Joyeux 4th of July, mes amis amÃ©ricains! I am checking in from MontrÃ©al, a temporary stopover on the way back to the U.S. of A. from a brief visit to Quebec City. I was there for Renaissance Weekend, an occasional (five times per year) gathering of the important, demi-important, and merely interesting and/or well-connected to get together and talk about stuff.
I had a great time, and I would be happy to tell you all about it if RW goings-on were not strictly off the record. (For example, I could reveal the amusing story behind how nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler met his wife Rosa Wang, or how I took down a huge pot from Scripps College president Nancy Bekavac when my quad tens demolished her ace-high flush, but rules are rules.) But I am perfectly within my rights to share things that I said myself. I gave a few mini-presentations, among which was one in a series of two-minute lunchtime talks on “What I Would Do If I Could,” a rather free-ranging topic if ever there was one. Other people suggested banning torture, printing people’s phone numbers on their license plates, or moving to a chocolate-based economy. Here was my little spiel:
If I could propose one thing, it would be to do everything in our power to encourage young girls to get excited about science, math, and technology.
As a physicist, I know that my field is only about ten percent women. There is a theory on the market, occasionally suggested by people in positions of power and influence, that an important contributor to this imbalance is a difference in intrinsic aptitude. The technical term for this theory is “bullshit.” I say this not as a starry-eyed egalitarian, but as one who has looked at the data. This is a theory that makes predictions, and its predictions are spectacularly wrong. If they were right, the fraction of women that dropped out would rise at the higher ranks, as the competition for positions became more fierce; that’s not true. The percentage of women scientists would be basically constant from place to place; that’s not true. The fraction of women getting physics degrees would be stable over time; that’s not true. The truth is that women drop out of science between high school and college (and, tellingly, disproportionately more women try to specialize in physics later in college than those who choose physics as a major during their first year). And they do so because they are discouraged by a million small signals that add up to a powerful cumulative message.
We shouldn’t encourage girls to be enthusiastic about science, math, and technology because we need more scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. We should do so because many young girls are potentially interested in technical fields, and this interest should be celebrated, not deprecated. Support to pursue one’s passions is something that everyone deserves, regardless of their chromosomes.
Let freedom ring, everybody.