The Importance of Representation Part 1: The Early Years

This post is the beginning of a four part series on the importance of representation as a woman in science. Part one will cover general childhood, part two will discuss middle and high school, part three will discuss college, and part four will be all about grad school and beyond! A lot of parts one through three will be personal experiences, but ones that I either feel are similar to those experienced by other women, or that I have heard other women talk about too. With that introduction, let’s get into the early years of representation.

As much as I know she’s going to be modest and humble (and maybe a little embarrassed) reading this, one of the most beneficial representations of women in science for me has always been my mom. I grew up in a family where both of my parents had their PhDs, and it wasn’t presented as unusual. In my household, women being in science was completely normal. I sat at dinner tables where science was discussed among equals, and both of my parents always spoke to my brother and I as though we were adults. When I didn’t understand something, they never talked down to me or made me feel dumb for not understanding immediately, whether it was a science concept or some other aspect of my life. They never treated my younger brother and I any differently from one another. They encouraged exploration and experiments. I had kid’s science kits as a child, with little containers that had magnifying glass lids so that I could look closer at the bugs I caught in them. When I asked questions, they encouraged me to think first and see if I could figure out the answer myself. They are both people who think scientifically and work things out, and they always encouraged that in my brother and I as well. Just like they spoke to my brother and I as equals, they spoke to each other that way too.

Although my mom stopped working in the lab shortly after I was born, she and my dad still often discussed (and still discuss) all manner of scientific concepts, and there was never an imbalanced dynamic there. I grew up in a household where women doing science were seen as just as competent as men. It wasn’t questioned, it was accepted. I never felt like my parents didn’t want me to enjoy science. I once asked my mom a simple yes or no question, just to make sure I had correctly understood the difference between mitosis and meiosis. I got my answer – yes – as well as a half-hour explanation of why.

I’ve also always thought of my mom as smart, because she is. It’s clear from just one conversation with her that she’s sharp as a tack. Science topics aside, she thinks things through, and her conversations with me and with others are intelligent and thoughtful. She does the New York Times crossword every day. In pen. She challenges herself to learn new things and use her brain, and that’s clear to everyone who meets her. She’s also not afraid to stand up for herself. We were once having a conversation together about someone – who shall remain unnamed – who has a tendency to talk down to everyone they know. They spoke as though they were the most intelligent person there, and it could make you feel like they thought you were an idiot. My mom agreed with my frustration, and said something along the lines of, “they always talk to me like they think I need them to explain everything! It’s infuriating. I’m not an idiot. Sometimes I just want to swat them with my PhD!” My mom has never been the type to actually hit someone, but having a mom who wasn’t afraid to say she was intelligent and could stand up for herself was hugely beneficial in a world where women calling themselves smart can be seen as braggy, bossy, or conceited.

That’s not to say that my dad wasn’t helpful to me, either. Growing up in a family with two parents with doctorates meant I was constantly surrounded by science, and he encouraged me to work hard just as much as my mom did. But it’s always nice to have a female role model to look at and say, “she got a doctorate. She did it. So can I.” (I know I’ve totally embarrassed you with attention now, Mom, but it’s in a good way. Plus, it’s sorta my job to do that).

So what’s the takeaway here? Why is this important? Simple. From as early as elementary school, young girls are discouraged to pursue science. In a previous post, I referenced the fact that girls tend to be graded more harshly by teachers, but that’s not the only issue. The implicit bias towards more “feminine” careers is present even at an early age, as is the implicit bias against women in STEM. This comic from XKCD says it quite well:



The experience I had growing up meant that these things didn’t get to me nearly as much as they might have otherwise. If I ever felt discouraged, or not smart enough, I had someone to look at to prove me wrong. Any feelings of discouragement I felt at school were immediately eliminated when I got home. Positive female science role models and a positive environment for girls who like science are more beneficial than one might realize. So if you’re a parent with a daughter who thinks she likes science, make sure to encourage her. And if you’re a girl, a young woman, or anyone who likes science, look out for female scientists that you can look back on when you feel like you can’t do it. And if you can’t find one, just know that my mom is still getting letters addressed to Dr. Atcheson.



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