Thursday, July 17, 2008

Women, Don't Worry Your Pretty Little Heads over Science!

Hey girls, I don't know if you've heard, but we're underrepresented in science because we're not interested in it! Anybody who says that they've experienced discrimination or bias of any kind, based on their gender, is obviously full of it! Why, there was even a guy this one time who got mistreated by a female scientist. See! It's not just men who treat women badly -- scientists are equal-opportunity assholes!

Ladies, you are nothing but whiners! If you just acted more like men, you'd succeed in science! But since you're too interested in people and taking care of babies, you purposefully relegate yourselves to underpaid service jobs. It's your choice and you should be happy with it, gosh darn it!

As a woman scientist, I can tell you that both of the above-linked articles are based in fantasy. There is plenty of bias against women entering the scientific fields. Some of it is overt (e.g., my high school classmates telling me that I belonged in the kitchen rather than the lab), but most of it today is more subtle (e.g., some interesting comments from my professional peers who are trying to be inclusive but instead end up saying things that highlight their biases). Any woman who makes it to my level and claims to have never experienced sexism or bias is either extremely lucky or extremely unobservant. I wouldn't call myself the world's most observant person, but even I, who have been fortunate enough to work with some of the kindest and most fair-minded people on this earth, have experienced sexism -- even from those very kind and fair-minded people. We're all boiled in the broth of our patriarchal society, whether we agree with its tenets or not.

And even I have behaved in a sexist manner towards another woman. Once, when I was giving a tour, there were two physics professors taking the tour, one male and one female. I realized halfway through my presentation that I was directing my presentation to him and not to her. So it's not just men oppressing women; it's something that has seeped into our very subconscious thanks to our exposure to society's sexism.

Performing an act of sexism does not make one a bad person; it makes one a human person. After I saw what I was doing, I made an effort to direct the presentation more towards her interests for a while. And I resolved to be more careful about my behavior in the future. Doing something sexist is not the problem; what you do after you realize that you've been sexist is what matters the most. If I had realized that I'd been sexist and not analyzed or adjusted my actions, then I would have a problem. And I think that getting the science establishment to recognize its complicity in sexism and to make a change is what is most crucial in opening the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to women and underrepresented minorities.

Many non-scientists have this vision of the solitary scientist, a maverick in the laboratory, whose genius must not be constrained by pesky rules of fairness and the need to respect the dignity of others. But in reality, science is a very cooperative field. Collaborative efforts result in 99.9% of the progress in scientific research. And in order to cooperate, certain rules of human interaction must be followed.

Those rules include treating others with dignity, seeing them as colleagues rather than indentured servants or sex objects, and using your position of authority (as a senior scientist over a student or postdoc, for example) to lead as a mentor, rather than to force, intimidate, or abuse. These are good principles to follow because in the long term, they will provide better results than the alternative.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey discusses production and production capacity. Let's say you buy a brand-new car, which you can use to drive around. (You might think of it as producing transportation.) If you drive it a lot and never do anything to maintain it, then it will break down. The oil will gum up, the engine will lose compression, and your source of production will be no more. If, on the other hand, you periodically get its oil changed, get it tuned up, etc., then your car will last a lot longer and you will get a lot more use out of the money you spent to buy it. The production capacity of your car will remain high for longer than it would if you neglected it.

The same concept applies to people. You can run your employee ragged, and squeeze every last drop of effort from their hide; or, you can give them the opportunity to rejuvenate and remain mentally and physically healthy, and reap more production from their efforts in the long term. In the first case, you may get more production in the short-term, but in the latter case, you will end up with more production in total.

Another facet of the misperceptions about scientists is the erroneous belief that scientists should fit a certain mold that is incompatible with society's constructs of femininity. If you're a "real woman," then you can't be a scientist; if you're a scientist, then you can't be a "real woman."

The idea that scientists must fit a certain mold is what makes it particularly challenging for women to break into the STEM fields. But when those stereotypes are lifted, and a better climate for women is implemented, women meet with success. Here's an example from my own field, computer science.

In 1995, women made up an abysmal 7% of undergraduates admitted to the computer science major at Carnegie-Mellon University. By the year 2000, women made up more than thirty percent of undergraduate computer science majors. What accounts for this drastic rise in female enrollment? After discovering that prior programming experience had no correlation with subsequent performance in the computer science major, the admissions office dropped the programming experience requirements and instead sought students with high performance in math and science classes. And beginning in 1999, the admissions officers began to look for creativity and leadership skills, in addition to the academic criteria.

