This month, Lego is releasing a miniset of female scientists–a first for the 82-year-old toymaker. The idea comes from a female geochemist, Dr. Ellen Kooijman, who played with the bricks as a child and noticed there weren’t any figures that looked like her.
That Lego’s “revolutionary” new toy comes from a woman isn’t a surprise to me.
When women design new products or services, they bring a different perspective that too often hasn’t been considered before. That’s true in any industry, but it’s particularly notable in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, where the latest advancements go far beyond Lego’s plastic figurines (as innovative as Dr. Kooijman’s are).
Many media organizations, including my own, have been focusing recently on women in STEM. We all know that women lag sadly behind men in these fields–and the issue is more serious than just a parity of numbers. Institutions, schools and employers shouldn’t just be trying to ramp up their numbers of women so that they can claim equity and sit back with a smile.
Rather, we should care because the lack of women in STEM means we are lacking the perspectives of half the world’s population (more or less). We should care because a male-centric view of science is just that–male centric. And the bottom line, no matter how hard we try to equalize things, is that men and women are different in fundamental ways. It was with some astonishment that the world learned just 25 years ago that women’s heart disease manifests itself differently to men’s. After all, why would men who dominated the field of cardiology think women’s hearts function differently to theirs?
It is hard to move beyond these long held preconceptions. In a recent survey conducted by the American Heart Association, six in 10 women said that breast cancer was the most serious threat to their health; only one in 10 said heart disease. But statistics show that every year cardiovascular disease kills almost twice as many women as cancer… and more women than men die of heart disease.
At a personal level, it makes me wonder about the death of my grandmother who died after suffering two strokes in 1974. Did she receive optimal care tailored to her gender? Most likely, her doctor (definitely a man) treated her heart disease as he did “everyone’s.”
It’s not that men have consciously been indifferent or callous to women’s health. It’s just that when you are the status quo, it is sometimes hard to realize there is another “quo” at all.
For decades, drug development testing was done almost exclusively on men (often young medical students who were easy to round up.) The attitude seemed to be that except for our reproductive organs, we’re just basically smaller versions of men. And over the decades, a plethora of drugs hit the market–antihistamines, antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, anti-psychotics –that doctors of course prescribed to women in the same doses as men. But sometimes the medications didn’t work as well on women and sometimes the doses led to alarming and fatal outcomes, like an antihistamine that caused severe heart arrhythmias. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration reduced recommended doses of Ambien for women by half, as women take longer than men to metabolize the sleeping pill and were waking up–and driving–with the drug still in their systems.
These are just a few of the hidden and insidious costs of the low numbers of women in STEM.
As more women enter the fields of STEM, we are seeing the difference a women’s perspective makes. For instance, engineer Surbhi Sarna of nVision is developing a technology to detect ovarian cancer and tube blockages, which would improve a century-old procedure that is painful to the patient. (On a side note, she says she’s learned not to use the word “vagina” in pitch meetings, as it makes male investors uncomfortable.) Amy Sheng, a mom and bioengineer, is working on CellScope, which allows parents to use a smartphone attachment to diagnose children’s ear infections. Leah Sparks and Katherine Bellevin have created Due Date Plus, a smart phone-enabled maternity program.
Women and girls need help in overcoming the barriers: the raised eyebrows; the isolation of being the only female in the class or office; the double standards in applying for jobs or research grants. The San Diego Science Alliance, for instance, is doing great work through its BE WiSE program, which encourages 7th and 8th grade girls to pursue STEM careers. We need more institutions, employers, nonprofits and policymakers to do the same.
Of course, things are changing. Today many in the medical community and lawmakers are calling for more recognition and study of the complex biological and metabolic differences between men and women. But progress is slow. And the work of female scientists–who often look at medical issues that impact fellow women–remains undervalued. We recently interviewed world-renowned molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who told us that while things have improved over the course of her career, “if a woman made a Nobel Prize-winning discovery today, I am not certain that she would always get credit for it, be valued highly, or even be given the prize.”
Perhaps the new generation of girls, playing with toys that look like female scientists, will face less challenges. Let’s do our part to encourage young women in STEM by giving them role models, information and platforms for discussion. They need to know the world really needs them.
This Op-Ed also appeared on Inc.com.