The new astrophysicist Barbie, announced by Mattel last month, seems well-intentioned enough: Its goal is to encourage young girls to enter science and engineering fields by wedding Barbie’s glamour and intellectual gusto. In reality, it’s just another cultural message of unattainable perfection, and our messages of perfection for girls are already keeping them out of STEM work at the highest academic levels.
Like every woman I know, I could rattle off all my imperfections to you with great ease. Since I was young girl, I’ve angsted about my body and my mind. I’ve never thought of myself as pretty. And while I had an inclination for math and science, I was always insecure about my abilities as a mathematician and scientist as compared to my peers because I wasn’t a “standout” student. I am now a 44-year-old woman. I am even more aware of how my body and mind are aging, making me seem even more imperfect.
Women expect unachievable, unreasonable Barbie-perfection of ourselves, leading us to fixate on our imperfections. And, if we are not careful, this fixation can prevent us from taking risks, recognizing our achievements, finding our passions, and opening our minds to discover the gifts that we have been given and seeking our purpose in life.
Female STEM students reluctant to teach
I am an engineering professor, one of very few women at the faculty level (my engineering school has about 15 percent female faculty, which is effectively the norm across institutions). My field calls this the “leaky pipeline.” While we are training many more women PhD’s in our field, women are opting to not enter the academy at a higher rate than their male counterparts.
This phenomenon is incredibly frustrating for me because the pipeline doesn’t actually look like a leak, it looks like a gushing fire hydrant. I have seen so many bright, talented, creative young female engineering students decide that academia is not for them for reasons that are as clear to me as their fear of not being perfect.
The causes of the leaky pipeline are debated. Some argue that academia is not family friendly. But academia often offers long maternity leaves and very flexible hours (I had two children before earning tenure). But family isn’t the root issue, perfection is. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a bright young woman say “I don’t think my ideas are good enough,” I’d be a rich woman.
The hardest part of being a professor is the need to embrace imperfection. Being a professor in a STEM field requires me to take risks, embrace rejection and learn from failures. When I have a new idea for a project, I first have to secure funding from either a government or private organization in order to gather the resources to carry that project out.
Of the grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than 20 percent are likely to be funded. That means that I have to become OK with the idea that, at least 80 percent of the time, someone is going to tell me that my idea is not good enough.
A recent study showed that women have similar funding success rates as compared to men; however, women tend to apply for grants at lower rates than men. So, while our ideas are equally meritorious, women seem to be more afraid to put their ideas out there. The result? More funding goes to men than women.
Criticism is part of the job
If applying for a grant doesn’t seem like it should require a thick skin, then consider what a peer review of a science publication feels like.
The primary journal in my field has an acceptance rate of 16 to 19 percent, meaning I have more than an 80 percent chance of getting a paper rejected when I submit to that journal. These papers describe the work that my students and I worked on for years.
A 2018 study suggests that female authors take less risky publication routes: Female authors have especially low representation in top journals that have the highest rejection rates, even though overall acceptance rates of papers with women listed as the first author is higher than those with male-first authors.
What’s more, after pouring my heart and soul into teaching undergraduate engineering classes, while some students sing my praise, I’ve had some students absolutely rip me apart in their anonymous student evaluations. And, there is strong evidence that female professors receive lower student evaluation scores than their male counterparts — particularly if the female professor is young and if the subject matter is mathematics.
So, on any given day, the likelihood that I receive some negative feedback on my research or teaching is very high. Constant criticism that your male colleagues may not face — that’s part of the life of a female academic in STEM.
Accept mistakes, do work that matters
Here is what is hard to say about myself: not just that I am beautiful, but that I run a research lab that brings in roughly $1 million per year through several competitive research grants. And that I also recently co-founded a startup company.
And that my research aims to help disabled people. And that my research will lead to improvements in the lives of many people. And that I have taught over 500 students, and have mentored dozens of amazing graduate and undergraduate students who now are out in the world living out their life passions and making the world a better place.
This is the sort of “perfection” we need to encourage. It’s just sticking to it, living through the mistakes to do work that matters to you. It’s success in STEM at the highest levels, attainable and rewarding and unique, and not perfection at all.
Silvia Blemker, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia and director of its Multiscale Muscle Mechanophysiology Lab. Is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @UvaM3Lab.