'Girls With Toys’ Hashtag Challenges Idea That Science Is a Playground for Guys

Women working in STEM find a Caltech astronomer’s comments way off target.

Dawn Sumner at JPL with the Mars Curiosity rover, which she helped drive on Mars. (Photo: Twitter)

May 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The interview was supposed to shine light on what it’s like to be an astronomer. But comments from California Institute of Technology astronomy and planetary science professor Shrinivas Kulkarni during an episode of Joe’s Big Idea” that aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday have ignited a controversy over the idea that STEM subjects are the domain of men.

“Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call us ‘boys with toys,’ ” Kulkarni said at about a minute and a half into the interview. The series’ host, Joe Palca, repeated the comment.

“And I think there’s nothing wrong with that, except…,” replied Kulkarni.

“Boys with toys,” repeated Palca again.

“...you’re not supposed to say that,” Kulkarni said, completing his thought.

The comment caught the attention of some of the world’s female scientists, who seem to feel that there’s plenty wrong with saying—or thinking—that STEM fields are where guys (and only guys) go to have fun. They began sharing images on Twitter of themselves and other women who work in STEM “playing” with their “toys,” including telescopes, robots, and dark matter detectors, tagging the images #girlswithtoys.

The pictures are an inspiring reminder of the contributions that women have made—and continue to make—to STEM fields. But, as Kulkani’s comment indicated, it’s not just the ladies of Mad Men who face gender bias.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, women comprise nearly half the nation’s workforce yet make up just 26 percent of the STEM workforce. One of the causes of this gender gap can be found in a 2012 survey by the Girl Scouts of America. Although a 82 percent of girls surveyed believed they were "smart enough to have a career in STEM,” only 13 percent said a STEM job was their top career choice. The problem: 57 percent of the girls polled believed that if they wanted to pursue a science or technology career, they’d have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously.

Actual STEM-focused toys, such as the Goldieblox line of dolls, are being designed to boost girls interest in science and technology. But the reality is that if a woman earns a STEM degree, she still faces obstacles in getting hired. A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Yale found that physicists, chemists, and biologists are likely to think a male job candidate is more qualified even when a female applicants qualifications are identical. If a woman is offered the position, her salary is set an average of $4,000 lower than her male peers.

Kulkarni didnt reply to a request for an interview. In the meantime, its pretty inspiring to see these scientists playing with their toys and putting gender bias on blast.