Neil de Grasse Tyson explains why there aren’t more women in science

Every once in a while, the great conspiracy to depress me further about the world in which I live trips over its knuckles and provides something like this. It’s a video from a science panel. In it, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson tackles the audience question of why there aren’t more women in science (the audience member jokingly describes it as the “Larry Summers question“). He leverages his perspective as a black man to get a sense of where women are coming from. Here’s the video, but for some reason it doesn’t go to the timestamped bit where this actually occurs – you can see only the exact segment we’re talking about via this link.

“I’ve never been female,” he begins, getting a laugh, “but I’ve been black all my life.”

He describes being nine years old on a visit to the Hayden Planetarium and deciding astrophysics is what he wants to do. He describes response to his ambitions as the “hands-down the path of most resistance” from “the forces of society.”

“Don’t you want to become an athlete?” teachers asked him.

He talks about how all these “curve balls” he was thrown just kept fueling him. But then he wondered where were all the other people like him who wanted to take this path? Why did he make it, when others did not? He talks about the various ways the resistance manifests: about his being followed through department stores by security guards who assume a black man is likely to be a thief. All this he offers to establish that the forces of resistance against anyone-but-white-guys entering science “are real.”

“Before you start talking about genetic differences,” he says, “you’ve got to come up with a system that has equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”

We just talked about why gender essentialism is bad, sexist science last week, and Tyson’s spelling it out beautifully: until you actually get rid of the cultural differences, you can’t begin to isolate genetic differences. I’m not even sure it’s possible to make a society so egalitarian that the only plausible reason for someone failing would be their own inadequacy or lack of diligence – but that’s not his point. The point is: we are so far away from ruling out social and cultural influences, bringing up genetic influences is laughable.


  1. Megan says

    I LOVE that man. I really do. Every time I see him speak I am left feeling warm and fuzzy and full of restored hope for humanity.

  2. DSimon says

    Hm, we might be able to isolate cultural differences by comparing the experiences of people who are genetically XX but expressed sexually as male (and who don’t even know it themselves, so that self-policed behavior isn’t an issue) vs people in the same cultural situation who are XY and express as male.

    But, there are so few XX males that this sort of study would be really tricky to do. In particular, if you wanted to do it double-blinded so that the XX males didn’t know they were XX males during the course of the study, you’d only get one real set of experimental-group data from every 20,000 (!) male-expressed participants.

    Also, Neil de Grasse Tyson rocks everyone’s socks, in alphabetical order. :-)

  3. shatana says

    I love Tyson because of his science geekitude, and now I love him more knowing that he’s so self- and socially-aware.

  4. SunlessNick says

    I didn’t know who Tyson was when I read the title, so I had such low hopes for this article; it was good to see them dashed. :)


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