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Beauty, Brains and the B-word

A widely recognized fact is the discrepancy between the number of men and women in the science fields. Women’s History Month is a good time to highlight this. This is not to suggest that we have been ignoring the problem. STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) have acknowledged this gap and are trying to fix it. However, on the whole, these efforts are still showing limited results.

It is still much too common that during childhood, females especially, are given a societal choice; they can choose beauty, or they can choose brains. The choice guides the way they think and act; it often influences their expectations.
Why does one have to choose one or the other? Why do girls have an ultimatum at such an influential age? Why not tell your parents or, better yet, show them you can have beauty and brains.

I am a Biology major, and I can see the divide in the classes I take. It’s not that there is noticeable difference in girl to boy ratio (which is hard to tell in a big lecture class with more than 100 students). What speaks loudly is the attitude you get from others, primarily males. Some female acquaintances of mine have run into the same problem.

When you are in a lab setting, you are in small groups and work together to get the results you need for the assignment. Afterwards comes the clean-up, because it’s a lab and not a teen’s bedroom. That is where problems seem to start, at least in this case. A female colleague told me that during one clean-up, a male counterpart said to her, “There are some bakers that are still dirty,” even though he could see that she was cleaning up another area. It appears that he had only to think about what needed to be done, not do it. His female lab partner was better suited for the task than he was.

It is interactions like these that can be very discouraging for women in our efforts to choose science as a major and career path. An experience like the one above doesn’t sit well. You are put into a corner and left with two responses. You can tell him to do it himself, because he has nothing to do and you are busy, or say okay. One response paints you as something you are not, and will more than likely evoke the B-word, silently if you are lucky. The other earns you that submissive “nice girl” label, which is equally offensive. Both interactions can lead a woman to question her career choice. Will she be an equal who has completed the same work as her male coworker; or will she be an assistant, even if valuable, still an afterthought. Maybe earning the B-word isn’t so bad after all when it shows that you will not be second class.

[By Dominique Waller]
Dominique Waller is a KU
Freshman Majoring in Biology