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Ponnada: Science is sexy, too

BY SRI PONNADA | SEPTEMBER 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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Whenever I tell someone that I am majoring in computer science, I usually get very surprised looks, because it’s relatively uncommon for women to pursue careers in the hard sciences.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is pretty astounding and, quite frankly, depressing.

Women make up more than half the work force in the United States, but they compose only 17 percent of chemical engineers and fewer than 25 percent of environmental scientists.

Computer science doesn’t look any better with its numbers, either.

In 2010, only 14 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients at major research universities (such as the University of Iowa) were women. In 1985, women received nearly 40 percent of the computer-science degrees.

Just last week, I met someone who asked me, “Why computer science?”

I guess that’s a fair question, considering that little girls are socialized to want to be Malibu Barbies and Disney Princesses when they grow up.

But why is it so strange for a woman to maybe want to be the next Steve Jobs?

One of the reasons that women stay away from science and other related fields may be that these areas of study are considered to be masculine. It isn’t thought of as very feminine or attractive for a woman to program or solve differential equations.

Studies have found that this stigma actually starts in childhood, when girls are encouraged to play with specific toys such as stuffed pink bunnies and Easy Bake ovens instead of construction sets or robots.

Research shows that girls’ toys are typically associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills. For little girls, this emphasizes the importance of cosmetics and physical appearance, with the most important message being to look pretty. What else are women good for, right?

One extremely popular brand of toys that is infamous for hammering such idiotic ideas into the minds of young girls is LEGO.

LEGO’s female mini-figures are usually holding a carrot, baking cookies, or brushing horses while their male counterparts are constructing planes, fighting crime, and doing other important crap.

After decades of producing stereotype-laden toys, however, LEGO finally took a step toward equality earlier this month by introducing an interesting new character.

Professor C. Bodin, LEGO’s new character, is the company’s first woman scientist. She is equipped with beakers and has quite an impressive résumé, winning the “coveted Nobrick Prize for her discovery of the theoretical System/DUPLO Interface,” as her bio states. “The Scientist,” as she is called, spends all night in her lab trying to find “new and interesting ways to combine things together.”

The unveiling of Professor C. Bodin’s character is not only a huge step for the LEGO toy company in addressing its unbalanced ratio of male to female mini-figures but also a pretty decent breakthrough in battling prevailing gender stereotypes and in encouraging more women to go into major STEM fields.

As we should know by now, the glass ceiling hindering women and trapping them in prescribed, subservient gender roles still hasn’t been broken. And that’s why something as seemingly silly as a LEGO mini-figure is such a big deal.

Professor C. Bodin emerges at a time when we, as a society, need to confront gender stereotypes and socialize little girls to see that things such as science and math aren’t unfeminine.

Science can be sexy, too.


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