August 5, 2012

Social Musings: Women in Science

Posted in Chemistry, Knowledge, Physics, Quotes, Social Commentary, Social Justice tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:31 am by faith786

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Assalamu Alaikum,

Today I bring a halt to the Ramadan Reflection series because of a very (Bohr) interesting discussion I had after Taraweeh about women in science. For those of you who don’t know, I am a woman studying science, specifically chemistry (I also love math and physics a lot too). I am an advocate of learning (be it science or not) and that everyone should try their best at whatever might be their calling. But someone I met today at the Masjid was surprised I wanted to study chemistry but not go into more of the biological or medicinal side of chemistry. When she found out I am more fascinated with the mathematical patterns and physical dimensions/properties of chemistry, she felt that was something more that a man would study.

Note: men can study physical or biological sciences. I completely advocate that and support men who want to. I had an issue with her believing that women shouldn’t be studying physical sciences.

I asked her what she believed the roles of women were in society and she mentioned many family and communal roles, but in the latter, she believed there is a “fence” to what a woman can and cannot do. I was silent; she had something to say and I should listen to it. She believed that by nature some types of knowledge are more in tune to the nature of men and other types of knowledge that are more in tune to the nature of women. From that perspective, she believed that I wasn’t in tune with my “womanly nature.” (I don’t really know what that means… is that bad?)

So I asked her about women who made significant contributions in physical sciences like Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Ada Yonath, Hypatia (she is math), Lise Meitner (who doesn’t get NEARLY enough credit that she deserves), or Rosalind Franklin? Her reply was that all those women were very manly and entered the “man’s world” to do their work (which was implied to be wrong to do).

The only reason why physical science might be considered a “man’s world” or as one Georgetown University professor said, “an old boy’s club,” is because that is what the social construct was hundreds of years ago and it is undergoing a social and paradigm shift. It was not a God ordained or fitted by natural selection field for men; society created a system where it was far easier for men to study science before women could. Currently the world supports both men and women studying (or is in the process of), but there is a lingering sentiment that men are dominant in the field or that women have to go through extra measures to prove their worth in the physical sciences.

To counter the point the individual said about men and women studying knowledge more in tune to their respective natures, I study physical science because it comes naturally to me. Biology and health sciences does not settle well in my brain or I cannot comprehend/really understand the information as easily as physics or mathematical parts of chemistry. When I can compute molecular orbitals, go through character tables, and study state functions, a whole universe is being painted in my head. It is intrinsic to me. And I am female. Does that mean I somehow chose to deny my female identity or female-ness? No. And I can imagine there are men who like to study biological sciences or other fields of knowledge that might be considered more inclined for females. And I support them for doing whatever it is they love–so long as it is legal!

I hope the sentiment I saw tonight soon changes over time. I bet there are other women other than myself who not only study physical science, but they find enjoyment and a calling in it. The only way we can change this sentiment about women in science is to show by example that we are fully capable and passionate about what we do.

Explore. Learn. Discover. Whatever it is and whoever you are–follow your dreams. =)

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations… If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out … You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.”

–Mae Jemison


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