So few of them…

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.

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12 Responses to “So few of them…”

  1. A Says:

    Hi Massimo, we had a spirited discussion about this last summer. I stopped blogging for a year and just this week thought of looking up old friends, under a different name of course.

    There are few women in science for the same reason there are few women in high powered fields that require long hours and a lot of travel. It is hard to balance family commitments with this sort of job. More importantly it is next to impossible holding a high pressure job while pregnant and while the baby is very small (although some women manage well). All of this causes women to take a haitus. In the past coming back was out of the question. Things will improve as more women are able to take time out and return to the field without raising eyebrows.

    It is sad that women conclude “This job is not designed for me” I’ve had women tell me that. As you say a responsible magazine like Scientific American should do more to dispel this view. Some women feel this way, but they would have probably felt that way about any high-powered job.

  2. R Says:

    Is a woman more likely to experience sexual harassment as a physics faculty or as a para-legal ?

    Probably yes. Paralegals know and also work with people that know the law and how to do something about situations that aren’t allowed. Physicists probably can’t always tell whether something they do is considered harrassment or not.

    Percentages in academic sciences may not be what we wish, but are they so much lower than in most other professions ?

    I am not sure whether or not all the sciences have the same gender ratios, but in physics (at the two univs I’ve been at) the ratio is ridiculous, in one only 2 women out of about 50 and in the other 4 out of about 70.

    Ultimately, we work in a science department and that’s what we can change. It is possible that articles like that will drive some women away from science by singling it out, but it is also possible that if enough pressure is put, old-school thinking departments will be forced to change the way they do business.

  3. Massimo Says:

    A., it’s great to have you back in blogosphere… 🙂
    And I don’t know, there is something… sexist about the entire “this is not a job designed for a woman” notion…

    R: I am quite sure of the opposite, namely that sexual harassment is far more prevalent in the corporate sector than in academia. I chuckled on reading your comment about people who “know the law” — why don’t you trying googling “Clarence Thomas Anita Hill” and see what comes out…

  4. R Says:

    Massimo,

    I first meant it as a joke, but I just got word of a really sad situation that happened in the physics department I used to be in. I am tired now so I won’t describe it here, if you want to read it you are welcome to visit my blog, is the latest entry.

    You are choosing a particular example, and of course, you can always find those. I am not sure about the sexist part, but given that my wife’s family is full of lawyers and my friends are mostly scientists, I can tell you that among the lawyers the comments that could be misinterpreted as racists and discriminating are very carefully worded, even when they are with family that wouldn’t pursue legal action against them. On the other hand, many of my friends make dangerous statements in public because they don’t know those comments constitute reason enough to be fired from the university or in rare cases worst action.

    This is just my experience and I know you will say I am also just picking a particular example. I don’t care, I am just saying what I’ve seen.

    Sorry, I am pissed about the professor in my post.

    • Massimo Says:

      Excuse me, are you telling me that the unfortunate and idiotic reaction of a single individual should serve as an indictment of an entire category ? You cannot be serious, come on…
      By the way, how is the department handling that situation ? Is the person being kicked out of the program ? Is the university not offering her any assistance whatsoever ? I would find that very hard to believe, quite frankly…

      • R Says:

        I don’t know yet what will happen to her. She has only told a handful of people about the conversation with her advisor and her position so far is to not do anything official and do whatever the advisor wants (except, I think and hope, keep the baby).

        As I find out more I will post about it.

  5. Schlupp Says:

    Massimo, I largely agree with you, as you know, but I really like to contradict people, so:

    “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.”

    Well, no, didn’t seem that bizarre too me. I must say that the article in question does NOT strike me as all that negative, just a discussion of the existing issues. That the Scientific American writes about gender inequalities specifically in the SCIENCES and not, say, in law firms, may simply have something to do with the fact that it has “scientific” in its name and not “legal”. Unlike other articles that one sometimes read, this one did not really pretend that it is “better everywhere else”. Granted, a very different article discussing differences and similarities between different careers might have been much more interesting to read, but it would also have been MUCH harder to write and I have to say that I very often wish for journals and magazines to write articles on topics more or less different from what they do write about. I wouldn’t say that this automatically makes the article as it is worthless or dangerous.

    Now for some of the questions:

    “Is a woman more likely to experience sexual harassment as a physics faculty or as a para-legal ?”

    Somewhat skewed comparison. Paralegals typically work under the supervision of lawyers, and are in many respects more comparable to postdocs or advanced graduate students (actually lab techs, where applicable), in my opinion. (Still not a perfect comparison, admittedly, because one can be a paralegal all one’s life, but not usually a postdoc.) A better comparisons would be lawyer/faculty to compare the “career track” jobs in the two fields. So, I’d argue that paralegals probably have to deal with more harassment than science faculty, but that this does not tell us much, because it may be predominantly due to the paralegals’ subordinate status. However, in my experience (limited anecdotal evidence and all), sexual harassment is also less of an issue for a postdoc than for a paralegal, which may be more to the point.

