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Women. Science. Deal with it, already! September 29, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, politics, science.

Tierney had a column in the NYTimes on women and science on the 26th. The column is a response to a recent National Academy of the Sciences report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering“. The report lists the usual things that are plaguing us: loosing women at each degree transition, discrimination, social biases, etc. Take a look at the report summary if you aren’t familiar with this. Tierney’s column was just so wrong when compared to my own experience that I really didn’t give it much thought. And he throws out a few lines that seemed designed to piss off people. For example:

The report says that women are discouraged from going into science because of social pressure and “unintentional” and “unconscious” biases — which may well exist.

May well exist!? Sheesh. We all hold biases and use them everyday without noticing. I’m sure I do (too scared to ask my wife); and then there are the really blatant ones. I remember a physics prof at UT, since retired, reducing a fellow student to tears by telling her she would never make it in physics (despite the fact she was #1 in the class).

My wife asks:  “Did he miss the whole Larwence Summers thing??” 🙂

But he then brings up the old saw of basic differences between women and men mean that the hard sciences will always be more manly.

I just don’t buy it. I’ve met too many good scientists – women – to believe that crap any longer. Some people, in a response to a statement like this, will try to tell me they aren’t real women – a code word, I think, for them not being feminine. Sorry. The nerd factor for men and women seems to be about the same; just as there are plenty of men you’d never recognize for a physicist in a bar, there are so too plenty of women. Whomever these arguments are coming from they need to realize that any differences that do exist just don’t seem to matter!

But. I’m tired and old. I read the article and rolled my eyes and wasn’t planning on giving it another thought. I wouldn’t even be writing this except for a letter that appeared in response to his column today. Arti, after mentioning she had experienced some of this discrimination and sexism herself, concludes with:

Institutionalized barriers and discriminatory attitudes are real and must be included in discussions of why scientifically inclined women choose alternative careers.

She is totally right. And good for her writing it in too. Sexism and bias aren’t going to explain everything, but they are too big a factor to write off as Tierney seems to suggest.

Arti is a graduate student. She was at UW and transferred to Harvard, and is back finishing up her thesis. ’nuff said.

UPDATE: Fixed wording error, clarified.



1. Nate Bottman - September 29, 2006

It seems to me that you’re overreacting to the first quote. Isn’t saying that something might well be true, instead of simply stating that it’s true, just a way of qualifying stating something that’s unproveable? If there’s no hard data (and I’m assuming that there isn’t any hard data suggesting that unconscious sexism still remains), even it’s a widely-accepted proposition, it seems wrong not to qualify its statement.

2. jenn - October 1, 2006

Nice post.

Being a woman in science I get embroiled in these sorts of conversations all of the time. The long and short of it is that I don’t know what keeps others out of science because somehow I managed to get through my teenage years and still believe I was capable enough to be a scientist.

I have had a really good experience so far. There have been a couple of jerks, but there always seems to be a couple of jerks in everything, sadly.

As with every type of discrimination, I think the best thing anyone can do is to be aware of thier own biases and to do what they can to not let them affect how they treat others.

3. Gordon Watts - October 2, 2006

Nate — perhaps — but I’m positive they do exist. I’m positive because friends I know have seen it, because the stereotype of the sexist pig is there for a reason – and it isn’t because it is a fiction. So I’m positive it is there.

Jenn — yeah, Paula says she gets sucked into these conversations all the time too. I agree with you totally.

I, and others, are left in the unfortunate position of not having an answer to this mystery. The big problem is we don’t really understand why it is there are so few women. Throwing up a theory or three is just fine, but some are just so off-the-wall they should never have made it past the brain-storm stage. I’d count the differences in intellegence/motivation/etc. as one of those. I’m sure there are differences between men and women — but that can account for the 80-20 split? Not. Especially when you travel over to Europe — Italy is the canonical example — and find a 50-50 split at levels where we, here in the use, are around 80-20. .

4. sister of physics brothers - October 9, 2006

Yes. I have run into one non-feminine woman physicist. Supposedly renowned leader. If you are a non-physicist woman or even a young person, you barely exist in her world, maybe as a servant.

But she wants all the women to wear skirts in the office or professional meetings. Odd.
She PRs that women should mentor young women but doesn’t do it herself.

Too elitist. You get new people of any kind in with humility, not arrogance. And get them while their young. Don’t see it in my life time.

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