Gender Differences: The Science versus the Stereotypes

Here is my talk I gave as part of a series at UK called “What’s New in Science.” It was geared toward middle and high school students and students, as well as parents. The punch line is that most of what we think are innate gender differences are really not. I decided my goal in life is to help people learn the difference between good science and crap.

5 Things Sally Ride Can Teach Every Girl

Sally Ride sadly died this week. She was 61. Her legacy was that she was the first American women in space. But I think her influence went far beyond that. As I read about her life, I realize her life can teach everyone – particularly girls – several lessons, none of which involve physics.


1. Be prepared, but then take a chance. Sally Ride didn’t really grow up dreaming of being an astronaut. After all, before her, astronauts were only men and usually test pilots. But she was finishing her PhD in physics from Stanford when she read an ad in the school newspaper. NASA was hiring scientists, so she took a chance and applied. It wasn’t part of the plan. Sometimes the best things in life come from a combination of preparation, luck, and the nerve to simply try.  Life sitting on the sidelines isn’t very interesting.   ​

2. Be smart. Many times girls are afraid of being really smart. I see this in my students all of the time. Sexy and well-liked are often competing goals for girls today. As a young girl, Sally Ride played with a chemistry set and a telescope. It seems to have paid off.  Smart is cool.

3. Be a leader by being outspoken about things you know about. She didn’t just rest on the laurels of her trips to space.  After writing an influential report for NASA, she was named the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration. She was the only person to serve on commissions investigating both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. If you are knowledgable about something (and if you aren’t, get knowledgable), then speak up, be heard, lead.

4. Be entrepreneurial.​ She founded her own company , Sally Ride Science, to help motivate young girls and boys to stick with their interests in science and to consider pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. She also initiated and directed several NASA-funded education programs.  Her passion was inspiring young people to pursue science. She turned her passion into action.

5. Be unique and bold. She was the first. Even now, there aren’t many women who have PhDs in physics. I am sure it was hard. Not the physics part (although I can’t imagine that was easy), but the being-first part. She didn’t have a model for how to do it, or group of women to sit around and chat about the trials and tribulations of space travel. But just because there weren’t many others, she pursued her goals anyway.  I have lots of female students who don’t want to move away from home even though their dream job/graduate program/life’s ambition is somewhere else. They settle for the easy because they are scared of the unknown. It breaks my heart, because their potential remains untapped. Be bold. Failure is not the worst case scenario; a life of what-ifs is.