In the latest issue of the respected Scientific American, contributor Katherine Harmon asks (once again) the usual question, namely, Why Aren’t More Women Tenured Science Professors ?
The article expounds a familiar thesis, namely that “Many women get a close look at the academic prospects ahead and say, ‘This job is not designed for me'”. In fact, “With long hours, tight funding and pressure to publish, an academic job may be a less appealing choice today for many doctoral grads, regardless of gender.” The article then goes on to suggest that ” “A woman who is thinking of starting a family [is] seen as a weakness”, and that “we have to change the culture of academic science”.
Each time I read stuff like this I just want to roll my eyes…
First of all, let us be clear: None of the above is new, of course, and it is all true.
Indeed, women are indisputably a minority in academic sciences, and many of us regard that as a bad thing, ultimately harmful not only to scientific progress, but also to the broader issue of gender inequity across society. However, that an influential magazine such as Scientific American would contribute to the ongoing propaganda aimed at singling out academic science as especially “unfriendly to women”, seems bizarre.
Articles like this one deal a terrible blow to the relentless effort of the many (women and men) who are trying in any possible way to open up pathways to success for women in academia, and in the sciences in particular. Almost ironically, the article is based on a recent study on Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty. This study is interesting enough that warrants a separate post, but the gist of it is that women are making significant progress in breaking old barriers to their professional advancement in academic science.
Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that academia and the sciences are joyful enclaves of gender equality, but, does it make any sense to make a statement about the (un)friendliness of a given environment, without comparing it to others ?
I have already written about this subject and do not want to repeat myself, so… I am going to ask the same questions once again: are those bright and talented young women interested in the sciences, who on reading an article like this one may be induced to choose a different professional path, going to experience less sexism in industry, for example ? Is the percentage of women not making tenure much higher than that of women in the private sector who remain stuck at levels of pay lower than their performance would merit ? Is a woman more likely to experience sexual harassment as a physics faculty or as a para-legal ? Which professional fields are so much more family-friendly than academia, that career women desiring to have children flock to them in droves ? Percentages in academic sciences may not be what we wish, but are they so much lower than in most other professions ?
Is sexism in academic science a peculiar social phenomenon, underlain by something about scientific inquiry that is inherently adverse to being female, or is it nothing but a reflection of the sexism which affects society as a whole ? Without providing answers to these questions, one is only likely to paint a misleading picture, ultimately doing harm to science as a whole.