Female scientists’ #prettycurious campaign aimed at young women

By Thea Voutiritsas

The latest effort from energy company EDF to get girls engaged in science has created a polarizing debate. The #prettycurious campaign was an attempt to encourage girls to pursue study in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, but has received much backlash for its seemingly stereotypical view of female scientists. The #prettycurious hashtag has been met on twitter with the counter-hashtag, #prettysexist. The company argues that the wording was an attempt to start a dialogue centered on sexism and science, stating, “It’s not about being ‘pretty’; it’s about being ‘pretty curious.’”

Those opposed of the #prettycurious movement argue that the hashtag perpetuates the idea that women must be pretty to work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), or that women must link their work with their outward appearance. Supporters argue that the use of the word “pretty” here sends the message that you don’t have to lose your femininity to work in Stem, and that any way to pique girls’ interest in science should be OK.

In my book, EDF should at least get an A for effort. While women continue to be a minority in STEM, the question we should be asking is, “How can we get girls into science?” Not whether adults will find a campaign controversial, or politically incorrect. By arguing over this, we are missing the whole point of the hashtag in the first place, which is to attract girls to science. Rather than focusing our efforts on EDF’s campaign strategy, let’s put some energy into getting girls into Stem at all.

For further reading, visit this post, or search the #prettycurious on Twitter.

Wonder Woman in STEM: Mary Barra

By Torshawna Grffin

Imag courtesy of Google Images; found through Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Google Images; found through Creative Commons

A big “congratulations” goes to Mary Barra for being General Motor’s first female CEO. Making it to the top in a male-dominated field is not the easiest thing. Mary has been with the company for 33 years. When given the promotion she said, “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.” Mary has been with General Motors (GM) since she was 18 years old.  She attended General Motors Institute (known as Kettering University) as a co-op student (meaning that she had to find a GM unit to be her sponsor – she chose Pontiac). Mary has truly worked her way to the top through hard work and perseverance.

For me, being in the Mechanical Engineering field as a woman, it gives me hope that the car industry could one day be female-dominated.  Most people don’t understand that being a woman in a male-dominated industry is hard because not only are you competing with other women, but you are constantly proving to the men that you can be an asset to their company. I struggle with these hardships now within my classes. Because of women like Mary Barra, engineering will no longer be considered a male career. Mary Barra is truly a “WONDERful Woman”.

Wonder Woman and Microbiologist: Dr. Kelly Cowan

By Amber Charleville

In my ongoing quest to interview Wonder Women who inspire me, I knew I had to ask Dr. Kelly Cowan if she would be kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

I met Dr. Cowan in the spring of 2012 when I took her microbiology class at Miami University – Middletown, Ohio (Mum, as the locals call it). It was the first science class I’d taken in thirteen years, and I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a class I had to take on my path to nursing. I wanted to get it right!

Little did I know I’d be walking away from the experience with a love of microbiology, a deeper appreciation for science, and a feminist role model. Dr. Cowan’s passion for teaching transfers to her students and gets them invested in learning.

While I love UMKC and have met many educators I’m thrilled and excited to learn from, Miami University will always hold a special place in my science-loving heart for allowing me a chance to learn from Dr. Cowan.

Now, we keep up through Facebook and Twitter, and I’m a regular reader of her blog, Microbiology Maven, in which she speaks frankly about life as a science professor and being a woman in a STEM field.

In addition to blogging and teaching, Dr. Cowan is also the published author of several popular microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill. So it’s no joke when I say I was lucky to grab a little of her time when she answered a few questions via e-mail for me!


Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

AC: Can you tell me a little about your background? Where you’re from, education, why you chose microbiology, etc?

KC: I’m from Kentucky.  I got all of my degrees from the University of Louisville. Then [I] did postdoctoral training at the [University] of Maryland and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  My path to microbiology was circuitous; I was a lost puppy in college being a first-generation college student.  I was at various times a math major, a psychology major, an English major, and a dental hygiene major.  At no time was I a microbiology major.

When I thought about graduate school, I was trying to decide whether to do creative writing or microbiology.  I chose microbiology figuring if I was going to write I’d better have some experience in something in order to have something to write about.

AC: You’re now a published author of a popular series of microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill, right? How did that come about and how does it feel to know you’re helping to educate not just the students in your classroom, but ones all across the country?

