By Rachel Ross
When I look back on my pursuit of science, it's difficult to ignore the influence of the Playboy bunny.
Years ago, when things seemed bleak and I felt like the only teenage girl in science, all I had to do was look around me at the beautiful women. Pictures of scantily clad women were proudly displayed in the physics lab at the nuclear facility where I worked one summer. In those few cherished weeks at the nuclear plant I got a real taste of what it might be like to be a scientist, working with an all-male team of engineers and physicists.
When one of my male supervisors saw me looking at one of the models, he blushed and quickly tried to cover the picture. But the guy only had so many hands, and believe me, it wasn't enough to cover up all the cleavage.
What surprised me most was that it seemed as though he'd never questioned those
photos before, like I was the first woman ever to walk into that room, as
though it had happened quite unexpectedly: a girl in the physics lab — who
would have guessed!
The following year, I applied to journalism school.
I've thought a lot about why I abandoned a career in science, largely because I
know I'm not alone. Although there have been slow gains in the number of women
enrolled in some scientific fields, we're not even close to equal
representation. And in the case of computer science, we're no better off than
we were 10 years ago.
I don't blame the guys at the nuclear facility for my career choice — they were
actually a brilliant bunch whose brainpower was much more intimidating than any
Playboy bunny. But I believe my time there was indicative of problems
experienced by many girls.
I went home early that summer because my stomach just churned from the stress.
I didn't think I was good enough at science to make it a career; it seemed like
someone had to practically die for anyone else to move up; I thought I'd have
to work night and day to make it. And I was longing to see some boy whose name
I can't even remember now.
These same themes emerge in studies on the subject: a lack of self-esteem,
negative stereotypes of scientists, fear of loneliness and ineffective role
But I think the critical thing — what is really holding back many women from
science — is the "axiomatic" learning system: a common method of teaching where
memorizing rules is of primary importance. Instead of learning the rules for
ourselves through observation, we're simply told the rule and forced to believe
in it. Axiomatic learning has a long history in education, dating back to
Pythagorean times — which is probably why it's still used. I'm sure it served
Pythagoras well, but today it handicaps the majority of girls and boys.
If we really seek an inclusive education system, then I believe it's time to
make a change. It's time to bring Pythagoras into the 21st century.
One of the most telling studies in recent years, the National Science
Foundation's 2000 report, found that "at all levels of education and in
employment, women are less likely than men to choose science and engineering
A study by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) shows that the
percentage of women in engineering has improved in the past 25 years, but women
are still seriously under-represented. The percentage of female students who
have completed undergraduate degrees has risen by less than 2 per cent in the
past five years.
In some fields, such as chemical and material engineering, women made gains
around 1997, but those numbers have since levelled off to where they were in
1995. Others fields, such as computer science, suffered modest losses before
rising back up to just about where they were seven years ago.
Computer science still has the lowest percentage of women of all the
engineering sciences, with just 11.8 per cent of undergraduates being female.
It is not on the decline, but during a period of peak demand for programmers,
female participation remained oddly unaffected.
These numbers don't play out well in the labour force, either.
In 1997, women made up just 23 per cent of the United States' science and
engineering labour force — the same percentage as in 1993, according to the
National Science Foundation.
Certainly, lots of women work at technology companies, but I think it would be
short-sighted to call everyone who works at a technology company a technology
At Microsoft in Seattle, where I worked in the 1990s, there were lots of women
on staff but were receptionists, managers or in the marketing department. Of
the 22 programmers on my husband's team at Microsoft, only two were female. And
when I think back about the other teams I met in my two years there, that
number seems fairly indicative of the company over-all.
This isn't the company's fault. Most large tech firms run special programs to
encourage women to pursue science as a career. I think we're basically past the
stage of blatant sexism: Human resource people would be happy to hire a female
engineer. But they can't hire people who aren't there.
Some people don't think the numbers matter. After all, if you believe men and
women are truly equal, why stress over stats? So what if the majority of
technology workers are men?