These new criteria resulted in a very different pool of students; in addition to the admission of more women, it also resulted in a more diverse male population. The admitted students still had exceptional SAT scores and high GPAs, but they were perhaps more well-rounded than previous classes. Realizing that many of these students had little or no computer experience, the department began offering computer science majors different tracks aimed at students with different levels of expertise. The tracks would converge by the end of the second year, at which point all students would take the same upper-division coursework.

Carnegie-Mellon also implemented many outreach programs aimed at computer science teachers and high school students. One program, which provided workshops on advanced placement computer science for teachers, also provided training on gender issues. As a result, the teachers became more aware of gender issues in the classroom and also encouraged their female students to attend Carnegie-Mellon.

Once the students arrived at Carnegie-Mellon, however, retention became a problem, because female students did not have equal access to resources. For example, fraternities and sororities often keep files of old exams, but sororities were much less likely to have files for computer science courses. So an organization for women in computer science was formed, complete with a Big Sister program, research opportunities, an online advice network, and a schedule of faculty/student events.

Nowadays, women students make up a significant fraction of the undergraduate class at Carnegie-Mellon, and go on to happy and productive careers. So it seems like a no-brainer that changing the classroom environment is a good idea.

Then why do some people object so strongly to the encouragement and inclusion of women in STEM? So many people fear that "underqualified" women (or minorities) will take the place of men in prestigious schools, and they all know a friend of a friend who was screwed over that way. This objection boils down to the scarcity vs. abundance mentality. The truth of the matter is that there is a need in this country for as many STEM professionals as we can muster. A prominent group of businesses called for a doubling of STEM graduates within the next decade, and we are not delivering. We need these new scientists to replace the ones that are retiring, but more importantly, to solve the real global crises we face today in energy, climate, resource management, and more!


Women in Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon:
These papers can be obtained from the following link:
  • The Evolving Culture of Computing
  • Transforming the Culture of Computing at Carnegie-Mellon
  • Women in Computer Science: The Carnegie-Mellon Experience
In addition, I found this interview with one of the authors quite fascinating.

Other Links:


EcoGeoFemme said...

Wow, what a good post! I think that's one of the best reactions to the NYT article that I've read. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"The truth of the matter is that there is a need in this country for as many STEM professionals as we can muster. "

Uh, there aren't even enough jobs for the current ones! Society already undervalues scientists. The overabundance certainly doesn't help. What would you suggest all of these people do when they realize in their 30s that they can't find a job and can't support their families? Of course I am all for balancing the pool and against the discrimination of women, but we don't need more in total numbers!

Rebecca said...

In some fields, perhaps there is an overabundance of scientists. However, in my field, there is a large demand, for American citizens in particular. So don't study string theory; become a computer scientist instead!

Science Cog said...

Well-written post with useful details.

Anonymous said...

The NYT article really annoyed me too - someone from my school's women in science organization forwarded it to all of us. A brief discussion ensued, where I learned that the actual people from the government doing the interviews were grossly uneducated in the issues. This is what led to Amber Miller's comment on it being a waste of time, which unfortunately can be misconstrued in the article to mean that we're all good and we don't need any studies on this, thanks. Really, it's because the interviewers from the agencies had no idea what to ask, asking only yes or no questions about things like which equipment they were allowed to use (come on!) instead of asking in what ways we feel that we experience bias. Apparently, in one case the interviewer even referred to a women's asian lab mate as "Oriental." I haven't heard someone use that in 10 years!

I will now cop to the fact that I haven't even finished reading your post yet because just the first three paragraphs got me so upset that I had to comment right away. Off to read the rest...

Madeleine said...

Break out the champagne, someone "proved" that girls are just as good at math as boys. Whee.;_ylt=AvHICjLPmWLcnPh2H7F7LpBvieAA

There is one bone-head quote from a male professor near the end -- the study found that standardized tests don't include complex reasoning problems (duh!) and that therefore American students may be under-prepared for university-level math and science. So the bone-head takes that as an opportunity to point out that there might be male/female differences in that ability that haven't been measured by the tests. Because systemic discrimination is a *much* less likely as an explanation for the lower numbers of women in physics than differences in the ability to think. (Ask me what I think of his ability to do complex reasoning. Go ahead, ask me.)