Friday, August 08, 2014

On being told girls didn't grow up to be astronauts

Never noticed the similarities until today. :) Even though CONTACT is one of my all-time
favorite movies, I didn't create the cover art for DERELICT. Must be a 'GMTA' issue.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and be an astronaut. Which shouldn't be surprising for anyone of my generation when the world pretty much stopped for the Apollo missions and they wheeled huge black and white TVs into the classroom to watch live. Okay, true confession - I don't really remember the moon landing. I was a little too young and all the images from NASA missions got tangled up into one mental folder of 'really cool space stuff' that pretty much informed my childhood.

But I was female, and started kindergarten in a fairly conservative district in Long Island in the late 1960's, well before Title IX.

So what did that mean?

It meant that girls weren't supposed to grow up to be astronauts. That was a message I was told both implicitly and explicitly, even though I was a good student and smart, and did well in both science and math classes as well as language arts/english and history classes. I could both think analytically and quantitatively and articulate what I was learning. But, when I was picking courses in High School*, my guidance counselor steered me away from advanced math and science classes (since the boys needed them for college) and toward typing (so I could be a secretary - I kid you not.)
*Chronological aside: Yes, Title IX was passed in 1972, but I suspect my school system was living in some kind of time-warped 1950's dream/nightmare of strict gender roles and duties

Well, I did learn to type, but not because I was going to be a secretary. Luckily, my parents were very insistent on higher education and my older sister had warned me that college meant papers and papers meant typing. A lot of typing.

I ended up graduating a year early from HS and going to college in 1980 at the University of Rochester where HOLY SHIT (sorry!) I could take any class I wanted in a bazillion majors. And I was around other smart, interesting, motivated people. It was heaven.

But I was already at a disadvantage in being able to sign up for some of the classes I had wanted to take, since I didn't have the background knowledge. I ended up designing a major focused on the history of medicine and medical ethics, and then went on to become a Physical Therapist, earning my Master's degree in 1986. (About which, by the way, I have absolutely no regrets. I had a fabulous 20+ year career as a PT.)

I do often wonder where I'd be now if I had been in primary school well after the revolution of Title IX. With my interests and skills with computers, I might have studied artificial intelligence. Perhaps I'd be working at Google or Microsoft. Or if I'd been really able to pursue the science/math route, I might have grown up to be an astronaut, or maybe a scientist with NASA.

Now, at 50, I get to do all of that as a writer, and more, living vicariously through my characters. I can trace a line from my childhood dreams, to influences like Ellie Arroway from CONTACT, directly to the character of Ro Maldonado, in my most recent SF book, DERELICT.

I'd like to imagine that I would have been less 'prickly' than Ro, but I do like to believe that in some alternate future, I might have grown up to be the skilled computer programmer she is. (And I'm still holding out for the true heads-up interface with which she 'tickles' the AI.)

Seeing women active in science is an amazing thing. There really weren't a whole lot of role models for me when I was growing up.  Which is one of the reasons why I was so thrilled to find out that Ellie Arroway (the main character of CONTACT) was loosely modeled after a real life SETI astronomer, Jill Tarter, who was a friend of Carl Sagan's.

Things are slowly changing. Just the other day, I was chatting with a fellow potter in the ceramics studio and he was talking about his daughter who has a PhD in Food Sciences and does research in California. He is a middle school science teacher, working in an impoverished district and one of the things he does is invite his daughter into his classroom to inspire the next generation of scientists. There is more diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) today than ever before, but we can do much better as a society.

Our media and our fiction play a large part in this change.

When Nichelle Nichols was cast as Uhura in the original Star Trek, she became a role model for a whole generation of women and men of color. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, has acknowledged that as a child, seeing Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise allowed her to believe she could go to space.

We need to be able to see possibilities for ourselves, in life and in art. This is especially important for young people, for children growing up in less advantaged circumstances, and for girls, who are still woefully underrepresented in STEM.

Representation that challenges stereotypes is vital and since I can't grow up to be an astronaut/scientist/computer programmer anymore, I'm going to keep writing about characters, like Ro, who can.

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