The problem is we don't have enough technology workers to meet our needs.
By 2005, Canada will have only 30 per cent of the workers it needs in the high-
tech hardware industry, according to a study by the Impact Group.
More than 46,000 new jobs will be created in microelectronics, photonics, opto-
electronics, wireless and radio engineering by 2005. But the study showed
Canadian schools will only be able to produce about 10,000 properly trained
Those are the numbers — they have a time and place. Students, like the rest of
us, are well aware of the low female participation rates in science programs.
But I don't believe we should push young women into careers they don't really
want — be it to fill a perceived shortage or worse yet, in the pursuit of
"Pushing" is not what is required. Studies show young girls are equally
enthusiastic about science as boys, but as girls grow up they shy away from
I recently met an exceptionally bright high school student who was captain of
her robotics team. She was actually thinking about not going into engineering
because she didn't want to be the only girl.
On the surface, she was brimming with with confidence, and certainly had the
intelligence to back it up. But no one wants to be the odd one out, the woman
in electrical engineering.
We don't have to push girls into science. We just need to make sure that those
who are interested are encouraged and included.
Science is also suffering from a serious identity crisis.
The subject has unjustifiably developed a reputation as a non-creative field —
especially computer science. I find this laughable, especially when I think
about the challenge of designing a new piece of software from scratch.
Sure, there are rules you have to work with, but we need to remind students,
especially girls, that science is all about the creative application of those
rules. Sometimes you have to know how to break the rules to your advantage.
That's what makes programming really fun.
As for electrical or chemical engineering, once you get into research, you are
the one who discovers the new rules. They could be the rules that hold a
molecule together, or the ones that bind the universe. Most of what we believe
today is still a theory and, unlike other fields, science has a good history of
being open-minded to new ideas — especially if you back it up with experimental
Another common concern about science is that there's no room to move up. Women
fear they'll be stuck doing grunt work forever, backing up someone else's
When I worked at the nuclear facility, one of the things I quickly came to
learn was that there were few opportunities for career growth. Or so it seemed.
I caught many of the full-time staff talking about how they'd been stuck in the
same job for years. Like many teenage girls from my generation, I had my
ambitious side and I knew I'd need room to grow, in whatever job I chose.
So if you work in science and technology, watch what you say around
Studies of young women found that career flexibility was far more important to
girls than boys and that women are more influenced by job opportunity.
I've heard other researchers dispute that finding — specifically because it
doesn't explain the recent decline in the number of female computer science
students, during a period of demand for programmers.
I believe that the stigma of the software industry as an almost evil business
discouraged many women from entering the field during that time of peak demand.
That stigma partly stemmed from a general anxiety about computer technology
that grew in the nineties. I've seen other reporters blame the Internet for
just about every societal problem on earth, as though evils such as kidnapping,
child pornography and the simple act of lying didn't exist before we all got
Then there's the greed factor. We tend to look at successful software
developers — say Bill Gates — as greedy, more so than the average chemist.
However necessary, the ongoing Microsoft lawsuit was a black-eye to the
industry. To those who vehemently dislike Microsoft, it made software look like
a cutthroat business. To those who sided with the Seattle firm, it made the
rest of the industry look like whiners.
And no matter what your religious beliefs about operating systems, from an
outsider's perspective, the software industry seemed more tied to a profit
motive than any other. Our attention to the dot-com market hype and subsequent
crash added to perceptions of an industry driven by greed.
Why should that matter? This might sound a cliché, but studies suggest girls
are more influenced by a need to make the world a better place — an ideal
that's not often tied to money, especially among idealistic high school
students preparing to choose a career.
The software field also suffers from the general perception that programmers
are all work-obsessed, which doesn't play well into the modern concept of
balancing work and family life.
People often ask me if Microsoft programmers are worked to the bone, spending
long hours in darkened offices with sugar-based snacks and espresso.
