The subject of women under-representation in the sciences is one of the most hotly (and often bitterly) debated — in public, on the printed press, and of course inside blogosphere. Sexism is often put forward as a plausible, likely reason underlying the infrequency with which women take on leadership positions in the scientific enterprise, be that in academia or in national or private research laboratories.
The theory advanced by many is that, more or less consciously, men act as if in concert to perpetuate the male dominance of the activity of scientific inquiry, through a pattern of subtle and not-so-subtle actions — ranging from the seemingly innocuous, in reality disparaging comment made in conversation or at a meeting, to the harsh critique of the research work of female colleagues (while the same work authored by men would elicit a more benevolent review), all the way to hiring bias, i.e., the systematic exclusion of qualified female applicants from high-level appointments.
A body of scholarly work has attempted to document all of this; yet, the notion of widespread gender discrimination in the sciences is not one that is universally (or even widely) accepted. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that it is fairly controversial. The suggestion is made repeatedly by some (e.g., the former Harvard University President) that other factors, possibly including differences in ability intrinsic to gender may account for the bulk of the phenomenon of under-representation.
It’s not about if, but how much
A fundamental problem that I see with this debate, at least with the way in which it tends to be framed, is not so much that misleading and/or dishonest answers are given; rather, that the wrong questions are asked. Specifically, attempting to establish by some absolute, abstract metric, whether a given environment is affected by sexism or any other social dynamics, without comparing it to other milieus, is meaningless.
Let me give you an example: while there exists virtually no place on Earth where the air that people breathe is not polluted to some extent, in some countries air pollution is worse than in others. Most of us would prefer to live where pollution is less severe. While this obviously does not mean that those countries that do better are exempt from trying to clean up their air even further, it seems nonetheless reasonable that environmental campaigns should first and foremost target the worst offenders.
Likewise, before declaring that there is a problem of under-representation of women in the sciences, should we not first and foremost assess whether the sciences are one of the “worst offenders”, when it comes to gender discrimination ?
Could it be that what we are observing is just another manifestation of the same phenomenon that exists in all walks of life, occurring to the same (or even lesser a) degree in the sciences ? It is an important part of the exercise, not only to place things in a proper context and not give out misleading information, but also because the strategy to combat sexism in the sciences may well change radically, if it were to be established that there is nothing different or "special" about it, compared to the sexism that exists throughout society as a whole.
Is there sexism in the sciences ?
Asking this question makes about as much sense as asking whether the air that we breathe is polluted.
The world is sexist. Our society is sexist. It does not take much to figure it out. It suffices to watch television, read newspapers, do a minimal amount of research on violence on women, pay equity, sexual harassment, the portrayal of women in the news, just to mention a few.
Of course there is sexism in the sciences.
How could there not be any ? One sees no reason why the scientific environment, which is made of humans, should be immune to an endemic that poisons a woman’s life experience in so many ways, virtually everywhere. This hardly seems a point for discussion, let alone one of contention.
But if one is going to address the narrower issue of sexism in the scientific enterprise, the pertinent question is whether gender bias, or more broadly practices that can be construed as "sexist", take place to a significantly greater degree in the sciences than in all other human activities.
Are women scientists facing greater adversities than, say, women artists, or in business ?
The answer to this question is one that I am not qualified to provide (I can only ask myself some general questions and express maybe an uninformed opinion); however, it is one with potentially far-reaching implications.
Let it be clear: this is not about letting us male scientists collectively off the hook, much less patting ourselves on the back and/or forgetting that a problem exists. It is simply that the tone of the debate would likely change, were the notion embraced that the sciences are no worse at treating women fairly than any other segment of society. Furthermore, some of the questions that are currently being "provocatively" asked by individuals enjoying positions of power and influence, in order to address the paucity of women in the sciences (such as "can women really do math as well as men ?"), might end up looking irrelevant and… well, pretty darn stupid.
How many female orchestra conductors are there ? Or CEOs ?
In a recent post, Incoherent Ponderer discusses the dearth of women in Computer Science, noticing how it fails to elicit the same concern as in other fields of science. Actually, the same remark applies to a wide variety of activities and disciplines.
When was last time you went to a concert and a woman was conducting the orchestra ? Are women represented in the US senate more equitably than in biology faculties at American universities ? As usual, Google is our friend. A simple search with "Women" and "under-representation" yields a large number of hits; and while some are the "usual suspects", others are somewhat unexpected (to me, anyway). Here is a sample:
- Women currently account for a mere 16% of the US senate.
