Science and Sexism

"You should look to marry a millionaire, like my son […] With that smile of yours, you could…"
Italian Prime Minister, to a young woman explaining to him how hard it is to find a job, these days.

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:

(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 [0]. 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 [1] ?  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 ?

Notes
[0] Admittedly, the percentage is lower (8.3%) in the Physical Sciences, but goes up to 26.2% in the Life Sciences.
[1] 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.

Tags: , ,

13 Responses to “Science and Sexism”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post

    I wonder if some of the enhanced rhetoric in science comes from the pervasive ideology that this is supposed to be some utopian, pure meritocracy? Maybe the lawyers and CEOs and politicians set lower standards for their profession.

    Or maybe I need to read more blogs by female senators and conductors.

    Cath

    p.s. LJ ate my first comment, sorry if this is a duplicate

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: Nice post

      I wonder if some of the enhanced rhetoric in science comes from the pervasive ideology that this is supposed to be some utopian, pure meritocracy?

      Yes, quite likely. And make no mistake, we should set higher standards for our profession. But between that, and making it sound as though things are worse in the sciences than everywhere else, there should be some grey area, it seems to me.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    An interesting perspective

    Part of the problem is the misguided belief that science is a meritocracy. The belief that all that matters is that data. Totally not true

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: An interesting perspective

      Totally not true

      No more in the sciences than in law, business, sport and many other activities, also supposedly “meritocracies”.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Women in science vs. women in society

        Great post–I myself have been saying something similar (that society is sexist, that work culture everywhere is sexist, and that therefore sexism in science not only shouldn’t be surprising, but also won’t be solved with the various proposals to do something about it unless underlying social norms are also examined).

        As to why all the attention–I think there is a natural tendency for people to be most concerned with their own sphere. Plus, there is the additional concern about role models in an academic environment. I am in the physical sciences, and I can honestly say that I had NOT ONE woman as a prof. The one woman instructor I had was an industrial scientist, team teaching a course in her area with 2 male profs. (I got my PhD in the early 2000’s.)

        When the time came for me to decide what I wanted to do, I KNEW it wasn’t academia. In my large department of 40+ TT profs, there was one woman w/tenure, and one woman recent hire. Neither had kids. All the grad students talked about how hard it was for them, how students in their classes disrespected them, how men at the University treated them like 2nd class citizens (which was all unfortunately true).

        I only rejoined academia on the TT this year, after a stint on staff in a National Lab in the US. There, I met several successful women in all areas of the scientific workforce. When I realized I really wanted to be a professor, I decided to look for a position in a friendly work environment, now that I had real life confirmation it was possible. Speaking for myself, THIS is why I care about sexism/racism/other-ism in academia. Because it can have more wide-reaching impacts than the makeup of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    even more complicated

    the issues are even more complicated than this. Law careers are highly desirable among both male and female students. I don’t have the numbers, but enrollments in law school are probably more evenly divided between men and women, than among physics grad school. And yet I suspect there is a substantial bottle-neck effect on the way from law school to partnership at top law firms. There is virtually no bottleneck going from grad school to postdoc to tenure-track faculty.

    So there are several issues that are being commonly conflated:
    1. Is there sexism in academia?
    2. Is unequal representation a result of sexism in academia?

    If women who decide to pursue physics as their career go on to become tenured faculty at the same rates as the men who decide to pursue career in physics (which appears to be the case), it would seem that sexism in physics departments has no or little effect on career outcomes of young scientists.

    The other issue – why so few women decide to pursue careers in physics – is a separate question. Typically these career decisions are made well ahead of being immersed in the atmosphere of academia, and may have much more to do with sexism of the people outside academia – parents and siblings, friends, acquaintances. “You want to be what? A physics PhD? Why not go to medical school instead, you are so smart!”. or worse yet, a comment from mothers “You want to be what?! I hope you realize I want grandchildren! Why can’t you be normal and pick a ‘normal’ career, get married and have kids?”

    In graduate admission committees and faculty search committees I have never once saw anyone reject a qualified applicant based on their gender. On contrary, many times we take a second look at female candidates, even though we wouldn’t if they were male.

    Many, if not most, faculty members are well aware of gender under-representation and are actively trying to figure out ways to address it. But we can’t force qualified women to apply for PhD programs. And when it comes to hiring faculty members, the pool of qualified applicants is similarly skewed, as it comes from the original pool of graduate students.