KC: Well, see the answer [below].  I thought, “I can do better than that,” while trying to use the existing textbooks.   Sometimes a little hubris can go a long way.  That was one of those things where it was much harder than I expected but also much more rewarding – being able to change a culture from “let’s put everything we know in this book” to “let’s decide what we want this population to remember five years from now” and meet students where they are.

AC: You have a somewhat unique approach and an infectious passion for your subject in the classroom. How long have you been teaching? And how did you “get in” to teaching?

KC: In graduate school I had some pretty arrogant and lousy professors.   It seemed like they mainly just wanted you to feel like they were smarter than you, and weren’t all that interested in whether they were communicating with you.  I thought to myself: I can do better than that.  And for that reason my favorite classes to teach are the ones with the LEAST prepared students – the 100-level students, non-majors, etc.  To teach that population you have to really know your stuff, and beyond that, be really empathic, and understand where they are and take the focus off of yourself.

AC: Recently, you’ve branched out to writing for your own website and blog, too. I enjoy reading it, but can you tell our readers a little about what sort of topics you tackle and what you like about blogging?

KC:  Well, it’s a blog about science, teaching science, and science and culture.  And the occasional Rumi poem.  Here’s a recent post that manages to tie together college football and women in science: http://www.microbiologymaven.com/miscellany/reflections-on-the-harassment-thing/

AC: You’re a working mom, too. How has that been challenging and rewarding for you? And how do you feel being a working mom differs from being a working dad?

KC:  I hope that soon there will be no difference, and I see a lot of progress towards that.  Unless you’re talking about the actual gestation and birth and recovery, there is no reason that being a working dad shouldn’t be as difficult as being a working mom!

But there is still a ways to go. For instance, in the academic world, the stage of life that you are on the tenure track, spending 5-6 years in full-out overachievement mode so that the one-time decision about whether you have a job for life will go your way – is the very same time, biologically, that you are likely to be giving birth and raising small children.

In academic fields that are male-dominated, it becomes even more difficult as your peers and competitors who are male are likely to have a partner who is managing the lion’s share of the parenting activities.   Because of long-standing gender norms, even if a female scientist has a partner, she is still more likely to be handling the bulk of the child raising.   That is changing for the current generation and it will continue to change.

AC: Recently, there have been a lot of strides to get women and girls more interested and involved in the sciences. Women are sorely needed voices in the scientific community at large. What has been your experience as a woman in science and why do you think it’s important for more women to join the (many) different fields encompassed by ‘science’?

KC:  The whole enterprise of science needs to change to accommodate not only women but the new models of “doing science” – crowd collaboration, interdisciplinary work, etc.   There are a lot of discussions going on about grants, publishing, tenure, etc and I anticipate that science in 20 years will look a lot different than it does now.   It’s sad that the revolution will come not because women have always been undervalued in it, but because the majority population (males) is itself being affected by unstoppable cultural forces.  But it is coming.

AC: Do you consider yourself a feminist, why or why not?

KC: Of course!  And for those women who are proud to say they are not, I would love to make an “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie for them and show them what they would be doing right now without the hard work of feminists before them.  Right after I make the “Wonderful Life” movie for the people who say government is bad, and show them what their “self-made” success would look like without roads, electricity, public health, and yes, taxes.


Thanks again to Dr. Cowan for making time to answer my questions. Our readers can find Dr. Cowan at her blog, www. microbiologymaven.com and on Twitter: @cowanmicro

Beauty vs. Brains?

Image from Flickr.com

By Lakhvir Kaur

It seems like lately we are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, “‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’ ” says Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher and author of the June 2011 paper Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity With Gender Identity. These stereotypes about how a woman good in academics, is not attractive is not guiding women in the right direction. This is just creating insecurities among female teenagers because they feel like they have to pick between either being beautiful or studious. And with t-shirts like this one from Forever 21, it’s no wonder young women are seeing it as “cool” not to like math and science.

These pressures and stereotypes are leading us to a very bleak reality. According to a report released last month by the Department of Commerce, women only hold less than 25 percent of jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). So is Jennifer’s concern true? Are women affected by how they think men are seeing them based on their intelligence? The only way to improve the situation is that we need to stop and think about what we are telling young women today. Instead of telling them that it isn’t “cool” or attractive to be smart we need to show them that women can be both smart and beautiful. Women can do just as well as men in STEM areas, if not better. This means that women should explore more careers in science, math and technology because according to Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher for the American Association of University Women and co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few?,”: “The growth of technology is driven by the people who are designing it. Without women at the design table, the interests of half the population will basically be ignored.”