It’s an uphill battle for girls who like science. This was expressed too clearly during a JPL presentation at my local library this past Saturday.
I and my husband attended the program, mainly because the presenter (no, I do not remember his name) promised new pictures from Curiosity (these pictures did not materialize, and I was disappointed). The presentation targeted a general audience, and the presenter was an ex-science teacher with an amiable style and infectious laughter. His enthusiasm for his subject was obvious.
There were several people at the event, and two children, one boy, one girl, with their respective parents, sat in front. Both were excited to be there. Both eagerly raised their hands when the presenter asked questions. Both did not correctly answer every question they thought they knew the answer to. And that is where the similarities ended.
The presenter called on the boy far more frequently than the girl. He claimed to call on whoever raised their hand first, but that was not the case. He applauded the boy and heaped praised on him for answering simple questions. He even got the audience to clap for him. He called the boy bright. When the girl answered questions, he thanked her for the answer and continued. He never applauded her answers, and tended to shy away from her by the end of the talk because she was giving more sophisticated answers than the boy.
How? One question in particular clearly pointed out the difference. When the presenter asked how one might be able to tell whether this certain picture was taken on Earth or on Mars, the girl answered first and pointed out that grass grew in the picture, so it must be Earth. The presenter semi-stammered and said that was correct, but not the answer most people gave. The boy piped up and said the rock was not red, and the man congratulated him on the answer.
And so it went. The little girl persevered but was only thanked for her answers, while the boy was applauded for his--to the point that, by the end of the presentation, he made a "Well everyone knows that" remark to the little girl that made me wince and made his dad lean over to speak to him, hopefully about attitude. We left before the audience asked questions, mainly because I was fuming at the little girl’s treatment. I immediately regretted not speaking up after her answers and telling her that she did a good job—and I should have. That might have clued the presenter to the fact he treated the two differently. I might have gotten some applause for her, since she, too, deserved it. Don’t get me wrong—it was wonderful to see the boy excited about the subject. It's wonderful to see any child excited about science. All I wanted was the presenter to encourage the girl in the same manner that he encouraged the boy.
If a little girl can’t even be treated the same as a little boy in a generalized presentation on outer space, how can they expect to find acceptance in the sciences when they become older? Remember, the presenter once taught high school science—and I wonder if he treated those boys and girls in the same manner as he treated the two children in his audience on Saturday.