It is official, I have been in graduate school too long. It has started to change the way I think about the world!

Last night, I was at a local Science Pub event. This in and of itself, might trigger the “nerd” label for some people, but as a fairly educated person before starting this PhD, and living in a liberal, college town, lots of types of people attend these events now.  Science Pubs are almost trendy these days. Our local one is often standing room only, and takes place in a venue that is used frequently for concerts, fund-raisers and shows of all kinds.  Even the name of the venue is cool- Cozmic Pizza- you can have pizza and a beer and listen to smart people talk.  Not a bad way to spend an weekday evening.  Also, the topic was not even that fringe- “You Are What You Eat: The Evolutionary Importance of Diet in Mammals”.  The talk was given by a local professor, Dr. Samantha Hopkins, who is in the Geology Department at the University of Oregon. While her work is often in paleontology, she is a self-described “mammal geek” and her talk was peppered with lots of funny anecdotes and plenty of cute photos of mammals (none of which my partner would agree to let me get as a pet… sigh…)

All of this was a pleasant experience. I learned a few things, laughed a few times, and enjoyed a glass of Kombucha. However, it was during the question and answer phase that the wheels in my head started spinning.  While gender issues in science are not a particular area of study for me, it does come up in my department on a fairly regular basis, and both my daughters are just starting to explore gender issues through courses in their own college experience, so it is on my radar. Yet, it took me a bit to realize, “hmm… so far, all of the people who have asked questions are guys” and I thought, “I am going to pay attention to this and see if it continues.”  It is probably no big surprise to anyone that it did continue.  Out of around 12 questions (I didn’t start counting until I had my observation, so I had to make a best guess about the total number), only 2 were asked by women, much later in the Q & A session. To make matters even sadder, one of the women qualified her question by stating “this is probably a dumb question” as she asked it.  So, I did a scan of the room, and while I did not do a full head count, it seemed that pretty close to 50% of the audience was female.  Furthermore, this was a completely free-choice experience, in a social setting, with alcohol available to loosen social inhibitions, and the topic was even more focused on biology- an area females typically express a slightly higher interest in than males.

While I may have previously made an observation like this, and possibly gone on a slight feminist rant about it, what was truly surprising to me was my next thought.  Where my mind went next was “it would be pretty easy to design a research project to explore this more in depth.” We could have people do gender counts when people walk in the door and then keep track of how many questions were asked by each (notice I am also consciously using gender as opposed to sex, as we could only make a best guess by appearances, without doing a more involved study- grad school is teaching me so much about so many things!).  We could compare this data across different locations, different topics of Science Pubs, we could try to look at different age groups- there are all kinds of interesting questions to explore! And the fact that I now think of more explicit ways to explore them, instead of just a curious observation, was a sign to me that I just might have been in grad school too long.

PS- and the next sign was that my first thought about it this morning was, “and I could write a Blog post about it”!

In the FCL Lab, we are all interested in learning about how people learn science.  Often, we approach this process by looking at how they currently interact with scientific exhibits and other people in those exhibits.  What they say, what they do, and how they then reflect on the experience gives us social scientists information about how the information is being processed.  I am interested in this work because the processing of information by an individual is very telling.  But often, we aren’t aware of the impacts that our home culture, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status play in how we perceive the world, let alone science.  So for my first FCL blog, I want to bring this question to the forefront: How has gender played a role in how we see science?

In today’s postmodern, feminist, gender-blending world, the idea of gender can be sometimes seen as a negative four-letter word.  I am sure that there have been situations where you looked at someone and wanted to ask, “Is that a man or woman,” but know it is not PC to do so.  As social scientists, we don’t often ask questions in relation to gender unless we feel they are important to the study.  But listening to a This American Life podcast made me rethink whether we should research the role gender plays in learning science.  Here is a link to the podcast.

In Act Two of the podcast, you meet Griffin Hansbury, who was born a woman but has since transitioned into man.  He speaks about how increasing testosterone has changed his life – not only in the way he sees the world and himself in the world, but even in his interests.  At one point, he mentions that after taking testosterone he finds that he is more interested in science.  The interviewer remarks that with that comment, he has set our society back 100 years.  But is there some truth in what Griffin said?  If we look at the science field, it is dominated by males (many of whom are white – but that is another blog post).  Is it because the way science is done now speaks to a male, testosterone-fueled mind? Would it be different if science was propelled by female, estrogen-fueled minds?

In Star Trek’s Next Generation episode, Angel One, the crew encounters a society woman-dominated culture.  On this planet, women not only hold the positions of power, but are also the ones that do the science.  Men on this planet are considered “emotional” and incapable of doing anything in leadership or science.  As a work of science fiction, this episode not only points out the inaccuracies with this form of thinking, but also serves as a social commentary on our society.  Could it be that somehow this still holds true in our modern day, despite supposed advancements in gender equality?  If we move further into the World of Geek and equate how women are viewed in science with how they are viewed in gaming, maybe the video Nothing To Prove can give us an inkling of what is happening today.

You be the judge.