    Sexism in academia or gender discrimination is not the reason for why we have so few female faculty members.

    Just like gender discrimination is not the primary reason for why something like 99% of kindergarten teachers in US are women.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: even more complicated

      If women who decide to pursue physics as their career go on to become tenured faculty at the same rates as the men who decide to pursue career in physics (which appears to be the case)it would seem that sexism in physics departments has no or little effect on career outcomes of young scientists.

      Well… yes and no. The data that I have been able to find do indeed suggest that women are tenured at approximately the same rate as men, but then for some reason their representation at the senior faculty levels drops, in some disciplines dramatically so… not just in the sciences though.

      The other issue – why so few women decide to pursue careers in physics – is a separate question.

      Of course.

      In graduate admission committees and faculty search committees I have never once saw anyone reject a qualified applicant based on their gender. […]

      Nor have I but then again, who will ever say “I don’t want her to be hired because she’s a woman ?”. It usually takes place in a more subtle fashion — but I fundamentally agree with you when you say
      Many, if not most, faculty members are well aware of gender under-representation and are actively trying to figure out ways to address it.

      That is my experience too, by and large.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Let us consider a possibility that while women on average are as good in math as men, but the width of the distribution of math’s abilities in women is twice larger than in men (and both are Gaussian for simplicity). Then select top 10% of men in math and mark their minimum math score as X. Now select all women with the score >X. How many of the women will end up in the same group as 10% of top men? 0.7%, if I did my math correctly. Is it impossible for women to have a different distribution with the same average? There are much more stupid men than women, if you compare with real life. So there is nothing unreasonable with having much more men with low math abilities than women. It is certainly in agreement with high-school statistics. So why is it impossible that their distribution is broader (which would also be consistent with evolutionary role of men, as test species). In science we never deal with anybody outside 10%, so…

    Mark

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Mark,

      I have heard this argument myself. I suppose it is a possibility, but I do not buy it — not yet anyway. First of all, based on the data that I have collected the same argument of variance would have to apply not just to math, but to everything, including music, writing, painting, rapping, law, cooking and many other activities where women are under-represented. It does not seem likely to me.
      Secondly, if you, a physics faculty, are going to tell me with a straight face that in most physics departments of all ranks, faculty are consistently selected to be in the top 10% of ability, I have got some land in Sicily for you.
      Third, I have seen those distributions and I think that the difference can not quantitatively explain the situation. Most estimates and studies that I have seen, purporting to account for female under-representation based on the variance argument, make very questionable assumptions regarding the size of the applicant pool.

      • Anonymous Says:

        “Secondly, if you, a physics faculty, are going to tell me with a straight face that in most physics departments of all ranks, faculty are consistently selected to be in the top 10% of ability, I have got some land in Sicily for you.”

        Are you serious? Sure, I can tell you with a straight face that all faculty in physics were within the top 10% of math ability compared to their peers in school (it is pretty void statement that they are in the top 10% of math ability of all adults now, and I chose math as opposed to physics which is generally taught to a lesser extent than math).

        Mark

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        OK, so we are talking four acres near Enna, with easy access to the ocean — a cliff actually ๐Ÿ™‚

        Seriously Mark, the variance argument is never about “top 10%” (men and women distributions overlap significantly in that range), but rather “four sigma” — only there are they so vastly different. And I am sorry, the average physics department does not include people “four sigmas” above the rest — in just about anything.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Okham, I do not much about “4 sigma argument”, I just integrated the tails of two Gaussian distributions, simply to illustrate the point. You are talking about “men and women distributions” as if they are known, which is not true.

        based on the data that I have collected the same argument of variance would have to apply not just to math, but to everything, including music, writing, painting, rapping, law, cooking and many other activities where women are under-represented. It does not seem likely to me.

        Why?

        Mark

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Yes, Mark, and my point was precisely that “integrating a Gaussian” is a meaningless exercise if you don’t even know whether that Gaussian exists or represents anything in the first place — it is only likely to mislead or confuse.

        You are talking about “men and women distributions” as if they are known, which is not true.

        Lol, classical Mark ๐Ÿ™‚
        They are “not known”, eh ? Gee, I should have asked you, I would not have wasted all this time doing google searches returning a host of studies showing them (see, here).
        For sure, those who advocate the “variance” argument to account for female underrepresentation think that they are known (see, here).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: