Why your daughters need more Star Trek


There has been a great deal of discussion, for many years, about the lack of women in science and technology and how to fix it. Although I haven't been able to find any actual studies or surveys on the topic, I'd like to propose a hypothesis: The lack of women in science and technology begins with a lack of science fiction when they were young.

When I was a child I loved Star Wars and Star Trek and pretty much anything science fiction or fantasy. I believe that this was the beginning of a life long interest in science and technology. It is, sort of, like falling in love with the Harry Potter books and then getting a little older and finding out magic is real and you can learn how to do it. Science fiction is not about "what is" it is about "what might be" and it's fairly obvious that "what might be" inspired generations of scientists and engineers.

Albert Einstein once said that “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Many current programs aimed at "getting girls interested in science and technology" go straight to the point. They create programs, curriculums and presentations designed to push science and tech at girls. In other words they skip the imaginative parts and go straight to the facts, they skip the fun and focus on the work. And then the designers of those programs wonder why they don't get better results.

As I've said, it was science fiction that kindled my interest in science and I know, anecdotally at least, that there are many people out there who share that experience. The other thing I remember from my early days with sci-fi is that it was shared by most of the boys I knew and almost none of the girls.

I know that things have changed somewhat. Geek girl culture is strong, but the internet can distort your view of social phenomenon. My 5 year old recently returned from kindergarten to inform me that Spider Man and Star Wars are "things boys like" while Disney princesses and My Little Pony are "things girls like" and I promise, she did not get this from home. I also do not think that this is an isolated incident and some of the reaction to the female Thor backs me up.

While "geek culture" may include more women now, popular culture continues to perpetuate the idea that it is almost exclusively for boys. The near-monopoly of men over science and the sci-fi/fantasy fandom is a running gag that has saturated all seven seasons of the Big Bang Theory. It was also a recurring theme in the new HBO series Silicon Valley. (Both of them are great shows, and really funny but they do perpetuate the stereotype.)

The exclusion of women and girls from science fiction and geek culture also creates another problem. Because girls are excluded and discouraged from an early age, boys within this culture do not learn how to relate to girls and women as part of their peer group.

This creates all kinds of problems including discrimination, a condescending attitude and sexual harassment / sexual violence problems within both the scientific and science fiction communities. San Diego Comic Con's ongoing issues with sexual harassment and the recent survey of sexual harassment of female scientists are just the latest evidence of the seriousness of this problem. These problems, in turn, further discourage women and girls from participating.

I haven't seen any surveys that say definitively how many five to twelve year old girls are frequenting comic book stores and watching Star Trek. I'm sure that the number, whatever it is, is higher than the numbers were in the 1970s but I'm willing to bet that it still disproportionately less than the number of boys. I'm also willing to bet that among the young girls who are interested in science fiction and fantasy that you will find a much higher percentage of future scientists, engineers and programmers than you'll find in the general population.

Good science fiction can serve as the introduction to actual science as well as fuel for the imagination that inspires new discoveries in science and technology. Feeding sci-fi into the imaginary world where most children, male or female, spend most of their early childhood seems to me a better approach than going straight to the science and hoping it takes root.

In other words, warp drives, alien planets, smart robots and holograms are all more fun than potato powered clocks and baking soda volcanos. If you want girls to love science, start with the fun parts and then start discussing the (ever more impressive and fantastic) realities.

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