That rumour is only partly true. Microsoft programmers do drink too much coffee
and eat too much sugar. The company's private buses are all stocked with
baskets of candy. Back on Microsoft campus, the administrative assistants keep
their own baskets of free gumballs and Hershey's kisses in the halls. If you
walk around the maze of offices, you'll spot a big tub of M&Ms every so often
too. On the anniversary of your hire, you are required to put a pound of the
chocolate treats out for every year you've been there.
But the eating habits aren't to support an exceptional work load. There might
have been round the clock hours at some point in the eighties — I don't know, I
only worked there at the end of the century — but at this point the company has
far more programmers than it needs.
In general, jobs in software aren't more time- or labour-intensive than other
careers and there are still a lot of opportunities to pursue other things. I
think this needs to be made clear to all women with an interest in science —
it's a career yes, but it doesn't have to be your whole life.
Remember the smurfs, those little blue cartoon characters that lived in a
The smurfs had an interesting kind of community going. Each smurf was highly
specialized, so that their life revolved around one basic trait. There was
Jokey smurf, who was always playing practical jokes, Baker smurf who made a lot
of pies for Jokey, and brainy smurf who generally drove all the other smurfs
nuts relaying his wisdom.
Then there was Smurfette. She didn't do much, beyond brushing her hair and
looking in the mirror.
When I was growing up, especially in my teen years, I'd developed a Smurf
Theory on Life. It wasn't anything that I discussed openly at the time, but it
was a kind of background thought process that coloured my view of all people.
The fundamental tenet of the Smurf theory on life is that people have a single
trait for which they are known. They are the best at this one thing and don't
dabble in others. In real-life terms, this meant that as a girl I could be
either smart or pretty. Subconsciously I was convinced that any time I spent
learning how to put on make-up or buying a new purse was time taken away from
the learning process.
I was convinced that I had to hold steadfast to one lifestyle — either pretty
or smart — and stick with it.
Truth is I wasn't very pretty, but I did get good grades. So I went with my
natural gifts and left the makeup routine to other girls.
I believe that many girls take at least part of the Smurf theory to heart.
They believe that they must be outstanding in their field or not bother at all.
Surveys of young women show this belief is common: Women tend to underestimate
their own skills at math and science and don't pursue subjects they aren't
The other half of the Smurf Theory — that girls can either be smart or pretty,
but not both — is reinforced by an inaccurate but well-established stereotype
of female scientists as somewhat unattractive women, almost non-sexual beings.
The cover photo for this story raised a few eyebrows in the newsroom, but
that's exactly my point. Why is it that smart women aren't taken seriously when
they get all decked out? Modern women should be free to strive for both goals —
to be sexy and smart.
I've often joked that what we really need to do to draw young women to science
is establish mandatory uniforms for all engineers. I was thinking something
like the ones on Star Trek.
They have that slender, glamorous yet strangely intelligent look. But all
joking aside, we need to make a concerted effort to show young women scientists
who also lead fulfilling lives in other ways. Be it through family, traveling
or hobbies, we need to counteract the belief that science — especially computer
science — is only for workaholics.
My husband is a computer engineer. I asked him what he and his friends thought
of the handful of girls in his program. He said that they always assumed the
girls in his program were rather exceptional. The men, he said, ranged from
just plain lazy to brilliant, but the girls were always smart and hard-working.
The girls also typically ranked very high in relation to the over-all class —
generally in the top 10.
Basic bell curve theory would suggest that, in terms of marks, we should see
some women at the top, some at the bottom and the bulk, smack in the middle.
But all we're seeing are the upper rung of achievers.
What happened to the average girls?
Well, they probably just aren't applying.
Studies show that girls tend to pursue subjects that get them the most
So those with the average grades in science and math, the ones who are usually
overlooked as middle of the road, are abandoning science for subjects where
they believe they are more likely to shine.
I believe our own language tends to reinforce the idea that only the very best
women can make it in science and that our attempts to encourage young girls
with exceptional role models is really counter- productive.