    “Which professional fields are so much more family-friendly than academia, that career women desiring to have children flock to them in droves ?”

    Apparently, women medical doctors find it easier to combine the two. Which comes at a prize: Going on the part-time “mommy track” reduces their earnings and according the census data, income inequalities between men and women are lower for PhDs than for holders of professional degrees. As for “droves”: No, not really, but more than physics. (The “droves” are in the humanities, where I definitely fail to see any career advantages compared to physics.)

    “Percentages in academic sciences may not be what we wish, but are they so much lower than in most other professions ?”

    As R pointed out, yes, quite often they are, we are comparing “pretty low” in other areas to “ridiculously low” in some sciences. Only, this may not be the most important question: After all, physics already starts with substantially fewer women, which is probably not all that much the fault of physics departments. (I am now trying not to remind myself of my moronic high school physics and math teacher. Do not remember. Think of something else. Have a beer. Another one.)

    “ultimately doing harm to science as a whole.”

    Nah. Some articles (and some blogs) do that, granted. On the other hand, we obviously would not want to stifle ALL critical discussion and hang all dissenters in order to present a serene face to the hostile world out there. As I said before, the specific article in question did not seem to me to be all THAT negative. The title to the article was utter rubbish, however. Not only was it way more negative than the article, but it also promised explanations that the article simply did not even attempt to provide. As far as I know, editors – as opposed to authors – choose titles in most magazines….*

    As for R’s choosing one single example: You have to admit that you started it with “Clarence Thomas Anita Hill”. If you want a second example: A postdoc around here was fired when she told her boss that she was pregnant.

    R, I have no trouble believing the story you wrote on your blog. Unfortunately, I’ve heard similar ones before. However, and this is the point Massimo has been trying to make, I’ve heard similar stories from people in other fields. (Which does not make it more acceptable.)

    *) At least I heard that for German language magazines.

    • Massimo Says:

      Hey Schlupp,

      I know you love contradicting — hey I don’t mind. You know I always appreciate your submission. Let me quickly and amicably refute all of your points:

      That the Scientific American writes about gender inequalities specifically in the SCIENCES and not, say, in law firms, may simply have something to do with the fact that it has “scientific” in its name and not “legal”.

      Well, but see, that is not the point. An article entitled “Why are there so few women in xyz“, no matter where it is published, gives at least implicitly the impression that field xyz is especially unfriendly to women. Making such a statement without a serious comparison across fields would seem fishy on any magazine — on Scientific American it seems downright weird.

      Somewhat skewed comparison

      Not really. I think it is appropriate to compare with another professional option among those that women choose more frequently than science.

      Apparently, women medical doctors find it easier to combine the two. Which comes at a prize

      So, not really that many, if at all. Then why pick on academic science, if no other environment is better ?

      As R pointed out, yes, quite often they are

      But much more often they are not. And the fact that you find very similar percentages across many different fields is a very strong indication that we are collectively barking up the wrong tree, i.e., that there is nothing especially bad about the sciences.

      As for R’s choosing one single example: You have to admit that you started it with “Clarence Thomas Anita Hill”.

      No, I respectfully question your logic here. You would have a point if I were using the Thomas/Hill example to argue that people in the law are a bunch of sexual harassers, i.e., the same negative generalization that R is unfairly implying with his own example.
      But I am not.
      I am simply arguing that R’s statement about people in the law being generally ‘aware of issues’ finds an important, very notable exception, not in some unknown attorney in the middle of nowhere, but in a Supreme Court justice no less.

  6. Schlupp Says:

    “An article entitled “Why are there so few women in xyz“, no matter where it is published, gives at least implicitly the impression that field xyz is especially unfriendly to women. ”

    Um, no, it doesn’t. 1) It just proposes to discuss some issues, it does NOT in any way state what you choose to read into it. I have to repeat once more that the title did NOT suggest to me anything else than that this particular article was going to discuss – for whatever reasons – tenured professorships. Hey, reading the article, the most probable reason seems to be that some research on the topic had come out, not that someone wanted to be mean to the sciences! 2) After the title, the article actually gets more positive. (Although it does not really provide the answers the title suggests it would.) Titles of magazine pieces are ill-chosen far too often to warrant venom against this particular one.

    I conclude that you have unreasonable standards for the title of magazine articles for one topic only (since you never complained about other stupid “nano-robots are taking over the world with weapons of mass destruction”-type titles that are also quite common) and moreover hold that only really substantial and comprehensive research pieces should be published on this topic, while short notes on recent studies are not acceptable, even if rather balanced. You hold that pointing out anything negative about one’s own career – even if the article is not particularly negative or bad – is by itself a bad thing, if one does not at the same time set out to discuss problems in all other fields. No, it isn’t. Discussion issues within a field in the magazines read by people interested in said field is entirely legitimate and indeed necessary. While it may at some point be better to do a comprehensive study discussing different fields, short notes about recent studies are an also a valid branch of journalism. If it helps you, the article you call “fishy” indeed appear in magazines of all trades, simply because people usually are far more interested in their own fields than in other people’s. All the stuff that the article then claims to need change is pretty much the same one reads in these other articles about these other careers. The particular article did NOT say that anything specific to the sciences was a particular problem, as one occasionally reads in worse articles.

