Calling All Gulo Girls (and Boys): Women and Science at a Bozeman Celebration

960178_10151906028044507_2043002557_nOn Friday, October 11th, a group of Bozeman organizations will host an event in honor of the International Day of the Girl. The celebration, which is part of a worldwide movement for girls’ education and rights, will be held at the Your Yoga Studio in downtown Bozeman from 6-9 pm, and is free and open to the public.

The theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl is “Innovation in Girls’ Education.” I’ve been invited to speak at this event, as a representative of women, science, and cross-cultural research experiences. I will talk about wolverines, what it’s like to work in Mongolia, what it’s like to direct a research project (in particular, one that includes month-long ski expeditions with four guys twice your size), and will offer a few observations on what might be driving the lack of women in the sciences in the States.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for the past week, and realize that I have a fair amount to say about it – probably more than can be reasonably included in a ten minute speech. In short, I intensely dislike being categorized as belonging to a certain group with a certain set of concerns/prescribed behaviors allegedly applicable to that group. When I work internationally, I can’t escape from the persistent nightmare of what it would have been like to have been myself – a girl not very interested in traditional girl things, a girl with zero interest in being a wife or a mother, a girl driven almost entirely by love of knowledge and books and exploring the world and expressing herself through writing – in a culture where those things are denied to girls simply because they’re girls. I can’t help but think about the many, many smart girls out there who share these kinds of dreams, but who lack the freedom or the agency or even the basic education to pursue them. These girls face a tremendous challenge, and I’m truly pleased that the Bozeman community is showing support for the worldwide efforts to address girls’ education and empowerment. This community is home to international endeavors, most notably the Iqra Fund, which are working on girls’ education in some of the regions where women and girls face the greatest levels of discrimination. Bozeman is also home to a large community that bridges the US and Mongolia – a country where women are highly educated, and very visible in business and public life. We have a range of cross-cultural experience in this little Montana town, which makes the prospect of dialogue on this topic all the more interesting.

We still face challenges here in the US, too – witness the recent flurry of attention (A New York Times piece, and a couple of research studies, on inherent bias and on how we express confidence) around the lack of women in science, and the deeply rooted cultural dialogues that prompt even highly-educated and empowered women to abandon scientific education and careers. One thing that struck me, in reading through some of the literature on this topic: it seems that mentorship and encouragement are two of the biggest factors influencing a decision to stay in the scientific fields, and that maybe for cultural reasons we are more likely to mentor and encourage boys in these fields. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have several individuals, male and female, who have consistently supported the idea that what I’m doing is important and has value – and this has made all the difference at critical points when I have indeed contemplated giving up. The other thing that seems to insulate some women against abandoning the sciences could be called, after a quote by a woman in the Times article, the “I don’t give a crap” factor; that is, a heavy dose of caring more about what you’re interested in than about what the world around you thinks of what you’re doing. One thing that all of the studies and research seem to agree on: the dearth of American women in science and math is about cultural issues, not about innate abilities.

Unfortunately, for American women, the question of whether we stick with science seems to have a lot to do with internal dialogue about self-worth. Again, I could go on about this for quite a while, but I’ll wait until I’ve condensed it all into several pithy and succinct thoughts for the speech, and then post that here. For girls in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the next frontier of education is simply upholding and enacting the right to go to school – as young women like Malala Yousafzai, shot and nearly killed at age 14 by the Taliban for speaking up about girls’ education, can attest. For those of us in countries where we take basic education for granted, it seems like the next step is examining our own deeply-held preconceptions to make sure that we’re not discouraging ourselves or others from equal participation in fields that are not only enthralling, but at the forefront of our economic and intellectual future.

Finally, a concluding thought. Speaking up about women’s empowerment is sometimes taken as an attack on men. I’ve had my share of experiences with annoying men, and I’ve certainly spent time being frustrated by the structural issues within various institutions that privilege men and allow them to get away with mistreating (or ignoring the accomplishments of) women. But here in the US, at least, the men with whom I’ve had problems are simply ignorant human beings with a poor capacity for self-reflection and empathy. Far more frequently, men have been teachers, mentors, and partners in various adventures and endeavors, and that’s certainly true in the case of the Mongolian wolverine research. Men and boys face challenges and issues too – in Mongolia, for example, when I was teaching as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the boys were far more retiring and non-participatory in class, placing them at a disadvantage for employment in the new market economy after graduation. Male friends of mine here in the States wrestle with gender roles around parenting and who “should” be the breadwinner in the family – a stereotype that seems to be enforced as frequently by women as by men. These too are challenges that should be addressed. I’m not looking for a world where women’s empowerment means a dictatorship of the female; I’m looking for a world where everyone has an equal chance of participation, in professional, public, and family life, without regard to external biological characteristics like sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity. Human beings are human beings, first and foremost, and we all deserve the chance to make the most of the life that we’re given.

So if you’re in Bozeman, hope to see you this Friday!

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