The Daily Bongo

Women in Science

There is a new report in Science about how women are faring in the sciences. According to the report, there is still no equity between men and women in science, and women tend to find that the atmosphere in academia is "chilly" with some instances of outright bias. At MIT, the percentage of women faculty in the sciences was at 8% at last count (1999) and really hadn't changed much in the past 10 to 20 years. The question is what is the cause of the discrepancy in number between men and women. This is a topic that is filled with controversy especially since Harvard's president, Larry Summers weighted in on the controversy with his remarks at an NBER conference in January of 2005. So what is the deal with women in science?

At the NBER conference, Larry Summers commented that "Twenty or twenty-five years ago, we started to see very substantial increases in the number of women who were in graduate school in this field." He went on to say that when we look at the number of women in faculty positions today, we don't see anything near the number of women that started out as graduate students so many years ago. Another observation was that "the relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children". What we can extrapolate from that (which is what Larry Summers got into such trouble over) is that some of the reason we don't see as many women in faculty positions may have alot to do with the hours that are required for teaching and research. Women, especially those with families, may not have the capability or the inclination to put in 80 hour weeks. Men, on the other hand, don't suffer the impact of having a family and can and do spend an enormous amount of hours doing research. Some women's groups will tell you that the problem lies in the institution which doesn't provide the women with child care options or the fact that men don't pull their fair share of the load at home. Is that really the whole answer though? Being female myself, I will tell you that I would rather devote the time to my family than to a job. I see life as more than just work. It is the relationships that you share with others and the inner happiness that you feel by doing things other than work. Given the choice of giving my children to someone else to care for, I would prefer to cut down on the work hours, and spend the time raising my children. I wouldn't want to be an absentee parent. To make the claim that the choice to raise a family over working longer hours at your job is forced on you because you are female doesn't take into account the emotions of the female who has made the choice. It is unfortunate that in order to get to some of the higher powered positions, you do have to put in the hours. What disturbs me is that raising a family is considered demeaning. Raising a family, either while continuing to work or not, is something that should be commended. After all, where are we without the children who are our future? The family/career issue is a thorny one, and I don't see an easy solution for it. Even if child care is made available at the workplace, there will be women who won't want to take advantage of it because they don't want to leave their children in the care of strangers all the time. They will want to attend school plays and soccer games.

Another consideration is that women choose not to go into the science fields. My bachelor's degree is in physics and astronomy, and the classes were at the most one-quarter women. The engineering classes that I took were even more sparsely populated with women. Why? Is it because women are encouraged to avoid the sciences in favor of humanities, or are women, in general, just more interested in the humanities? Are women just not good at science and math? When we look at the 2003 SAT scores based on gender, we see that the mean for women in math is 501 while for men it is 537. Even though 53% of the test takers are women compared to 47% of men, men make up 72% of those who score over 750 in the test and 66% of those who score over 700. Why the discrepancy? Is it because of the test structure itself? Some say that the discrepancy in scores on the SAT is due to the timed, multi-choice answers. Sounds abit bogus to me because I don't understand how having a timed test with multi-choice makes it harder on one sex than the other. Is it because women don't learn math the same way that men do? Some say that the class room is geared toward the male student and does everything to ensure success with men. Again, I'm not sure how that would apply unless we admit to an intrinsic difference--that the way men and women think is different. Science does point to that being the actual case. Men have more gray matter while women have more white matter. The gray matter correlates to the information centers while the white matter correlates to the processing centers. That would explain why women and men excel at different tasks such as math and languages. Men tend to be better with math because the work is done in the grey matter while women tend to do better in languages because that utilizes the white matter. Does this mean that women aren't as smart as men? No. Does it mean that there aren't women who excel at math? No. What it means is women may need to work harder at math. I also think that women tend to not be interested in the sciences as much as men are. This may be due to the fact that society for the longest time has not encouraged women to go into science. It may also be due to the fact that women just aren't as interested in the field. Why does someone like chocolate ice cream over vanilla? Can you force the person to make vanilla his/her favorite? No. There are many reasons why someone makes the choices that he/she makes, and I don't think we understand the brain well enough to say that one particular item is to blame.

Women don't progress in science because of bias against them. As Professor Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison says: "There is still a lot of covert and overt hostility on American campuses, some of it is outright illegal behavior, but most of it is subtle. It makes women feel undervalued and not respected." So what do the women do when they are subject to hostility or illegal behavior? Do they report it to anyone? The biggest problem that I have seen with instances of bias and yes, sexual harassment, is that women don't do anything about it. The silence from the community of women in science in turn condones the behavior of the men who are perpetrating the abuse. Why do women keep quiet? Because they are afraid of retribution. Well, it seems to me that the retribution is already being applied if the women keep quiet and still don't get anywhere in science. Speak out as a group. Make sure that the administration of the university is aware of the problem. Make the media aware of the situation. Form a national group of women scientists that women can go to that will assistant them when bias or harassment is encountered. (Maybe the Association for Women in Science should become more involved.) By assistance I don't mean to tell them to put up and shut up. If the perpetrator of harassment is a department head, there should still be recourse to stop this person, including removal from his position. This won't happen though for years. Why? Because in general, women complain about the situation, but never band together to do something about it. Stop your whining and start acting. Yes, even today women are told by other women in positions of power that it is the fault of the women if men harass them. Did you wear a short skirt? Yes, that archaic thinking is still prevalent in this society. That has to change, but it won't if the vow of silence continues. In this particular situation, I blame the women more than the men because they should rail against such treatment and should do something about it. Men should know better, and they will learn quickly if there are repercussions to their actions. As for this bit about having men do subtle things that make the women feel undervalued, get over it. Get some backbone, stand up for yourself, and realize your own worth. It's not for someone else to constantly put a balm to your ego and self-opinion. Do it yourself!

One way to get women into science is to have quotas that will ensure that women make up a certain percentage of the faculty. There is a problem with that. In my university's astronomy department, there was one woman amongst the faculty. This woman was the worst teacher in the sciences that I ever had. She was unable to explain anything, and when asked for assistance with the homework problems that she assigned, she would pull out the solutions manual, and just point to the answer. Any attempts to elicit more information on how to do the problem were met with "here's what the solutions manual says". Everyone who had this woman as a teacher would complain about her abilities, and she received the lowest ranking amongst the teachers. Yet she remains as a teacher because we have to have women in the field (at least that's the only reason that I can see because she is really inept). It does not promote the position of women in science to have those that are less competent in positions just because they are female. Now this particular person that I speak of received many awards from NASA. Perhaps she is more competent at research and incompetent at teaching. Move her out of teaching then. To encourage more women to get into sciences, provide role models that are respected and admired, not just there because of their sex.

Do women have a rough time getting ahead in science? Yes. Is there something that can be done to change that? Yes, but it will take the strength and conviction of women to be willing to stand up for what they believe in when facing bias, and for the administration of universities to understand that in some instances family may come first for women. With a stronger national organization that actually listens to the needs and complaints of women and provides adequate and appropriate support, we might start to see more women in science. Don't expect the men of science to just smack their heads and so let's be fair to women. Do something for yourself instead of waiting for the answer for someone else. Unfortunately, I don't see a change in the future as long as women are willing to accept their lot in the science fields.

August 23, 2005