Think about how we describe famous women in science. We tend to call them
extraordinary, heroes, championing the cause, striving onward despite
adversity. That doesn't sound very attainable, especially to a girl who
persistently underestimates her own ability.
While the stories of high achievers are inspiring, they need to be balanced
with stories from average women, in average technology jobs. A stream of
ridiculously successful role models reinforces the belief that only outstanding
women make it in science.
The role models we present to our children may be the only women in science
they ever know. I didn't know any female scientists growing up. Did you? If
your only role model is extraordinary and you think you're just average in
math, how high would you rank your chances of success? Would you even bother
applying to a science program?
Everyone always talks about what a poor student Albert Einstein was.
We need a female equivalent — lots of them. Women, alive or dead, who didn't
always get A's in school yet enjoyed a long career in science.
But we also need to ask ourselves why girls feel they are struggling in math
and sciences. Does our learning system contribute to their own lack of
I believe that education today plays into our weaknesses — especially in the
last two years of high school.
Think back to your own classes in physics and chemistry. The classroom goes
from a series of experiments to a series of formulas. In Grade 9 you made
things pop, fizz and turn colours in test tubes. In Grade 12, you spend a whole
lot of time memorizing the rules about when electrons jump from one energy
level to another.
The classroom becomes increasingly axiomatic: more and more focused on
memorizing the rules than observation and discovery.
Mary Williams of Memorial University of Newfoundland outlines the problems with
our current education system quite effectively in a paper that is titled, A
Debate on Encouraging Women in Science and Engineering.
The basic idea behind axiomatic learning is that you start with an elementary
principle, or axiom, and through deductive reasoning you use that axiom to
prove more complex relationships.
There's a certain hierarchy to axiomatic learning, which is why people who
learn best this way are often called hierarchical learners.
Geometry is probably the most obviously axiomatic subject.
We start out with basic rules such as all right angles are equal to one
another. Then we use those rules to develop others, like the Pythagorean
theorem. And so on. It's like a string of axioms, each building on the one that
For axiomatic learners, the concept or rule is of primary importance — the
applications take a back seat. And that tends to be the way we teach older
students: by presenting the proofs first and the applications later, if at all.
Hence, pure axiomatic learners are the kinds of students who do exceptionally
well in tests or competitions. It's not that these students are necessarily
brighter; our current education system favours them.
Williams says that in schools today we tend to teach math, physics, and
chemistry according to the axiomatic tradition. She calls university the
"empire of the axiomatic" and says that the closer you get to graduating high
school, the more axiomatic the learning becomes.
I remember the axiomatic approach used at my high school. The teacher would
stand up and tell you the rule. Most of the time you had to take the rule at
face value — especially in Grades 12 and 13. Sometimes, you'd have a chance to
do an experiment. But the sole purpose of the experiment was to prove the rule
you were already told. If your results didn't add up, you were best-off using
the findings from someone else's experiment.
There was never time nor materials to try it over again, to see if there's some
kind of pattern emerging or if you can find out why it didn't work the first
Unfortunately, most people aren't hierarchical learners. The majority of us
learn using the reverse strategy, by watching how things work and drawing
conclusions from our observations. It is called relational learning because it
puts the relationships first. Rules eventually come out of the experience.
How do you know if you're a relational learner in an axiomatic environment?
Williams suggests you ask yourself the following questions:
Were you a little slower in school, or would you simply skip over certain
lessons completely in an effort to catch up?
Did you question the legitimacy of the rules you were told?
Did you question why you even needed these rules in the first place?
If your answer is yes, then you're probably a relational learner.
I am a relational learner; my husband is an axiomatic learner. The difference
is so startling that every time we talk about my robots, one of us ends up
throwing their hands in the air and walking out in a huff.
But it wouldn't start out as a fight. Initially, my husband would look at the
robot, spout off a couple of rules about capacitors or resistors, and consider
the problem solved. I'd just be looking at him, rather perplexed, thinking,
"What the heck are you talking about?"
