what a scientist looks like.

“Why is everyone wearing glasses?”

I’m standing with my six-year-old daughter outside of the entrance to the Science Night hosted by her elementary school.  Families of children at the school were invited to delve into the world of discovery at an array of demo and workstations and of course to eat greasy pizza and have sugary drinks.  (I swear, my kids learned all their bad eating habits at school…).  Students were told in advance that there would be some sort of door prize if they showed up looking like a scientist.

My wife and I, both scientists, thought this would be easy.  We had an array of field lenses, traps, nets, GPS units and assorted gadgetry.  But, we got to the entrance and had to justify our qualifications for the prize.  Somehow, our science get-up wasn’t aligning just right with what the folks at the door expected to see.

I looked around and discovered that there was a uniform that everyone knew about and we were, as was our modus, out of the loop.  The uniform consisted of a lab coat and glasses.  Doting smiles from the PTA moms if you had the wherewithal to couple it with a pocket protector and a calculator.

It wasn’t science night; it was some sort of twilight-zoney nerd night.

My daughter had only recently been prescribed glasses.  I remembered my days as a young kid with thick glasses and I was worried about her becoming self-conscious.  It took me awhile to understand that the institutionalized hazing and bullying that occurred in my generation has largely been phased out.  Still, she wears bifocals, and I’m always looking out for her.  Clearly, she got a mixed message and felt mocked by the association of glasses and general social misfit-ness with science.  On top of that, she loves science and always has, so why would people be mocking it?   Science, to her, is all of the fascinating things about the world that her parents are always sharing with her.

We have a certain image that is perpetuated in our culture of what a scientist is and it is not a very good match for reality.  A lot of science takes place outside of a laboratory and a lot of it is done by people who don’t look like social misfits.  It’s pretty clear that there is a significant disconnect between the world of science and the general public and the lines of communication are either indirect or convoluted.  Lately in the United States there has been a festering distrust of science that has led to debate over whether scientific discoveries are even real.  This has stalled the climate change movement for years.  It’s no secret, but if we’re going to acknowledge the problem, we may as well get to work on solutions.

The disconnect from science is not simply a matter of people not having relatable scientists in their lives.  It’s not simply an artifact of thinking that people who do science are all some sort of caricature of a person either.  It’s more than that.  Our image of a scientist goes beyond being a spectacled person in a white coat; our image is of a man in a white coat.  For most of the world, scientists are masculine.  Scientific professions have historically been dominated by men and female scientists still struggle to break the stereotype because they don’t “look like” scientists, no matter what their credentials.

Not only are women underrepresented in scientific fields, but it has become veritably entrenched in our cultures that we associate science as a male undertaking.  One recent study demonstrates that there is a cultural aspect to this.  In some parts of the world more than others people are more prone to associate the scientific endeavor with men.  The corollary of course is that other places are more amenable to women being free to pursue whatever career path interests them most.  Interestingly, the study found that this stereotype is strongest in the Netherlands, which is surprising to me as I have generally associated that place with tolerance (but maybe this is just an artifact of their disposition toward drugs and prostitution).  Other nations at the top of the list were places like Hungary and South Africa.  The United States fell in the middle of the pack.  No matter how you look at it, we are far from being leaders in progressive thinking and equality.  The fact that our scientific explorations are deficient in representation from one half of the human perspective may be detrimental to all of us.  A more well-rounded focus could lead to more inventiveness, more far-reaching and effective solutions.

One question that irks me in general, but particularly when it comes to my daughters, is why then would women presume that they are welcome in the scientific fields?  Stereotypes are incredibly pervasive and this way of thinking discourages an entire half of our population from not only pursuing their destiny, but from contributing to our own greater good.  Indeed, our entire vision of what a scientist is may be in need of revision.  Not only does science need to be feminine/brown/black/etc, it needs to be cool.  Science is fascinating.  Science is exhilarating.  Science is what the woman sitting a few tables down at the restaurant does for a living.  Science doesn’t have a particular look; it’s everywhere, it’s pervasive and it’s anonymous.

Science hinges on taking an interest in the world around us.  It’s not what happens in a classroom or laboratory.  Instead of laying the blame on the scientific community for being too reclusive and insular perhaps the entire public needs to share the blame for perpetuating the stereotypes.  It’s time for schools to integrate science across the curriculum and dispense with the lab coat theme parties that only serve to perpetuate the divide.  Science festivals and fairs are great, but it’s time to make them more inclusive and less divisive.  It’s time to invite everyone to the party and make them feel equally welcome.