Astronomer’s ‘boys with toys’ remark inspires #GirlsWithToys response

A male astronomer’s offhand comment during an interview prompted a social media outcry over the weekend when female scientists around the world took to Twitter using the hashtag #GirlsWithToys.

“Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys’,” Shrinivas Kulkarni, a Caltech professor of astronomy and planetary science, said in a profile that aired on Saturday’s episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Although Kulkarni did not intend to undermine women’s contributions to the sciences, it came at a time when multiple organizations and initiatives are promoting the engagement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — also known as STEM — and encourage more girls to pursue careers in science and math.

A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that men outnumber women in nearly every STEM field, with women earning as few as 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in fields like physics, engineering and computer science.

As part of its Educate to Innovate initiative launched in 2009, the Obama Administration committed to expose more young women to STEM through partnerships with national organizations, government agencies and professional mentors.

While recent decades have seen some progress, supporters of women in STEM say more needs to be done.

“Creating STEM programming that engages girls earlier in their elementary and secondary-school education will help shift the classroom dynamic away from one that is majority boys and thus more welcoming to girls,” said Christina Wallace, founding director of BridgeUp: STEM at the American Museum of Natural History, and Nathalie Molina Nino, chief revenue officer of PowerToFly, in a TIME op-ed earlier this month.

#GirlsWithToys continued to trend Tuesday, with women sharing photos taken of them posing with telescopes, peering into microscopes, controlling mars rovers or climbing into ice caverns to show off their research and the growing role they play in scientific discovery.

For more about young women in STEM, check out this Student Reporting Labs profile of a student defying stereotypes in her high school engineering course:

Defying stereotypes, one robot at a time from Student Reporting Labs on Vimeo.

Fourteen-year-old Keely Slade of John Hardin High School in Radcliff, Kentucky, is already an avid competitor in robotics competitions and excels in her school’s male-dominated engineering class.

“Being a female and also being a freshmen is kind of difficult,” Slade said. “You have guys look at you like you’re weak and you’re timid. They don’t really expect someone who’s loud, outgoing and independent.”

Keely has inspired other girls to join the class and said she hopes to pursue a career in engineering.

“I know that I can see myself, 20 years from now, building bridges in civil engineering or helping with road construction designs,” she said.