Small selection of my book collection. Book stores are hazardous to my bank account.

One middle school summer, I wandered into the local library’s neurology section and took a college text home. Over the next several weeks, I read about what the different parts of the brain did, laboriously deciphered long words and tried memorizing each structure. I used to explore nature and hunt for fossils, but that’s the first time I remember turning to books for any sort of independent study.

Once my academic restrictions were removed in high school, I dove into science electives. I studied how genetics worked with fruit flies, dissected a turtle in zoology, identified plants in botany, and calculated physics problems at a local amusement park. I’d also taken biology, chemistry, and earth sciences. It was a blast. (Not literally, though my chemistry teacher DID eat a flaming marshmallow after convincing us it was a candle on the first day of class.)

After high school, I found myself directionless. I wanted to go into science, but I didn’t feel as if I could. Why?

  • Test scores were too low (Hello, poor dyslexia management.)
  • Math intimidated me to no end
  • I was still under the impression that I wasn’t smart enough to go into any of those fields
  • I was under constant pressure to choose something “appropriate”

I wound up going to massage school, and failing a memorization-heavy course by two points. The school had wanted me to take the entire program again, which wasn’t happening. Then, I moved cross country and tried college as an English major, and for assorted reasons, left to enter the working world.

On a related note, never take a school’s word for it that they know how to accommodate for LD. Insist on observing examples at the very least. 

Had I dyslexic role models, like biologist Carol Greider or archaeologist Jack Horner, maybe I could have found more strength to fight for accommodations.

Had I female role models, like chemistry professor Jacqueline Barton and research scientist Heidi Hammel, maybe I would have been able to resist the pressure to go into a field I didn’t care for.

Both women and people with LD are uniquely suited to STEM fields, due to our unique problem solving skills and creative thinking, yet we’re still underrepresented. Why is that?

Harmful Culture
A huge part of it is how the culture still views women and reinforces negative attitudes. While it can be argued that comments like Tim Hunt’s alone aren’t harmful, the problem is that they don’t happen in a vacuum. They have an entire network of behavior and reinforcement behind them. Once female scientists get into their ideal positions, they’re still sexualized and demeaned by the world at large.

When sexists find themselves paying for their behavior, they’re suddenly turned into victims. Look at the language of the first headlines that popped up when I looked up “Nobel Prize winner sexist”, because I couldn’t remember Hunt’s name:

Gosh. Poor guy. He was fired over – wait, he resigned?

If he was as innocent as these articles are trying to make him out to be, why didn’t he try staying at a job he’s passionate about and redeeming himself? He was knighted, won the Nobel prize and still probably has a fair amount of support in his field. It’s not as if he’s suddenly without support. Even if he was fired, would he really be blacklisted from all future work?

Matt Taylor, who wore a tacky shirt covered in images of barely clad women while making a huge announcement admitted his mistake, apologized accordingly, and as far as I know, is still working in his field. Plenty of people minimized the event, mocked those who were offended and defended his choice to wear it.

The difference is, Taylor admitted his mistake, then worked to remedy it, while Hunt turned himself into a victim by claiming to be forced into resignation over his comment.

Although a massive part of the problem stems from the subtle, and not so subtle, sexism girls and women are subjected to throughout their lives, another aspect is how slights and punishments are handled in the mainstream. By turning perpetrators into victims and victims into perpetrators, we’re undoing the good done by encouraging diversity in other areas.

We absolutely need events like Girls & Science put on by our amazing science museum and Girls Get Science in Maryland, but there need to broader changes, as well.

As for disability, that’s usually erased completely. The only time it’s acknowledged is when the individual has a visual disability, like in Stephen Hawking’s case. People with LD actually make up a huge part of the scientific community, but most of the world is blind to that fact, because it’s still a taboo topic.

Women Led Science Shows/Lessons
As amazing as Bill Nye is, when all children can have female faces to associate with science, it sinks in that boys AND girls can enter the field. Better yet, if those faces can be diverse in culture, race and ability level, even more kids learn to love STEM and feel confident enough to dip their toes in the pool.

SciShow does a good job at embracing the whole diversity thing. Emily is awesome over at The Brain Scoop.

Diversity in History
While this one would be something that would take decades to do, we should start including the splinter histories, like women’s history, black history, and disability history in the mainstream history classes. Why? Because those splinters ARE mainstream history. They should be included year round, instead of relegated to a couple of months a year, if at all. 

The more you normalize diversity, the more accepted it becomes.

Desexualize Girls/Destigmatize Disability
I include these in the same category, because they both take the focus away from what an individual can offer and shifts it to harmful stereotypes.

Girls are still taught to strictly police their appearances, whether it’s through dress codes geared towards keeping boys from being “distracted” or judgement calls on their overall appearance. The majority of media and marketing directed at girls is more concerned about fashion, romance or domesticity than building intelligence or encouraging creativity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with romance and the like, but what’s wrong with giving girls more choice in their dreams?

Let’s create more stories about female doctors, astronauts and engineers without the romantic subplot. Their personal struggles alone are just as dramatic as male characters’. Let’s start including more girls in marketing science kits without turning everything pastel and frilly. (Enough with the pink.)

Disability is still treated as an insurmountable barrier. Headlines of successful dyslexics or people with autism are usually something like, “They did this great thing IN SPITE OF their terrible affliction”! In reality, many of those people succeeded in their dreams because of the strengths their “affliction” gave them.

Let’s take Temple Grandin, for example. Her success comes from her intense focus on cattle behavior and her ability to think in images. She also made the connection between how deep pressure soothed her when she grew overwhelmed and the press used to calm cows during certain procedures. That gave rise to the Squeeze Machine, which now helps many people get the deep pressure they need every day. She accomplished what she did because of her autism, not in spite of it.

Women, even those of us with unique wiring, have a place in STEM. The obstacles we face aren’t because of our gender or neural connections. They’re all cultural.

What’s both the best and worst thing about culture? We can change it.

The issue is, are we willing to put the effort into making it more inclusive? Or will we let the old poisons continue to fester?

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