Princess Scientist

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on March 25, 2013.

In this post Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how The Big Bang Theory relied on individual choice as the explanation for the lack of women in science instead of focusing on institutionalized sexism among scientists. 

Boy looking into microscope
The Big Bang Theory (BBT) jumped on the princess scientist trend in this week’s episode,“The Contractual Obligation Implementation.” The episode tackled a hot topic: recruiting more girls and women into the STEM fields (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields).

The white men of BBT where charged with figuring out how to increase the number of girls and women in STEM fields as part of their committee work at the university. Raj had his own dedicated storyline which involved a socially-awkward date fulfilling the “sexless Asian man” trope. Spoiler alert: Raj does not get a kiss good night.

The white men of BBT brainstormed to come up with brilliant ideas to recruit more women to STEM fields.

The first idea was to use blind peer review in the publication process. Blind peer review protects the identity of the author and the reviewers in peer-reviewed research. This means that the reviewers do not know who the author is and the author does not know who is reviewing his or her work. The idea is that then the work is judged on its own merits reducing bias among the reviewers towards the author. In sociology, most peer-reviewed research uses double-blind peer review where both the authors and the reviewers are unknown to one another. Blind peer review, though imperfect in the age of Google, is still important at reducing bias. For example, blind auditions for symphony orchestras increased the number of women invited to join symphony orchestras. I am unfamiliar with the peer review process in physics and engineering, so this very well could be a real issue that should be dealt with in these particular STEM fields.

The second idea the white men of BBT came up with was to peak girls interest in STEM while they are young. This way the girls are more likely to opt for a more math and science courses in high school setting them up for success in the STEM fields once they reach college. This actually is not a new idea. I attended an Expanding Your Horizons event when I was in junior high some twenty years ago. I took more science and math in high school than required not because was inspired to do so, but because my parents made me. Despite my parents’ efforts, I earned a C in my life science course for pre-veterinarian students. My high school science courses ranged from rigorous to worthless, which is how my high school science A-grades implied I was ready for the pre-vet science course. Today, the National Science Foundation has recommended high schools require more math and science in order to graduate. This is promising, as long as those courses are actually rigorous and will prepare students for the STEM courses for majors.

Now, back to the show…

The white men of BBT were awkward and certainly uninspiring to the junior high girls they talked to about STEM. The girls did gender-stereotypical things like look at their manicured nails and text message. The white men of BBT finally realized that it might be better if women scientists actually talked to the girls as they were failing miserably. So they called their PhD-holding girlfriends (including Amy Farrah Fowler, who is played byMayim Bialik who holds a doctorate in neuroscience in real life) who had just finished their–I kid you not–Disney princess makeovers at Disneyland. The women scientists were literally Princess Scientists because see girls, you can be both a princess and a scientist.

I thought, “what, you mean I don’t have to give up my lipstick and tiara in order to be a scientist?” I know I settled on sociology professor as a career choice because of the clothing options. (I am joking, of course, though the ability to dress just about anyway I want to in my job is appealing.)

While recruiting girls at a young age to enter STEM is important, it is also important to consider the structural issues at the other side of a STEM degree: the actual profession. For example, a recent study found gender bias among faculty hiring lab managers:

  • Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.

…so exactly how Sheldon treated his assistant, Alex Jensen, in previous episodes this season. Alex ultimately filed a sexual harassment complaint with Human Resources against Sheldon. Sheldon is off the hook though for his sexual harassment because of his social awkwardness and inability to read people. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are real deterrents to women entering STEM fields (and other fields).

Perhaps if the white men of BBT took an inward look at themselves they might be able to increase the rate at which young girls opt to choose a STEM career and inspire women to continue that pursuit by actively reducing actual sexism within the STEM fields.

Dig Deeper: 

  1. Are you pursuing a career in STEM? Why or why not? How did you reach the decision to pursue or not pursue a STEM field?
  2. Inspiring young girls to pursue STEM fields is important, but is an individual level solution. It ignores the structural issues, such as institutionalized sexism among scientists. How can institutionalized sexism be addressed within STEM fields?
  3. The author does not explore the limited participation of racial minorities in STEM, but does comment on race in the above article. Read the following article about how racial minorities are underrepresented in STEM. What limits their participation? How does their experience compare to the experience of women in STEM?
  4. Does the “Princess Scientist” do more harm than good in recruiting girls into STEM fields? Explain.
  5. Watch “The Contractual Obligation Implementation.” Describe how the men scientists are portrayed compared to how the women scientists are portrayed. Pick another episode to watch. Is the portrayal consistent?

Read More:

New Study Exposes Gender Bias in Tech Job Listings