September 16, 2014 — Recently I attended a panel moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. You may know Tyson from his successful television series, Cosmos, or his two-word summation of the scientific method: “Challenge everything.” The panel members were all experts in the field of commercializing space, and they emphasized the importance of training the next generation of US scientists. STEM education was a major focal point of the conversation.
During the post-panel Q&A session, a 10-year-old girl stood up and asked how she could become an astronaut. It was, she passionately tried to convey, her life-long dream.
Listening to that girl, I couldn’t help but think of my own nieces. (Saying I have a lot of terrific nieces is a bit of an understatement.) One wants to be a doctor. Another, a professional dancer. And yet another dreams of being a psychologist. I worry that their goals will lose out to the social pressure that says only mothers who stay at home can be successful, discouraging girls from pursuing education and making contributions outside of their family. There’s nothing wrong with raising a family, but there’s plenty wrong with encouraging girls to dream small.
Tyson counseled his young questioner to work hard, learn astronomy and physics, and get good grades. If she did all these things, he said, someone would pay for her to become an astronaut. This is sound advice.
But I couldn’t help but wonder about all the aspiring scientists out there with aptitude and ambition who never realize their dreams—because they lack role models (such as the panelists) and/or access to education, because they don’t know where to look for funding, or because they end up with domestic responsibilities that sap their focus, energy, and drive.
For me, supporting equality is a no-brainer, especially when you consider the cost of making it difficult for half the population to pursue their dreams. But I am often struck by the sense that some men see gender equality as a form of emasculation. They wonder: “Will others think less of me if I stand up for equality? Am I still a man if my spouse can out-earn me? Will other men respect me if I object to sexist comments?”
The more important question to consider is the cost to us, as leaders of companies, as members of families and communities, nations, and economies, if we fail to provide equal opportunities. And I can’t think of anything manlier than fighting for justice for all.