“So, what’s your major?” As college students, we hear this question constantly—sitting in a GE class, from your mom’s friend when you’re home at break, from the guy you’re talking to at a party. And it makes sense—what are you devoting the next four years of your life to? Really, it should be easy to answer: “Me? I’m studying biochemistry.”
The answer however, is was makes it complicated, because of how people respond. For some reason, the idea of a girl like me studying sciences seems incomprehensible. Your mom’s friend: “Oh wow…you must be so smart.” Your classmate: “Oh…ok,” and then they stop telling you the story about how trashed they were last weekend. Cute boy: *casually moves away*.
Obviously, this isn’t how everyone responds—plenty of people are normal about it. But in general, there is a strong bias against women in STEM fields, both in college and in professional careers. For some reason, girls can be lawyers and businesswomen and even president, but the idea of women doing science—and managing to have a social life or wear fashionable clothes or be attractive—is still surprising to many. This exists beyond a college campus, too.
Think of the last few shows you binge-watched on Netflix. How many of them included women as scientists—who weren’t portrayed as nerds? Big Bang Theory, for example, has two main female characters: Penny, the pretty blonde who works as a waitress, and Bernadette, the nerdy scientist. Grey’s Anatomy has female doctors, yes, but even on that, Meredith Grey is the lovesick intern and Derek is the neurosurgeon superstar. A Buzzfeed quiz entitled “What Does Your Major Say About You?” sends the same message: Computer science major? “You’re a bit of a dork…” Engineering major? “Socializing is out of the question.” This exists beyond a college campus, too.
Business Insider explored the key things that keep women out of science and found many of these start at a young age. For example, teasing in school, lack of encouragement, and stereotypes—like the ones perpetuated in A Big Bang Theory—discourage girls from studying science as young as elementary school. For adults, there’s not much more encouragement. Large salary gaps and lack of childcare time for those on a tenure track make it hard for women to be STEM professionals.
The New York Times recently reported on a study at Yale, which found physicists, chemists, and biologists are more likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a young woman with the same qualifications and, as a result, are willing to pay males up to five times as much as females.
So, what does this leave us? In my opinion, science is pretty important. It enables us to create new medicine, travel to outer space, and a whole spectrum of things in between. So, studying science should be encouraged—both in the classroom and through examples in tv shows and movies and everything else. At the same time, though, there needs to be an understanding that girls can study science without being nerds, in the most stereotypical sense of the word. Engineering or biology or physics is just another major, that requires hard work, yes, but doesn’t make whoever is studying it smarter, or lacking social skills, or anything else different.