The Passion of Pluto

I woke up this morning to the Google Doodle celebrating NASA’s New Horizons space probe flyby of Pluto. I have to admit, I’m pretty keen on seeing those pictures, and understanding what it means for us here at home. While reading the BBC’s Science article  about the flyby, I got goosebumps.

Okay, so that isn’t entirely unusual for me given that I get goosebumps at car commercials during the Olympics, but this got me thinking: why do I care so much that I have a visceral, emotional response?

It came down simply to this: I care because I have been taught to be excited about it. I care because I have gleaned the passion from others who are passionate about it. I care because the curiosity that drove those scientists to launch the probe nearly 10 years ago has been passed onto me. (Albeit their ability to do quantum physics sadly has not.) I care because it’s pretty damn cool.

The thing is, I don’t even know the person that I can credit with getting me excited. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those of you that don’t know, is an American science personality. He is an astrophysicist, a cosmologist and a media darling. His passion about science and things like light and energy and climate change, and dark matter and Pluto is infectious. In the last couple of years, I have begun to pay close attention to him. His ability to communicate the complex web of science to people like me is profound, and has changed my view of science completely. Where once I felt alienated and disinterested from the things he describes, I now find a deliberate curiosity that drives me to learn and read and engage more. Thanks to him, I feel that science can include me too.

I share this story because I think it’s important on a couple of levels.

Something seems to be underrepresented here....hmmm.  I wonder what it could be? (hint: contains estrogen)

Something seems to be underrepresented here….hmmm. I wonder what it could be? (hint: contains estrogen)

The first is that women in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a big deal. It’s a big deal because the gendered politics of the scientific (and dare I say, global) community are real. Recently, there was an uproar caused by the remarks of one Sir Tim Hunt (a scientist AND a Knight. How fancy.) He remarked that women (and I’m paraphrasing here) caused distractions in the lab by crying, starting relationships and being emotional.  Though he has since lost his job and faced serious criticism (to which he responded that he didn’t understand what the big deal was, because he was just telling us his observations) this isn’t the first time that he’s spoken openly  in such a fashion about women in science. He once stated that “one should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing?” Say what?!

It is important to note here that he’s not the only one. He’s just the poor sod that got caught saying it in an open forum. I know this because the facts are clear. According to the US Department of Commerce, women (who represent nearly half –roughly 45%-of all American jobs) fill less than 25% of STEM jobs. Women also hold a disproportionately low number of STEM Undergraduate degrees- particularly in Engineering. Finally, those women that do possess STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to stay in the STEM field over the longterm or experience upward career mobility when they do. Women with STEM degrees are more likely to work in education or healthcare somewhere, calling to mind that Florence Nightingale image of a dutiful, devoted, motherly nurse or the stoic school marm at the front of a classroom ruling with an iron fist and a kind heart.

A while back I came across some research that I think goes a long way in helping the world understand this gender gap in STEM just a little bit more. This time it’s reaching way back to our experience as children in grade school. Girls, as it turns out, are excellent students. They spend more time doing homework, less time playing video games, more time reading for pleasure and generally have better attitudes towards school than boys. In many cases, girls were found to be outperforming boys overall. However, girls are less likely to identify that they are good at science and math, and generally scored lower than boys in these realms. Researchers, after examining the internationally collected data set, “pinned the blame for the disadvantages for girls in maths and science on low expectations among parents and teachers, as well as lack of self-confidence.”

As a child of the 80s, my best friend had a Barbie (that was pulled from the shelves in the early 90s or so) that proclaimed “Math class is tough! Party dresses are fun!” It’s no wonder my gender struggles in STEM; girls suck at math is something that I have known since I was a child. Though no one directly stated this, I absorbed this “knowledge” somewhere along the way. Besides, I was living proof, wasn’t I?

Borrowed from:

Borrowed from:

I can say with great hope and excitement for the future that our acknowledgement of this inequality between men and women in STEM is helping shift the tide, however slowly. The wage gap between men and women in STEM is significantly less than in other fields (although the number of senior positions held by women still lags greatly) and there are numerous programs targeting women and girls, trying to get them involved in STEM related activities and, ultimately careers. Things are looking up, if even just a little.

The second thing (if you’re still with me, I’m talking about the other reason I’ve become passionate about Pluto) is the infectious excitement shared through the various media (okay, I even have a Neil deGrasse Tyson shirt…) that I consume, led by that ever-affable astrophysicist. This connection, this role modeling, this passion that he holds for his field and all that it contains, has rubbed off on me. I’ve never even met the man, and I’m influenced by him in a big way.

This is important. We have, as adults and leaders in our communities, the ability to positively or negatively impact and influence others in a big way too. And we don’t just impact youth. We impact our colleagues, and families; our friends and those we disagree with. We impact them through our social media posts, and our conversations. We impact them through our comments online and our blogs like this one. We impact them through the way we live our lives and engage with the world around us.  People are watching and learning from everything we do.

As mentors, we are able to help set out real, tangible goals for women and girls. As mentors, we can encourage and grow that confidence in our young women, ultimately leading to a narrowing gap in STEM careers. You just never know how your dedication, skills and shared experiences might influence someone, changing the path of their lives.