Can a girl have an Oscar and a Bunsen Burner too?
The first thing I thought when I read this article in Monday's New York Times was "How cool! All these women are scientists?!" What immediately followed was the thought "Too bad." Too bad I never knew that Winnie from the Wonder Years loves math. Too bad I never found out that Blossom totally digs science. Too bad I had no idea that Queen Amidala was a super science nerd in high school, or I might have found the Star Wars prequels more interesting.
More importantly, I might have realized sooner that my interest in math and science didn't need to be sacrificed for my love of the performing arts, getting all As, or for the sake of having a social life. Arguably all three of these celebrities, Danica McKeller, Mayim Bialik, and Natalie Portman, earned their achievements in science and math after my more-formative years, but there are thousands of young girls out there who could and would benefit from knowing that these women, and others, have worked hard to make great accomplishments in a field that continues to be populated by few women.
This article in last month’s Times summarizes the findings of a UC Berkeley study called Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline. According to the study, more women than ever before are becoming Ph.D.s in science. In fact, women make up a majority population of Ph.D.s in the fields of psychology, social science, and life science. However, after completing an advanced degree, the number of women represented in research and tenured positions falls rapidly. Women who are “married with young children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position after receiving a Ph.D. in science than are married men with young children and Ph.D.’s in science.” Women are twice as likely to shift their career track or change careers after having children as men in the sciences. The study sites a lack of paid maternity leave and long inflexible hours, as some of the obstacles for women on a tenure track. The star of Blossom and the Big Bang Theory, Dr. Mayim Bialik, sums it up: “there’s nothing like being a graduate student to bring you to tears.”
President Obama has highlighted the crisis in science and math education throughout his presidency citing a projected shortfall of 280,000 math and science teachers by 2015. We know from the recently released White House report on Women that despite the fact that women make up 57 percent of college enrollment and bachelors degree holders, “they earn less than half of all bachelor’s degrees in mathematical and physical sciences and 20% of computer and engineering degrees.” As an educator, a woman, and an avid scientist, I share these concerns. How to we get more girls to pursue science and math when they don’t have great teachers to encourage them to learn? How do we create more teachers and role models for girls when women are forced to choose between pursuing their intellectual passions and starting a family?
One solution lies in highlighting the achievements of celebrity women like Natalie Portman, who have pursued their interests in science as well as in other areas. While I commend the New York Times for highlighting this part of Portman’s semi-secret past, I regret she hasn’t taken a stand to publicize it herself, to the benefit of young women all over the country. I’m also disappointed at the conclusion of the article, that “you can be a scientist, but if you want your name in lights, you’d better play one on TV.”
I’d like to offer a different conclusion. The successes of Hedy Lamarr, Dr. Mayim Bialik, Danica McKeller, and Natalie Portman prove that women can be scientists and celebrities if they work diligently towards the things they love. Furthermore, I’d like to offer Natalie Portman, and other female celebrities of her status, one suggestion: next time you win an Oscar, shout from that podium about what you have achieved because somewhere, there is a girl watching as she does her science homework, and she wants to be just like you.
Etta King is the Education Program Manager at the Jewish Women's Archive.