- While the number of female orchestra conductors is slowly on the rise, women continue to be vastly outnumbered by men in this role, worldwide (the numbers here make the sciences look pretty good — heck, even physics).
- Women currently overall make up barely 19% of law firm partners.
- In the 125 Medical Schools in the United States, on average there are only 35 women full professors, compared to 188 men (15.7%)
- A mere 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, and a total of 24 Fortune 1000 companies have women in top jobs. Working out the percentages is left as an exercise for the reader.
- How about this one: Women constitute only 19% of film writers.
- Women make up just under one quarter (22 percent) of the culinary industry, and a mere 15% of executive chefs (it’s clearly that “math” thing…).
(I could mention many other professions and fields — architect, bus driver, visual artist, police chief, even rapper for cryin’ out loud). Are the above percentages, pertaining to activities that require vastly different sets of skills, so much higher than those seen in the sciences ? Not really. As of 2006, 19.4% of all full professors in Science and Engineering are women . In fact, it seems almost remarkable how quantitatively similar things look across the board.
And yet there seems to be far less outrage and concern about sexism in, say, law firms, medical schools or restaurants, than there is in regards to the sciences, even though women do not seem to be doing significantly worse therein (in many respects they are doing better). But, why ?
Why is sexism believed to be especially a problem in the sciences ? What’s so special about the sciences ? Is being a scientist any more desirable than being a film writer or a senator ? Is sexism any less tolerable in the sciences than anywhere else ?
And, why are we even having a discussion over supposed intrinsic differences in math ability across genders, when it may turn out that women are even more badly under-represented in areas where math is hardly relevant at all ? Why are the Larry Summers of this world not suggesting that more studies are needed to determine whether women may be "intrinsically less apt" at writing a screenplay, conducting an orchestra, serving in the senate or baking pizza  ? Is it because it would sound, oh, I don’t know, ridiculous ? Well, why should it not sound equally silly when applied to math and the sciences ? After all, numbers are similar…
Me, I am a simple-minded kinda guy. To me, the fact that women are comparably under-represented in very different cross sections of society, points to a single, common reason (or, set thereof) — in all likelihood largely independent of the specific skills and aptitude required in each and every one of those fields. But hey, I am eager to be taught a lesson — if someone has a better explanation, I am curious to hear it. However, it cannot be limited to science — it ought also explain why women should make, among other things, less able conductors, CEOs, chefs and politicians than men. Somehow, I think math alone won’t cut it.
How bad is it to be a woman scientist ?
I do not know — not because I am a man (much like I don’t need to have cancer to know about it), but because I cannot find many of the numbers that I am looking for, which in my opinion would greatly help assess the problem (I thank in advance anyone who can and will provide them). For example:
1) Are sexual harassment lawsuits more frequent in science laboratories and departments, than in business or law offices ?
2) Is gender pay inequality greater among tenure-track science faculty than, say, among starting news reporters or political interns ?
3) Is the career of a woman scientist hampered by sexism to a greater degree than that of an aspiring actress, city mayor, architect, sculptor ?
There are obviously things about being a woman that a man will never understand (and as a result may never be able to fix completely); still, it seems to me that without a clear, quantitative sense for where the sciences stand in comparison to other fields, vis-a-vis issues such as the above, the discussion will remain vague, likely to end in name-calling and baseless accusations on the part of some, patronizing and disingenuous dismissal (and defensiveness) on the part of others, and, most importantly, inaccurate and misleading statements.
Yeah but… so what ?
Naturally, the above does not mean that there is no problem in the sciences, and that each and every one of us ought not do whatever is in his power to fight sexism. Although I genuinely believe that progress is being made, it is clear that much remains to be done.
But at the same time, the scientific community should not misrepresent the state of affairs to the greater society. In particular, if we are going to forewarn (as we should) young women interested in the sciences about the possibility that they will encounter gender discrimination, we should also make sure not to give them the impression that they will be subjected to more sexism in research labs than in law firm offices, or in the high-tech corporate sector, in Washington DC or in Hollywood (unless, of course, the numbers should prove it). We already are losing too many of them — there is no reason to scare them off even more. And really, does it make sense to speak of sexism in the sciences, when we should simply speak of sexism ?
 Admittedly, the percentage is lower (8.3%) in the Physical Sciences, but goes up to 26.2% in the Life Sciences.
 This is not quite the joke that it sounds. Women were for a long time believed to have intrinsically inferior musical ability, compared to men.