I spent the weekend at Chicago TARDIS – an annual convention for Doctor Who fans in the Chicagoland area. On Friday, during one of the early panel discusssions someone mentioned that there would be a panel on Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) during the Pertwee Era. And after that panel, someone asked me why I was excited about it. (I had whoopped in approval and done the air-punch thing at the mention of the panel). Anyway, I talked to the woman running the panel on Friday, for about half an hour, about a lot of the issues surrounding women in STEM – and some of the changes and additional opportunities for girls now compared to say, the 1980s.
The panel discussion was on Saturday, and it was more of a lecture/presentation rather than a panel discussion, but it was still an excellent panel. The presentor, Adrienne Provenzano, was also a NASA Solar System Ambassador, a volunteer who talks about NASA and is interested in Space Science. She mentioned not only STEM but STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Humanities, and Math. And really though she didn’t go into a great deal of detail about STEAM education – it really sounds like a good start for re-vamping public education in the US. Everyone today needs to know real science, they need to not only learn how to use technology by picking it up and using it, but they need to know how it works. Practical engineering is a needed skill – especially hands-on basics in engineering is something students need to study in high school – so they will be interested in studying it in college. The US really needs to bring the Arts back into schools – art appreciation, music appreciation, cultural appreciation, but also actual hands-on arts like drawing, painting, pottery, crafts, theatre / drama, music, choir – we’re getting a generation that had no exposure to drama, music, and art in school – so they don’t care when arts budgets are slashed or theatres are closed. And finally everyone needs to know math, which is both a practical skill and the foundation of many of the sciences.
Adrienne’s presentation first focused on four areas for women in STEM: Visability, Mentorship, Opportunity, Work environment. All of those are important for both getting young girls interested in STEM – but they are also important because negative experiences in any one of those areas can drive girls and women out of STEM – and if an individual girl experiences two or more in a negative way – they will most certainly be turned off from the STEM fields.
Visability – Girls need to see women in roles that aren’t traditional gender roles. They need to be taught about Ada Lovelace, and Mde Curie, and other women in the sciences, computers, math, etc rather than having the female inventors and women in STEM swept under the carpet and being invisible because they aren’t taught in grade school and high school history classes. But girls also need too see women in their lives in the STEM fields. And girls need to see fictional women in STEM who can be roles models – because even though they are fictional – if it’s a realistic character and role, it can be inspirational. That’s one (of many) reasons why I love Felicity so much as a character – is because that a young girl can see her and say, “Mommy, I want to be Felicity when I grow up” – and that’s actually possible (well, they can learn coding, and programming, and networking, and various other fields in IT), as I discussed in my post on Felicity Smoak as Role Model. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, notably in my post about the importance of women-centric TV, but I didn’t have that as a kid. I’m not in the than the “women are teachers or nurses” generation; but I’m in the group after that where acceptable occupations were: teacher, nurse, doctor, lawyer, cop. If none of those sounded appealing it was really difficult to figure out what you wanted to do. My generation had people who invented their own jobs – because they didn’t like the way things were being done, but there were also people who re-invented themselves a lot – going back to school, learning new careers, becoming creative professionals, etc.
In terms of Doctor Who – the Pertwee Era had Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, scientist, Jo Grant – really a sort of secret agent want-to-be (but she also developed and grew-up a lot), and Sarah Jane Smith, journalist. Especially with Liz Shaw, simply by being there – as a scientist, using lab equipment, understanding what the Doctor was saying – she’s inspiring girls to stay interested in the sciences.
With Jo – and I must say here that I love Jo, and meeting Katy Manning this weekend was simply incredible – she’s a wonderful person, but anyway, Jo’s introduced as a bit ditzy – but she’s also very young. And she grows and learns, and the Doctor takes the time to teach her and mentor her. Though she’s hypnotised by the Master in “Terror of the Autons”, in “Frontier in Space” she’s completely able to resist the Master’s hypnotism. So she had obviously asked the Doctor how to avoid being hypnotised – then practiced until she got it. Jo also in “The Green Death” marries a professor, in part, who reminds her of the Doctor. And, when she returns in The Sarah Jane Adventures, she’s become a ecologist, and she’s even more developed as a character.
Sarah Jane is actually the character I find the most difficult to sometimes discuss (made infinitely harder by how wonderful Elisabeth Sladen was as a person and actor) because I always felt she started out strong, but ended weak. In her last story, “The Hand of Evil”, she leaves the TARDIS in a candy-striped jumpsuit, carrying a stuffed animal – she looks very young. The Sarah Jane Adventures makes up for that in some way, showing her with a career, and an adopted son, and really being the Doctor to three young people whom she mentors in their adventures. Still, I like Pertwee-Era Sarah Jane, but not so much with Tom Baker-Era Sarah Jane.
Mentorship is something that was mentioned also – and the need for women to have mentors – of both genders. I think it’s extremely important for students to have teachers who encourage them. It’s not coddling and it shouldn’t be – but also, there’s no need to tear-down or bully the next generation. In the panel, it was pointed out Pertwee mentored all of his companions – and that was true too. Though at times, he might seem a bit paternalistic – it comes accross, really, as a more loving father than a hinderance. It can be a fine line, and there’s a need for individual adaptation there as well. Some students like competition and challenge, and while I don’t think anyone really wants anything to be too easy, some students really don’t like being forced into competition and do better in a cooperative environment – which, incidentally, prepares them to be successful later in life in teams at work.
Opportunity – We can’t have more women in STEM fields if they aren’t hired. It’s as simple as that. And for some young women, constant rejection will cause them to choose fields other than STEM, or related to STEM but less prestigious. An audience member in the panel, who was in the biological sciences and studying to be a doctor, said that many women choose to be a Physician’s Assistant rather than a doctor – a choice sometimes due to work environment – the need for less hours and more flexible hours because of family and other obligations.
Work Environment – No one likes to work in a toxic work environment. No one enjoys being bullied or harassed, or even subtle (and largely non-actionable) but still clear indications from co-workers that “we don’t want you here”. There are all sorts of areas where how one is treated at work can cause one to want to quit and do something else. Conversely, a positive, supportive atmosphere can help one to grow and achieve more and go on to do better things. Also, as Adrienne pointed out, it needs to start in school, college/university, and graduate school as a part of mentorship that the mentors – of either gender – encourage female students to publish research papers, attend conferences, apply for grants, even apply for jobs. Once in the professional environment, women still need to be encouraged to move their careers to the next level rather than just settling.
There was a lot more to the panel – both about women in STEM, the gender gap, women graduating from college and even graduate school with STEM degrees but not working in STEM fields, or the specific fields women choose to work in over others, and even the need for more people in STEM jobs. It was an excellent panel. I think it maybe could have used more discussion (such as having two people on a panel discussing, with audience participation) but it still was awesome to have at Chicago TARDIS this discussion – and I really liked how the discussion was connected to the Pertwee Era of Doctor Who.