantage in the laboratory or the field. Without prior exposure to “masculine” skills, women tend to be quite intimidated when faced with basic tasks such as creating a lab setup for an experiment or launching a boat. Some comments from a survey by Grant (1995):

“I was always very shy in the lab, afraid to touch things, lest I twiddle a dial that might set the entire building aflame.”

“I did have to be taught at an embarrassingly late age that there was a convention to the way screws turned.”

Women who come from an upbringing in which gender roles were strictly followed and who failed to gain those “masculine” skills, are less likely to select science as a career. At the other extreme is the tomboy, who has already turned her back on the traditional female role. She is less likely to be deterred by the masculine aspects of science. This was certainly true for me. I was a tomboy, lived on a farm, went hunting and fishing with my father, played with slingshots and BB guns rather than dolls, and built forts and tree-houses. I did learn to cook, but from my father, who specialized in game cooking (the first meal I cooked for my husband-to-be was squirrel).

I’ve been thinking about how my upbringing affected not only my choice of profession, but also how I was able to overcome discouragement by professors, advisors, and male students during school and later in the workplace. I’d always attributed my success in science to an early exposure to nature. But now I wonder if it was as much to do with gaining confidence in various “masculine” skills. I'm sure that my early exposure to skills that boys are typically taught helped boost my confidence in the technical aspects of science.  I was never intimidated at setting up experiments involving construction or other mechanical skills. I had no problem envisioning what I wanted to do or how to go about it. I often repaired broken lab equipment and fabricated simple lab or field sampling devices.

As I mentioned in a previous post, so-called “masculine” skills can be taught—and this teaching can eliminate or reduce the gender gap between male and female students, influencing their later performance in science and engineering fields. The example I gave was a course for engineering students that improved spatial skills. But this idea can be extended to a number of other skills specific to one's area of interest.

Another aspect of this topic is the role of mentors. One often hears about how important it is for girls and young women to see (and be mentored by) successful women in science. But when I consider my experience, this statement does not hold. I had no female mentors, and the lack of one did not seem to be detrimental. Having a mentor who could teach me critical skills, especially at an early age, however, was important for me. In learning “masculine” skills that later contributed to my scientific confidence, my mentor was my father. My mother, on the other hand, was constantly pressuring me (until her death) to fulfill the feminine role she believed in. With my father’s support (of my tomboy nature), I found it easier to ignore her criticisms and feel more confident in my interest in nature and science. 

I can also point to other male mentors who influenced me, including teachers and even my husband.  Perhaps the message here is that what's important is not the gender of your mentor, but what they can teach you that will prove to be critical to your development as a scientist.

Grant, A. 1995. Women in science: an exploration of barriers. http://www.angelfire.com/indie/90south/work/paper.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the importance of mentors (and in many cases male mentors) is very important. My (male) thesis advisor did not 'allow' me to use being an older student or a female as a crutch. I remember one time when I was intimidated by a piece of electronic equipment and he told me, 'I don't ever want to hear that you don't know how or are afraid to learn' Find someone who can teach you and learn how to do it. Good advice......