Women, science, stereotypes, and Star Trek

At the start of the semester, my mind always turns to matters of gender and sex differences. Not because I teach at a women’s college, or because one or two students out themselves as being transgender or gender fluid, but because virtually every course I teach touches on the nature-nurture issue in our opening weeks, and one of the most relatable interactions of nature and nurture is in gender differences. I explain over and over that nature provides us with a small seed of hormone-driven brain differences, which evoke different treatment by parents and expectations by society until they are magnified to the point that women dominate teaching while remaining a small minority in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines.

Which makes it all the more poignant that on the day I commit to teaching my first ever hybrid (partly classroom, partly online) course, Slate published an article evaluating ways of fixing the “MOOC gender gap“, because even in online courses women are markedly underrepresented in STEM classes. Even without the potential of teachers acting on unconscious biases by favoring male students, or the risk of looking bad in front of boys, women are not flocking to the sciences. The notion that this is due to any cognitive differences in aptitude or even learning style preferences is quickly debunked, in favor an explanation that focused on the classroom environment. Take out the trappings and decorations that normally mark the science classroom as a kind of “male space”, and female openness and interest will rise. Simply inform students in an online class that all other students are female, and interest and achievement in computer science will skyrocket.

On one hand, I see several fascinating connections to previous psychological theories to make. Perhaps the mere knowledge that other male students might see the women perform creates stereotype threat, a fear of confirming the “girls can’t do X” dismissal that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; this has previously been proposed as a reason that women quit the sciences. I wonder how this might interact with a finding I discussed recently (“Why ‘smart’ girls don’t do math“), that women might be trained by early praise of “you’re so smart” to only take up tasks they think they will excel at without much effort. Combining a belief that “smart” means excelling on the first try with the risk of slipping up just once and becoming “evidence” that women are bad at science is a potentially powerful and dangerous combination.


And on the other hand, I can’t let go of one simple sentence from the Slate article, briefly describing one of the studies showing that classroom decorations would influence female students’ attitudes, and noting that the “stereotypically male-geek” room was defined in part by the presence of a Star Trek poster.

Speaking as a female who adores Star Trek, was introduced to it by my mother, discusses it frequently with my sister, and formed a new friendship with a female colleague by sharing favorite episodes, I found myself completely derailed in my reading and evaluation of the research the moment that particular decoration was named. I did my best to put personal bias and experience aside, and to recognize that my own experiences and likes might by very different from the “average” perception that might be held by the study participants. Still, I have to wonder on what basis those study authors decided that Star Trek would be a turn-off to female students; even the researchers who investigate gender stereotypes seem to suffer from gender stereotypes they are unaware of.

This put me in mind of one of my other favorite television shows, The Big Bang Theory. This show has itself been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about gender and science, with one particularly cutting quote sticking in my mind:

…what remotely normal young person would want to enter a field populated by misfits like Sheldon, Howard and Raj? And what remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?

And, I should note, those gender stereotypes include male characters who debate the relative badness of Star Trek I and Star Trek V* while the female characters can’t tell the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Even a more recent episode, which addresses the issue of encouraging young women to participate in the sciences, ends (spoiler alert!) with the two female scientist characters extolling the virtues of being a scientist while dressed as Disney princesses.

I myself have participated in debates about the relative merits of the original Star Trek films (for the record, I side with Raj: “Star Trek V is that standard against which all badness is measured”, and Wrath of Khan is the best), but I also have followed TBBT since its first season, based on how much I identified with the science-fiction geekiness of the male leads. So does that make me part of the problem, part of the solution, or an illustration of just how complex the issue of women, science, and stereotypes really is?


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