Women in Science Discussed and Critiqued

by jeeg 9. June 2010 00:42

Blogger FemaleScienceProfessor takes on John Tierney's column critiqueing women in science- "Daring to Discuss Women in Science" in the New York Times.

She writes:

Thanks for all the e-mails and comments with links to the New York Times commentary by John Tierney, but what he wrote is just more of the same of what he's written before: i.e., many women don't want to be scientists or engineers, others can't because they aren't as good at math as the guys. Oh yeah, and Larry Summers made some reasonable statements in a speech that was misunderstood by hysterical females.

This is the person who questioned the National Academy of Science's report, Beyond Bias and Barriers, because a committee with lots of women on it produced the report (and women aren't objective about these issues).

This is the person who wrote a bizarre op-ed column about how women who accompany their husbands to Civil War reenactments must find it liberating to wear bulky clothes that make them swelter in the heat. The women don't get to do excellent things like pretend to kill people and be killed (only authentic men can do that), but at least fat women even look kind of good if you bundle them up enough.

And so on. I stopped reading his commentaries after that, until forced under torture to read his latest thoughts on the topic of Women.

His new essay is more of the same: There are flawed studies that show that females and males have similar quantitative skills and better studies that show that more males than females are extremely talented at math. This is one reason why men are more successful in math, science, and engineering. If women were good at math and science, perhaps they would understand these scientific studies with all the numbers in them.

On one point I reluctantly sort of agree with him: i.e., workshops to "enhance gender equality", mandated if certain legislation becomes law, could be kind of grim. In all likelihood, these would be yet another sounds-good-in-theory administrative requirement that PIs and others would have to sit through to be allowed to run our research groups.

I could be wrong about that. I know that some targeted workshops on equality issues -- e.g., for hiring committees or department chairs -- if run by peers with experience in the relevant activities, can be very effective.

I am, however, picturing something along the lines of the dismal "ethics" workshops that researchers at my university have to attend at regular intervals, or a workshop I went to about teaching those delicate creatures known as "first year students" -- a workshop at which we professors were instructed by people who had never in their lives taught a first year, or any, student. I am thinking about other workshops at which participants were bombarded with surveys filled with leading questions that provided data so that someone could assess what we think before and after we are workshopped. I do not play well with others when I am being assessed by poorly worded surveys.

I am all for equality workshops if by some miracle they are more effective than other workshops that help us be better researchers and teachers. I do not agree with Tierney that these workshops are unnecessary because (1) what inequality exists is just the natural order of things (men are better at math), and (2) "careful" studies show that women already get lots of grants and promotions and therefore there is no inequality in those respects (apparently the subject of a future column).

My favorite quotation of the essay, on the topic of high SAT scores: "..someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university."

He does not, however, take that thought too far (smart!), and he does admit that there is possible "social bias" against women. And some other complex factors. And stuff. But don't expect a lot of women scientists at top universities anyway.

We have made some progress towards increasing the participation of women in STEM fields in recent years, but an important question that many are asking now is why the greater numbers of women undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields has not translated into more women at more advanced levels of academia and industry. Something just doesn't add up. 

While the discussion of gender disparities in science is certainly not a new one, it has been creeping up in just about every corner of the blogosphere. Recenltly, blogger PZ Myers at Pharyngula wrote that "one of the most cunning tools of the patriarchy is the assignment of woo as a feminine virtue. ... It's a double-trap; women are brought up indoctrinated into believing that being smart and skeptical is unladylike and unattractive." Meanwhile, over at The Scientist, Edyta Zielinska examines whether women make more effective lab leaders than men. The author's conclusion? "Possibly," though Zielinska quotes experts who are quick to point out gender differences in management styles.


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