Science: It's a girl thing

Science: It's a girl thing

I came home the other day to find my daughter finishing up one of her many art creations.

She proudly showed me a sheet of paper with a half-dozen detailed drawings around the edges — things like hairstyling, makeup, jewelry. In the middle was the title: “It’s a girl thing.”

Blog PhotoI could feel the blood rise immediately to my forehead.

“Or,” I said, trying to keep my voice ever helpful, “you could put in science, or math, or sports.”

My husband gave me a combined eye-roll head-shake, which I knew meant, “Chillax, mom.”

While my daughter has gone through princess/ballet/fairy phases, she’s also had fairly diverse interests. She isn’t a sportsaholic but plays basketball and Peanut League baseball. She takes piano and loves to write and draw, but also likes inventing machines and doing science projects.

I have nothing against the humanities, music or princesses. But I’ve heard the scary statistics about how girls are socialized against math and science. I’ve seen the T-shirts that proclaim “Allergic to algebra” and “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me” (particularly galling in our house, where she is far more likely to do her (older) brother’s homework).

I belong to a generation of women who had few role models in science, math and engineering. I just want my daughter to keep her options open. What I struggle with is how to encourage her without a) being a psycho, overbearing mom in a way my own mother never was or b) stifling her passions or c) denigrating what it means to be a girl.

I decided to ask a few women scientists for advice.

Professor Lizanne Destefano, director of the University of Illinois Science Technology Engineering and Math initiative, which encourages young students in those fields, has heard her own daughter say she hated math and physics, even though she’s good at both.

“There has to be some social thing that goes on,” she said, whether it’s the way schools are organized or messages in advertising and Blog Photoother media. Eureopean countries don’t have the same gender imbalance in STEM fields, she said.

“It’s not cool in the United States for a girl to be good in science,” Destefano said. “Go to Russia, Greece, Italy and talk about gender differences; they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Joanne Manaster, a UI biology lecturer who has a website called, worries that peer pressure against girls going into science may be growing, based on the feedback she gets through social media.

“Everyone’s worried their daughter won’t choose science,” she said.

It isn’t the same kind of barrier women faced years ago, when they were actively discouraged from entering those fields. But commercials and movies and TV shows aimed at tweens seem to say that if you want to be attractive, don’t do science, she said.

Manaster is all about making science cool, even for girls who like makeup and jewelry. A former model, Manaster is known as ScienceGoddess on Twitter, where she has more than 12,000 followers. She says almost anything can be an entree to science, including beauty products.

Manaster produces short videos about science, and one of her recent offerings involved the flammability of nail polish. She has another on the chemistry of mascara. And what are jewels but crystals, gems and rocks?

“If that’s the in, then that’s the in,” she said.

Kate Clancy, assistant UI professor of anthropology, studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology and blogs for Blog PhotoScientific American. She has an all-female lab group as well as a 3-year-old daughter who is “so into princesses right now.”

Clancy confesses that she was a “girly girl” when she was young, too. She loved dressing up, and Ariel was her hero, “one of the worst Disney princesses. She gives up everything just because she thinks a guy is cute from far away.”

Clancy much prefers the sensible Belle, the hard-working Tiana from the “Princess and the Frog” or “Mulan,” who disguises herself as a man so she can enlist in the Chinese Army in her elderly father’s place.

A longtime feminist who once favored men’s clothing, Clancy likes to wear dresses and high heels now, and she’s careful not to push the anti-princess thing too hard.

“The message you have to send is, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a girl,’” she said. “It’s not that girls are bad, it’s that relegating girls to only those things that’s bad.”

Manaster says role models are crucial. Her two oldest children — a boy in college, a girl in high school — have chosen to study atmospheric science and physics, respectively. Both were influenced by an imaginative physics teacher at Central High School.

She and her daughter recently did two book review videos with primatologist Mireya Mayor, a National Geographic TV host. A former NFL cheerleader, Mayor was inspired by the movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” about zoologist Dian Fosse.

“You never know what’s going to influence people,” Manaster said.

Getting girls involved in science early is a key. Manaster has helped out with UI engineering camps for middle school girls and was to visit a “Girls Do Science” program at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum this week.

My daughter is taking the class, where they get to do things like dissect owl vomit and identify rodent bones (OK, that’s probably the real reason I didn’t choose science). I asked her one day what she thought of it.

“It’s fun,” she said. ”We get to make worms and goo and stuff.”

It’s a start. And there’s always the flaming nail polish experiment.


(With apologies to Mireya Mayor, whose name I managed to garble in the first edition of this column. Luckily, she is a gracious scientist!)


Julie Wurth writes and blogs about families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, or


Top: Nakiaya Reed, right, and Ashlynn Morgan work at Boys and Girls Club of Danville at a July 2010 science camp put on by Danville High School science teachers. Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette

Middle: Lucy Moss examines a hard-boiled egg during a Feb. 27 talk by U.S. Geological Survey outreach coordinator Ayla Alt on tectonic plates during the Girls Do Science Club Spring 2012 event at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in Champaign. The eggs were used to represent the different layers of the earth. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Bottom: Assistant professor Kate Clancy, front, stands with her all-female lab group at the UI Medical Sciences Building in Urbana on March 8, 2012. Behind Clancy are Emily Marzolph, Sophia Bodnar, Dana Ahren and Erin O'Neill. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette


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