Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Wanted: Women Scientists

Aunt Hattie alerted me to this recent study (in the NYTimes) on women in science written by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Unless a deeper talent pool is tapped, it will be difficult for our country to maintain our competitiveness in science and engineering,” the panel’s chairwoman, Donna E. Shalala, said at a news conference at which the report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” was made public.

Dr. Shalala, a former secretary of health and human services who is now president of the University of Miami, said part of the problem was insufficient effort on the part of college and university administrators. “Many of us spend more energy enforcing the law on our sports teams than we have in have in our academic halls,” she said.

The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of “innate” intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.

If there are any cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said.

A spokesman for Mr. Summers said he was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Nor is the problem a lack of women in the academic pipeline, the report says. Though women leave science and engineering more often than men “at every educational transition” from high school through college professorships, the number of women studying science and engineering has sharply increased at all levels.

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minorities are “virtually absent,” it adds.

The report also dismissed other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families, and so on. Their real problems, it says, are unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes, and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

What I find interesting about this study is how the imperative to better recruit and retain women in science is framed as a national priority--a crisis we need to address. Policy folks are far more sophisticated in strategy, and they realize, sadly that simply upbraiding the science community for sexist institutional barriers won't get far. It is not unlike the conversation I have been having with all of you on white privilege and structural racism. You simply cannot successfully fight structural sexism or racism by pointing out that these are immoral and inhumane practices.

My colleague in Physics recently gave a talk on the situation of women in Physics. I offered up her talk as an extra credit opportunity in my WS class. The students who attended--women--seem to fixate on the insignificant cognitive findings. I was aghast. The whole point of bringing these cognitive differences up was to consider this as one of the explanations (the one Larry Summers gave) of why women aren't full professors in science. However, if you look at that evidence, the consequences of the differences--men have a greater aptitude for rotating 3-D spaces in their head--is wholly irrelevant to success in science. That particular difference does nothing to explain the disparity.

So, a few of my female students were nonetheless willing to believe this cognitive difference theory. Some might argue that these women are suffering from bad faith. Or, as Za likes to say--mostly to taunt me--women are the greatest obstacles to feminism. I reject both of these explanations for why women might cling to the belief that they are just hard-wired to be less successful in the sciences. What this suggests to me is their own sense of inadequacy in science and math, and that inadequacy is nurtured by the culture--Barbie dolls that say "math is too hard"--and parents who do not nurture scientific curiosity in young girls, and finally, sexist teachers.

I am a casualty of institutional barriers. I hate writing about it. And, when I analyze why, it is clear. I don't want to be accused of playing the victim. But, the only reason I left science was sexism, plain and simple. I clung, with dear life to Philosophy. The choice of Philosophy over Chemistry was odd; I am pretty sure there are even fewer women in Philosophy, especially at the top of the field. But, I wasn't gonna be kicked out a second time. I remember distinctly a conversation I had with my epistemology professor when I told him I was dropping his course. He stated, quite matter of factly, that he just didn't think women were capable of understanding this material. I was pissed off enough, having just left the sexist fuckwits in the Chem department, so I looked at him and pointed out that I had a 3.7 with a Chemistry major, and had placed into advanced Mathematics courses. What about these credentials suggested my lack of aptitude for analytical reasoning? Perhaps, the reason women are leaving your course is because you are a horrible teacher. (Oh, snap!). Don't think I didn't pay for that, by the way.

This icky stroll down memory lane serves one purpose in this post: to point out how useless it is to fight this kind of pervasive and insidious sexism in higher ed by calling it what it is. Moreover, even those who have experienced this kind of sexism will find themselves blaming their own inadequacies (which I surely did).

We have to use strategies--that by keeping women out of science, the whole country suffers. Fine. I endorse the move. But, shit, I wish we could invoke this reasoning in all other fields as well. I doubt the country is clamoring for more philosophers, but if they were, I hope they issue a similar report. (I'm not holding my breath).