Thursday, April 14, 2011

Science Literacy for Women: a Fiction Author's Point of View

The Feminine MystiqueImage via Wikipedia
I have written three novels. The first, a mystery, is set in the biotechnology industry. The second is a coming-of-age story set in 1962, the year The Feminine Mystique was published, and the era when women began to question their traditional roles and reach beyond the 'female' professions to exciting new opportunities. The year I graduated from college, 1970, marked the beginning of the gender studies movement. Despite all the progress that has been made in improving science education,  making it gender neutral and leveling the playing field for women in the workforce, American women are still the weaker sex in science. Mind you, I don't think American men are as educated in the sciences as they should be either, but women lag even farther behind in science literacy.
The market for my adult books is female, especially for the mystery. When female readers finish A POINTED DEATH, they congratulate themselves on 'getting through' the science. They admit to having been intimidated by the setting, and credit my lovable characters for getting them through the science bits. This is a little worrisome when you are writing a series. My male readers never express any misgivings about the technical terrain of the novel. Of course, I worked hard to make sure I explained all the scientific and medical references, especially any upon which the plot turned. You have to give mystery readers a level playing field so they have a shot at solving the crime puzzle.
What worries me about the relationship of women to science is a great deal bigger than book sales. Our world has evolved into a two-tier job market. The lower end is getting lower; technology has seen to that. Machines have taken all the thinking and much of the skill out of many jobs (probably the joy too). You press buttons, you flip burgers. At the other end of the spectrum, where the really exciting jobs and the big paychecks are, are careers that require solid skills in math and pure and applied science. These people have to keep going back to school, just to keep up. Women have  fewer of these jobs because somewhere along the way they were encouraged to shut the door on science, or had the door slammed firmly in their face.
I also worry about this because women make up half of the electorate. As citizens of an advanced society, we are increasingly asked to follow debates and make decisions about math and science. Women must understand the current arguments about the nation's budget deficits and debt. Recently, we have been treated to news about nuclear plants, space exploration, earthquake prediction, dying oysters in Louisiana, Amazon's cloud and a computerized three-dimensional model of the human brain. Every voter needs to have a basic grounding in the sciences, or she is just a dupe of the loudest, best funded activist group.
Of course, we can spread the blame around. In the past some science and math teaching was pretty bad. I had a calculus professor at Northwestern University who spent more time at the Dow demonstrations than he did teaching me, and the faculty and administration did nothing about it. I suffered through two classes with him before hanging up my slide rule. It broke my father's heart. (He was an engineer.) I was much more fortunate in my biology professors. Good thing too, because I ended up working in the healthcare and then the biotechnology industry, a sector that did not exist when I graduated from college. I owe those professors my ability to work in a high-paying technical field. I thank you and my 401(k) thanks you. This is another crucial point though. New industries arise and others die out. Our world is moving very fast, and the worker has to change with it. That kind of flexibility comes from having a strong base to build on and a facility for critical thinking. Without science education, women are being left at the starting line when it comes to remunerative employment, and they can never catch up.
Anyway, it is my opinion that solving this problem involves attacking it at all levels. Many taskforces have addressed this in higher education and at the K-12 level. I think it starts much earlier and is pervasive in society. I am going to blog about this a lot over the next few months. I'm going to start at the bassinet level and work up and out. Okay, okay, I'm thinking I'm going to write a book. So stop by often and chime in with your two cents. Together, we can beat this thing.
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