    “Not really. I think it is appropriate to compare with another professional option among those that women choose more frequently than science.”

    Yes. Only, you keep claiming that you want to figure out the reasons for women’s underrepresentation, which you argue should be done by comparing careers in different fields. The example you chose compares two jobs that differ in TWO characteristics: The field AND the level of seniority. Which does not make for an easy analysis to figure out the differences between fields, because the comparison is going to get messed up by the second variable.* Which is why I tried to find a – to me – fairer comparison. However, you maintain that a female professor is comparable to a paralegal and not to a female lawyer. Which analysis – oh what a surprise – gives an advantage to academia! Well suit yourself, but do not expect me to take your arguments seriously from this point on.

    *) Which is an interesting one: Why many women go into subordinate careers. Only, if you had wanted to discuss this issue instead of differences between the fields, you might have said so. And if you might have chosen a comparison only differing in THIS variable, say paralegal to lawyer.

    As for the medical doctors: Sorry for bringing them up, after all, the equivalent to a female professor is clearly a nurse and not a doctor. (Exept when it no longer suits you, see below.) I am not sure what your “not really that many” means: While there are not as many female doctors as to explain why “no women are left for physics”, as some people do occasionally claim, there are WAY more female doctors than women in math or physics.

    “Why pick on academic science, if no other environment is better ?”

    What is better for whom may depend on a lot of things. Why pick? Well, possibly, because we are scientists and the people reading the Scientific American are presumably interested in science and consequently might not in a position to do a lot about problems in law? Just a guess. Your idea seems to be that we must on not account mention anything negative about our field unless it is obviously worse than everything else. Kind of like the people who think that “opposition” is a different word for “enemy agents”. Um, what about trying to be better than the others? Once more: The article did not claim science was so much more horrible, it did make suggestions for improvement.

    Now for your numeric comparison to other careers. I note that you suddenly choose to write about “law firm partners”. Hm, interesting, I though we were talking about paralegals as equivalent to female professors. Which is where I have trouble: While I do happen to agree with a lot of what you are saying, your arguments are so openly set up to give you whatever you want that there is no way you’d be able to convince me if I didn’t have my own reasons for my opinion. You choose a subordinate position in other fields, when it suits you to claim that said other fields have more harassment and you choose absolute top-level positions (CEO of a Fortune-500), when it suits you to claim that the numbers are very similar or worse after all.

    All the aspects you mention may of course be relevant in a thoughtful analysis, but given your extremely high standards on articles on the topic, just putting them next to each other in such a way rather discredits your point.

  7. Schlupp Says:

    Hi Massimo,

    I read again a bit in the book “Mothers on the fast track”, which compares careers in law medicine, academia, and the media. (Not business and ndustry, which I’d also think interesting, but one can’t have everything.)

    A few notes:

    – Whenever I read these American figures with the prefix “only” and the epithet “so few”, I get envious. Wanna see what REALLY low numbers look like? Look at MyCountry.

    – Some people are apparently disappointed in academic careers, because they initially thought academia would be particularly family friendly. At least one of them quoted* in this book did not mean “family friendly universities” in a “we are all reasonable people here, so we will try to find a solution”-way, but in a “after all, professors only work a few hours per week, so how hard can it be”-way. Is it very bad of me if my compassion with this person is somewhat limited?

    *) Only very short quotation, it’s not as if the whole book subscribed to this view.

  8. Massimo Says:

    Don’t know why I thought of this joke from a famous italian comedian.

    Two farmers are chatting, while looking at a few horses grazing.
    A: You see those two horses down there… the white and the black one ?
    B: Yes I do
    A: Well, the black one can canter continuously for 6 hours
    B: Well, that is quite remarkable… and what about the white one ?
    A: Yeah, the white one can do that too.
    B: Oh… OK
    A: But you know, the black one can pull a plow through one whole field in a day…
    B: Really ? Wow… and what about the white one ?
    A: Yeah, the white one can do that too.
    B: Ah…
    A: But actually, the black one can jump over two and a half meters.
    B: Really ?
    A: Yeah !
    B: What about the white one ?
    A: Yeah, he can do that too.
    B: Listen, why do you keep telling me about stuff that the black horse can do, if the white one can do just as well ?
    A: Oh… well, you see, the black horse belongs to me…
    B (chuckling): Ah, I understand now… and the white one ?
    A: Yeah, that one belongs to me too.

  9. Schlupp Says:

    Ok, correction: You are coming back after 6 months and a somewhat longish flight and have nothing better to do than
    a) hanging out on facebook,
    b) writing a blog post about leaving again, and
    c) typing a long dialogue into your blog?

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