Parents need to stop expecting their daughters to be clean and pretty all the time, Mae Jemison said. That’s one way they can encourage budding scientists.
In September, Dr. Mae Jemison will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her journey into space in 1992 — a trip she envisioned since her childhood. The voyage marked the first time an African-American woman left the earth’s atmosphere.
Jemison was in Seattle on Tuesday to speak at a conference. In light of her science literacy and education work — she created an international space camp for teens shortly after leaving NASA in 1994, and advocates for Bayer’s Making Science Make Sense program — we asked her to talk about her passion for expanding opportunities in STEM for women and people of color.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you think the landscape for women pursuing STEM has changed since your time in college?
A: That’s a really tricky question. On the one hand, there have been great strides for women working in STEM fields. But we also still have areas where women are almost at the same percentage in fields like physics, and engineering. In computer science, the number has actually gone down since the time I was in school. Let’s go to another area we don’t tend to focus on. What are the best paying jobs around? Electricians, plumbers, mechanics — but we still don’t have girls going into those fields because they’re not being encouraged, even though girls perform better in math and science all through high school.
Q: In your life, some of that discouragement came from your own teachers, right?
A: Yes. And I’m not the only example of this. Bayer did a survey a few years ago of female chemists and chemists of color. They said the place they’ve received the most discouragement from going into STEM fields was in college. Just think about that. A different Bayer survey, about two years later, asked college professors at research universities to evaluate incoming students. They determined the best qualified candidates for STEM degrees were women. But when they were asked why those same female students graduated at lower rates than the male students, what was their answer? That they just couldn’t make the cut. My response to that is, ‘No, it’s your job as a professor to take that incredible talent that comes to you and help them to become colleagues.’ At Harvey Mudd, they were able to triple the number of women graduating with degrees in computer science in five years by reworking their curriculum and faculty — which ended up helping male students as well.
We’re at a critical place in world history where we look to STEM fields to solve things, and tech companies can’t come up with solutions when we have the same perspective coming through all the time.
Q: What is the role of the parent in situations where female students and students of color aren’t getting the support they need at school to pursue science?
A: Parents can play a role. But schools need to get their act together. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to give schools a pass. My mother was a schoolteacher, she would challenge me. My dad hunted and fished, he did construction and contract work. I hung out with my dad and his friends when I was 6 or 7. I played cards with them. I learned how to count cards. They thought it was great — that this little girl could count cards. So I was very comfortable in positions where I was being challenged, even around guys.
… It’s not about parents pushing kids. It’s about allowing them to explore their interests and letting them know that science is important. Another thing parents can do — uh oh, this is a tough one: Stop requiring that your daughters be nice and clean and pretty with their hair done. You can’t do good mud pies and have your hair done and stay clean.
Q: What’s the role of teachers?
A: Teachers should be asking kids questions and probing their curiosities in the same way. They can’t ask boys these open-ended questions and have them pontificate and then ask girls yes-or-no questions. People think women and girls talk more than they do. So you start to edit yourself and you don’t answer questions so people don’t say, ‘Oh, that girl’s talking too much.’ And then boys get to go on and on and on. Educators need to think about those things.
Q: What are your favorite movie representations of women in science?
A: Of course Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens.” And Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who plays Dr. Lindsey Brigman in “The Abyss.“
Q: What did you think of the movie “Gravity”?
Sandra Bullock is one of my favorite actresses — I have to say that first. I thought it had beautiful cinematography. A lot of people I know were super upset about the fact that the science was crazy in terms of the orbital dynamics and the space station’s alignment being off. I would even let that pass. But what I couldn’t let pass was the histrionics they had her go through constantly. Someone told me that their daughter said, ‘Daddy, I thought astronauts were tougher than that.’ … And then she had to channel George Clooney’s ghost in order get out of the doldrums. I mean, geez.
Q: You submitted your application to NASA before the Challenger disaster, and then decided to renew it once the application process was reopened following the accident. Were you ever afraid that something would happen during your mission?
A: I was a doc in West Africa, I had to deal with what was quite possibly a hemorrhagic fever. It was one of the diseases I was really afraid of. I worked in a Cambodian refugee camp, and I worked some tours of the border with the Thai military. People put themselves in difficult situations in lots of different areas. What you count on is people taking every precaution. The aerospace industry is unique in this aspect because a thousandths-of-an-inch mistake can cause spectacular failures.
When I went up into space, that’s where I wanted to be. How often do you get the opportunity to be exactly where you want to be?