I’ve calmed down a bit from yesterday, and thought I’d try a more level-headed response to Summers’ comments about why women are underrepresented in science. My aim is to get through this without using words like “jackass”, “dipshit”, and “bastard”. Let’s see how I do.
One of the assumptions seems to be that because there are fewer women in science, this must mean that there is some predisposition for women not to succeed in science. Genetics is one possibility. I’m not going to dispute that there are some genetic differences between men and women. There are. Perhaps there is even some kind of differences that put men at a slight advantage as far as performing science and math. However, using the current number of women in science as a “test” for genetic differences assumes that all other things have been equal. I can assure you they have not — there has not been a level playing field until very recently.
Historically, women were not given the opportunity to go to university. Only women in the most affulent families could even get advanced education, and rarely were they allowed to get that education in science or math. Until the latter half of the 20th century, women have been actively excluded from graduate programs. So men have been allowed and encouraged to participate in science and math for centuries. Women have only had half a century. Biases like that take some time to erase. We’re still catching up.
Last summer at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Denver, Elaine Seymour, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, gave a talk about ongoing research into what it takes to make it to tenure-track positions. The results weren’t yet published, but she told us that what they were finding was that it took a “straight trajectory” for women to make it to the tenure track.
What does this mean? It means that students who took time off from school, i.e. diverted from the straight-line between undergraduate work and tenure-track, rarely made it back. Some of the many reasons for falling off the direct track included starting a family, family illness or death, and lack of sufficient support.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Of the man or woman in a relationship, who is more likely to take time off when starting a family (the birth itself notwithstanding)? The mother — it seems to be an unwritten rule in society that the mother stop her life to take care of a new baby. Of the sons or daughters in a family, who is more likely to take time off to care for a sick parent? Daughters, in general (I’m not saying that sons never do this, it just seems that a daughter is the one expected to take on the role). Of a husband and wife, who is more likely to support the other through graduate school? The wife. There’s usually an agreement that the husband will then support his wife through graduate school, but once she leave that straight trajectory, her chances of returning are greatly reduced. These examples do not stem from genetic or “inherent” differences in the ability for women to perform science — the are absolutely socialization differences.
I’m one of the unusual cases where I fell off the straight trajectory and made it back onto the path to a PhD. I fell off due to a lack of financial support — I was gettin as much as graduate students in my area generally get, but this was not enough to survive in the DC area. I was able to return because I found an understanding advisor who was willing to let me continue working half-time as a contractor and only half-time as a graduate student. Most students aren’t so lucky.