It's like we're speaking in two different languages. For a long time, I thought
this was because he was just smarter than I was and talking over my head.
Despite the fact that I'd built these robots without his help and knew them
inside and out, I assumed he had some kind of higher power that god gives to
When we read Williams's study, we realized that it wasn't brain power that
separated us, just the way we learned things.
He understands the world based on rules that he inherently believes. I need to
come to those rules, in my own time, by checking to see how things actually
work in real life. I need to see it in action to be a believer.
Now that we realize the differences in our approach to learning, my husband
helps me by suggesting what parts of the circuits I should look at using my
multi-meter. By studying how the circuit works at various points, I can figure
out the problem. And I learn some of the rules along the way.
Are all women relational learners? No.
But studies such as one done at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., in the 1980s
suggest that most women are relational learners: as many as 93 per cent.
Most men are relational learners too. Seventy per cent of men, in fact, learn
best in a relational setting where they can draw conclusions from their
As luck would have it, only a small percentage of the population is axiomatic
learners. So our current education system for science favours the few and the
male: because about 80 per cent of axiomatic learners are men.
So how can we reassess our school system with that in mind?
In my ideal world, children would be assessed and reassessed every couple of
years to determine what kind of learner they are. There would be separate
streams for relational and axiomatic learners.
They'd have to cover the same material; they'd just do it in different ways.
I'm not convinced that relational learning has to be slower. That's a misguided
belief because relational learners tend to be slower in our axiomatic system. I
think that if rules are carefully reiterated after a student has identified
them for himself, we'll find that a single experiment actually provides far
more rules than it does in an axiomatic system, where it's basically one rule
It's all in the teaching: carefully pointing out the rules learned as a summary.
The problem with my ideal learning system is that it would cost more money.
We'd need more teachers, more materials and probably more field trips to
incorporate a truly relational experience.
So what can we realistically do in our classrooms today?
Perhaps the easiest change would be to simply state the rule after the
experiment is over every once in a while. This might show the relational
learners that science isn't just about rules and turn it into a more genuinely
creative process, even if the end goal is to teach them a rule.
Always explain why the rule matters and how it applies in the real world. Give
more than one example, because relational learners generally need the rule to
be reinforced by several experiences to really internalize it.
Recognize that some students who are doing poorly might benefit from some self-
Start an after-class program for students who aren't doing well so they can use
the lab to conduct their own, albeit supervised experiments.
Encourage parents to buy a chemistry set or explore physics at home.
To do the most people the most good, we could just abandon hierarchical
learners — but I think that would be just as short-sighted as the system we
What we want is a mix of the two, so that both hierarchical and relational
learners have a chance to shine.
Not every girl is going to want to pursue science. My goal is not to push or
mislead girls into a career they won't enjoy, just to give them the opportunity
The truth is, we might be expecting a little bit too much, too fast. It wasn't
so long ago that sexism was a perfectly normal occurrence and women in science
were basically ostracized.
And we could just wait, cross our fingers and hope that our daughters even out
the numbers a little. Maybe the next generation of computer scientists will
have a bit more estrogen.
But why wait when there are so many easy, obvious ways we can help young women
come into their own in science?
With a good dose of self-esteem, some parental interest and participation we
can show our girls just how good they can be at science.
And just get in as much relational learning as you can as a parent or teacher.
I'm thinking about making t-shirts that say, "I'm not slow, I'm relational."
Then we need to dispel the myths. Science is a career, not a death sentence and
all kinds of women get involved: women with children, women with friends, even
women who have great legs.
I still think of those Playboy bunnies as women in science somehow, and not
just the ones hanging in the physics lab. Polly Matzinger was a Playboy bunny.
She worked in the Denver Playboy Club in 1969. Now she has a doctorate and is
one of the world's leading immunologists.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Any girl can be pretty and smart.