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Women In Science … Again

in culture-society-history, education, government, science & technology

Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing has compiled four excellent responses to John Tierney’s two-parter for the New York Times on women in science. The response pieces are written by – wait for it – women in science. I encourage you to read all of these well-argued perspectives.

As a female scientist myself, I’m puzzled at society’s state of puzzlement over this “debate.” The following things are so glaringly obvious that I’m surprised no one has acted on them:

1) With only 25% of our high-school graduates fit to enter college, the workforce or the military, America is decelerating its emphasis on educational supremacy, leave alone promoting women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). And, among developed nations, only in America does the separation into gender roles start at such an early, impressionable age. So, not only are American students screwed, female American students are screwed worse. Leveling the playing field of gender at the university level is admirable but not a permanent fix given ingrained biases at that age; start at the community and elementary level, with clear incentives drawn and labeled from the start as well as parental buy-in.

2) The idea of preparing students for standardized tests as educational recovery policy is ludicrous on the parts of both the Bush and Obama administrations. How does a society foster critical thinkers by inflating grades but not necessary skills? Furthermore, women and men do not perform the same on standardized tests (lots of my female friends and relatives and I suck at them, whereas my non-scientist husband can take an MCAT or GRE without studying because he out-psychs the tests), a male or a female can excel at standardized testing but show no STEM aptitude or original research skills and there is a lot more to STEM research than kicking ass at standardized tests. As Dr. Carolyn Porco responds, “I’ve known males whose analytical abilities were off the charts—the ones on the extreme end of the curve that we are now discussing—but who just couldn’t cut it in the world of scientific research, because they lacked some important personality trait.” There isn’t one way to think or to solve real-world problems.

3) As a graduate of a geology department that hires good professors regardless of gender, I’ve noticed that there is no shortage of excellent female candidates in any subdiscipline. So, why are fewer women hired into academia than men? Do men enjoy a larger incentive to go into the STEM disciplines than women (other than a pre-conditioned social approval)? I don’t know, but it’s an anomaly worth investigating.

4) Again with the incentives. I believe that even if we make astrophysics, structural engineering and neurobiology PhDs out of all of our children, there is no readily-apparent career payout. Where are the attractive STEM research jobs?

If the nation truly wants its ablest students to become scientists, it must undertake reforms — but not of the schools. Instead, it must reconstruct a career structure that will once again provide young Americans the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

… Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.

I finished graduate school when I was 28 and, since then, have been so focused on the career for which I went through all that schooling that I am still childless. And I’m not even an academic! How many women today want to deal with 60+ hours of post-doctoral research a week at low pay when they can make twice as much in non-science fields and get home to the kids by dinner? Besides, many of us are about maximizing payoff and minimizing uncertainty. Modern STEM graduate school does not deliver.

5) This is not to discourage women from attaining PhDs and working towards achievement and notoriety, but to point out that a balance between academic work and home life has become virtually unachievable for women thanks to social constructs (see Point 1). Dr. Isis has the best overall reaction to Tierney’s article from which this point stands out:

We can spend our time discussing SAT scores, but I worry that we are missing the most important thing that keeps women out of science – the cultural attitudes that teach women that if they choose a demanding career, they aren’t fulfilling their duties as wife and mother.

6) Raise the pay for teachers so that it doesn’t end up being a garbage receptacle of a job, hence devaluing the work of proficient teachers who want to be there. The big joke when I was in university was ‘Those who can’t do, teach.” How sad. As an example, the female students in my undergraduate geology curriculum who couldn’t maintain a C-average ended up switching to Education’s science teaching curriculum. These are the people teaching our kids! And why is teaching as a profession encouraged more in women than in men?

After all these years, the following observations ought to have slapped us repeatedly into the light, into directed action. But we act astounded when these results come out in modern studies. Why?

7 comments… add one
  • Woohoo, women in science! As the daughter of a woman in science who should have gone further and gotten her Ph. D. (my mom, not me), I’ve seen a lot of this business you’re describing. Yes, it does start at a very early age here, the brainwashing by gender from talking Barbie on up through the years, and we get so shocked…shocked!…by it because as a country, we’ve been deluded into thinking all the doors are open since we see women doing all kinds of things – but we don’t delve too far into the realities, which is that we still don’t have a strong government-subsidized family leave and child care program, women are still paid less than men on average, and life is still going to be harder for you if you have a vagina because women’s academic achievement has them outnumbering men so much in the colleges that the men are starting to whine about their supposed emasculation….and nobody wants to just tell the guys to buck up and work harder. Nobody wants to really change.

    What I am left with from my own personal experience is that if my mom hadn’t had me at an early age, she’d have gone for that advanced degree, and have been damned good at it, too. To achieve in the highest echelons of science, women still have to act as though they’re men, only they still have to work harder. And it’s not just science, either – it’s the arts, too, and damn near any other profession with possibilities of advancement. This not only leaves women with tough choices in making a living, it makes motherhood some sort of lesser state for women. Nobody wins. Not much has changed except the bare veneer of acceptance of women in the workforce….because, really, the economy will collapse without it.

    If women had loads of money and lobbyists at their disposal, I wonder how much things would change here… There are nascent mother’s movements like Moms Rising trying to get something started, but it’s an uphill battle with boulders in the way.

  • Q: But we act astounded when these results come out in modern studies. Why?

    A: Nobody wants to really change.

    Talk about asked and answered! I think it is more a “Someone Else’s Problem” situation. As in, a lot of parents in our culture are comfortable with the idea that women can “be whatever they want,” but their baby darlin’ just wants to marry her high school sweetie and have babies.

  • What a wonderful, wonderful post!

    The unrealistic work expectations of BOTH men and women is insulting to all of us. We’re expected to be robots who work 60-80 hours a week and be proud of that — isolated from our families, communities, and service opportunities. We can’t be full people under that system, and we certainly can’t be good parents, partners, or community members. Women, I think, bear the brunt of the issue because we’re DIFFERENT… we have babies and feed babies and this process means a good year or more of having a little person hanging off your being 24/7. It’s one of the reasons I went into Global Health work… in rural country x, kids are the norm. You deal with babies and kids around womens’ workspaces. The isolation that women are suppose to have to “prove” that they are focused on work in the U.S. is crazy in comparison, and certainly not healthy practice.

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