A view From the Bridge

The deck stacked against women in science

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones


The card deck featuring women in science and engineering.

Nicola Jones

The player on my left has the biochemist Maud Menten’s career well on track. Suddenly another player slaps a “stupid patriarchy” card on Menten’s head, and she has to earn her doctorate all over again. So goes a novel card game devoted to women in science and engineering, designed to highlight these unsung researchers and the barriers and boons that women in these fields experience.

Alice Ball, the chemistry student who

Alice Ball, the chemist who isolated an early effective treatment for leprosy.

University of Hawaii

Menten (1879-1960) was one of the first women in Canada to earn a medical degree atop her PhD. But at the time women weren’t allowed to do research at Canadian universities; she had to conduct her famous work on enzyme kinetics in the United States and Germany. Menten is one of 21 pioneering women scientists, mostly from North America, featured in the game — the latest in a series that began in 2000 with a biodiversity game called Phylo. The card deck was developed by an innovative science outreach programme at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC), in collaboration with Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University (SFU). Players complete researchers’ careers by collecting cards for achievements such as degrees, and try to avoid setbacks — such as the “tokenism” card, which wipes a scientist in play off the table.

“These are my favourites,” says computer engineer and WWEST chair Lesley Shannon, pointing to Alice Ball and Hedy Lamarr. Ball (1892-1916), the first woman and African-American Masters graduate from the University of Hawaii, developed a critical leprosy treatment. After her early death, university president Arthur Dean took credit for her work. Hollywood star Lamarr (1914-2000) co-invented frequency technologies used in WiFi and beyond.

Hollywood star and xxx Hedy Lamarr.

Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr co-invented key frequency technologies.


Shannon and I put the game through its paces with three researchers from SFU: applied ecologist Anne Salomon, glaciologist Gwenn Flowers and physicist Sarah Johnson. We try to figure out the best strategies and which cards to play: scientists with more complex careers are worth more points. Completing the challenging career of a woman of colour nets a bonus point. Modifier cards can help as well as hinder progress: “mentors are awesome”, for example, gives a player a boost via an extra card.

The discussion provoked by the game is as interesting as the action. Sighs of recognition greet the setback card “ways of the Queen Bee”, which marks how women scientists sometimes undermine female colleagues. “I’ve been there,” says Shannon. Johnson counters: “I haven’t experienced this — perhaps because I haven’t had many female colleagues.”

Some have positive stories to tell: Salomon recalls one senior female mentor who offered to review her grant requests, in the name of building up a “good old girls’ club”. Since, she has tried to pay that idea forwards, helping more women to be invited onto panels or keynote lectures, get funding and publish. “We retain the rigour of peer review,” she says, “but that back door works to even the balance.”

Although women have, since the 1990s, earned about half of US science and engineering undergraduate degrees, as of a 2011 study they still held fewer than 25% of STEM jobs, were paid 86 cents on the dollar, and were seriously under-represented in degrees for fields like engineering. A recent study in Science showed that girls tend to think less of their intellectual abilities as early as age six. When 96 children were told a story about a “really, really smart” adult and asked to pick a face to match the story, for example, 5-year-old boys and girls both picked someone of their own gender about 70% of the time. But among 6- and 7-year-old girls, this percentage dropped to about half. More role models are among the many fixes proposed to shift the entrenched bias.


Nicola Jones

WWEST’s mission is to help reverse such trends, in part by funding outreach projects. So when David Ng — who handles educational outreach for UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories — approached them with the idea for the game in 2015, it was a good fit. Ng’s initiatives have included literary science magazine Science Creative Quarterly and other card sets (such as Phylo).

The games are crowd-sourced; anyone can invent one, or contribute to one, and the sets are available to download for free. If you play it, you start to get at least an inkling of the challenges around gender equity,” says Ng. “This is just a starter deck. Hopefully people will add to it.”

While aimed at pre-teens, when Shannon says many girls begin to turn away from science, the appeal of the women-in-science game is broader. Some of the harsher modifier cards (such as one that reads “mistaken for a janitor”) could, note Shannon and Ng, be removed from the game for more-impressionable age groups.

Mid-game, Johnson looks at the cards on the table and comments: “They’re all overachievers”. These women, she notes, had to be smarter and work harder to get the same recognition as male scientists — echoing her own undergraduate experience. “All of the female physics majors I knew were A students. This was not true of the men,” she says. That’s just one thing this worthy game aims to reverse.

Nicola Jones is a freelance science writer and editor living in Pemberton, British Columbia.

Download the game at http://www.sfu.ca/wwest/projects/phylo-card-deck.html

For more on science and culture, see: http://go.nature.com/2CMOwaL



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