Though as a developed society we may consider ourselves well beyond the gender-stereotypes that insist women should be homemakers, nurses or school teachers, and positions of business leadership, economic study and technical sciences are the domain of men, the truth is that we probably aren’t that far beyond it at all.
As young men and women of 16 and 17 approach their final years of high school and weigh up where their skills and passions will take them over the next decades of their life, traditional biases and ideas of what is appropriate for men and women are still having a hand in shaping their decisions.
A clear example of how pre-existing gender roles are shaping what, young women in particular, believe are viable career options for them is the field of science and engineering.
Women make up about 26 percent of the country’s scientists and engineers, despite statistics which show that their science grades in high school are comparable to the boys.
A study of science teachers also found that, when asked which of their students would be best suited to a career in science and engineering, teachers nominated boys far more often than girls, despite comparable grades.
Published in 2007, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” found that women faced career barriers in science and engineering, and that eliminating gender bias in science academia required comprehensive reform, in order to ensure America was efficiently tapping into the talents of all its young professionals.
Eager to take the reins of their own futures, last year a group of students at Liberty High School in Renton formed “Physettes,” an after school club in which female students come together to discuss anything and everything related to their shared passion – science.
Physettes was founded in 2009 by two physics honor students, Catie Mae-Ryberg and Kirsten Petersen.
There were just eight girls in their honors physics class of 40 students that year. According to close friend and 2010 Physettes “ringleader” Danielle Lemmon, Mae-Ryberg and Petersen found it difficult to interact in class and engage with their teacher and classmates, in a classroom dominated by boys. They didn’t feel comfortable asking questions, and it wasn’t an environment in which they felt their input was taken seriously.
“And so they formed the Physettes, and at the start a lot of it was about sharing stories about the difficulties the female students were facing,” Lemmon said.
The two Physettes founders have now graduated are studying toward careers in electrical engineering and environmental science.
That original group of eight or nine girls has grown into 20 or 30 this year. They meet a few times a month to talk about their science homework, listen to guest speakers, learn about groups that encourage and support women going into science careers, and plan science-based projects of their own.
When The Reporter sat in on a Physettes session last week, the group was continuing their plan for reducing the school’s energy use by reducing waste and urging teachers and students alike to consider things like how much light they needed in classrooms, and whether they could utilize white boards instead of printing out reams of paper.
A recent recipient of Issaquah Rotary’s Student of the Month award, Lemmon’s passion for not only science but also overcoming traditional obstacles to young women fulfilling themselves professionally is a driving force behind the Physettes.
Inspired by the example of her mother, a veterinarian who runs her own practice, Lemmon said the idea that women weren’t meant for careers in sciences was often ingrained at a young age.
“Typically, little girls get dolls to play with, and little boys get building blocks,” she said. “What do girls learn from playing with dolls? They learn role-playing type activities. But it is things like building blocks that teach you about spatial and visual concepts, how to build things, repair things, put things together.”
Lemmon said the purpose of Physettes wasn’t just to keep young women on track for a career in science and engineering, but to help them fully realize that any career was a viable option.
“Physettes is what it sounds like – a “science-y” group of nerdy girls,” she said. “But what I really want to see for these girls is for them to try for exactly what they want to do. It might not be science and engineering, it might be politics, or anything else. But when girls do go into science and engineering, it is important they don’t abandon their femininity, but bring it with them into the field, use it to bring strength to their problem solving.”
Seniors Hannah Blue and Jamie Hitchcock are a good example of the variety of interests within the sciences that come together in Physettes meetings. Blue is thinking about a career in pharmacy – Hitchcock has expressed an interest in teaching.
She is one of a number of the girls who have been inspired by the example of Liberty science teacher Mark Buchli, the Physettes mentor and all-round student favorite. Lemmon, too, is keeping “science teacher” in mind as a possible future title, though at this stage is not ruling out anything.
One thing is certain, however. None of these Physettes will have their careers chosen for them by the outdated notions of what was once thought appropriate for the fairer sex.