Spreading the Joy

May 20, 2015 by Bill Ivey

Powerful #GirlsWithToys campaign proves once and for all that women have a place in STEM http://huff.to/1GmwBX5 (tweet by HuffPostTech)

Well. That is good news. But I can’t help but wonder - how did we get so quickly to that point?

It all started with an interview on NPR with Professor Shrinivas Kulkarni of the California Institute of Technology. The main purpose of the interview seemed to be to humanize scientists and to make it clear they are not just deadly serious denizens of labs but also as fun-loving as the next person. One of Professor Kulkarni’s main points was, “Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys.' (...) I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it.”

You will have picked up on the potential controversy incited by this interview, as this pull quote essentially leaves out - well, at a minimum, every scientist who does not identify as male. Within hours, a new hashtag, #GirlsWithToys had been created to identify, celebrate, and affirm girls and women in science and the toys they love.

Nuance matters, and a female grad student from Professor Kulkarni’s department with the usename “loKleiser” wrote in to defend him as someone who “has the least problem with advising women because he just treats us all like people” and who “has done nothing but make me feel welcome in astronomy.” And I have no doubt that he is a kind person who would consider himself the last person to act out of misogyny.

And yet, however unconsciously and however good his intentions, he did.

Misogyny, whether conscious or unconscious, is undeniably a major factor in the unacceptably low percentage of women in STE(A)M, as I’ve written about before (for example, here). And so checking oneself for unconscious gender prejudice, standing up to others when needed, and in general working toward a world where all gender identities and expressions are equally valued and respected continues to be necessary and ongoing work.

That said, we do need joy in our lives, so what if Professor Kulkarni’s open expression of love of his work were to spread to include all genders? Toward that end, enter Project Wogrammer, described in the article “This is what a female engineer looks like” which was shared on Twitter by Jen Siebel Newsom. Co-founders Erin Summers and Zainab Ghadiyali wrote, "As software engineers, we get asked a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in tech. Are there any horror stories? Have we experienced sexism in school or at work? We would much rather be asked about our technical accomplishments and the technology we’ve built: What was the first Android app that Erin built? What was Zainab’s winning Hackathon project?" That’s the goal of Project Wogrammer (on Facebook and Twitter), to join pictures of girls and women in STE(A)M with interviews about what those people are doing.

Much as I would like to believe that the #GirlsWithToys hashtag will put to rest forever all the issues that keep the percentage of girls and women in STE(A)M lower than it should be, with the considerable aid of Project Wogrammer, I’m just too aware of the work yet to be done. But the images being shared of joyful girls and women with their science toys are giving a face to the notion that tech is indeed something they do and love doing. The accompanying words, whether 140-character tweets or longer interviews, express that undiluted joy. All of that has to be helping.

Given that description offered by the Caltech grad student, I can’t help but think that Professor Kulkarni, if he knows about Project Wogrammer, would love both their parallel expression of love for science and their affirmation of the feminine. And I can’t help but think that, however sad he might be at the origins of the #GirlsWithToys hashtag, he would also support what they are doing. Because Ms. Summer and Ms. Ghadiyali are definitely on to something - while it’s important to acknowledge obstacles to girls and women in STE(A)M and work to overcome and eradicate them, it’s equally important to spread the joy.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

Find me on:

Filed Under: STEAM, Feminism, STEM, Education, #GirlsWithToys