Women in Science — II

Posted by barb on Jan 18, 2005 in Science Musings

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.

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Breathe in and out…nope, I’m still spitting mad

Posted by barb on Jan 17, 2005 in Science Musings

Just two days ago I was writing optimistically about the status of women in astronomy, and then I read these comments from the president of Harvard.

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

The article says that in this talk he was acting as a top ecomomist, and not as a Harvard official. If you’re the president of Harvard, you are always acting as a Harvard official. One has to wonder what kind of dumbass the president of Harvard has to be not to know that already.

He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.

The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ”I said no one really understands why this is, and it’s an area of ferment in social science,” Summers said in an interview Saturday. ”Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren’t” due to socialization after all.


Summers’ third point was about discrimination. Referencing a well-known concept in economics, he said that if discrimination was the main factor limiting the advancement of women in science and engineering, then a school that does not discriminate would gain an advantage by hiring away the top women who were discriminated against elsewhere.

Point 1: It’s women’s fault that they don’t want to neglect their families by working 80-hour weeks? No. It’s the science culture that’s at fault for not shaming men for neglecting their families by working 80-hour weeks. No one should be working 80-hour weeks. Period. We need time to nurture our families, our friendships, our lives, and 80-hour work weeks are not a good way to do that — it just leads to burn-out. (And, apparently it leads to assholes getting to be president of Harvard.)

Point 2: Do we really need to go over this one again? Boys are encouraged by adults to explore their worlds; girls are encouraged to play house and learn to be mommies. Of course we are socialized to be good little boys and girls. I was fortunate that I got to play with my older brothers’ toys — I had Legos AND dolls AND action figures AND Lincoln Logs. Most girls get dolls and Barbies and stuffed toys.

Point 3: Discrimination is a huge factor in the problem. It’s not the only problem, but in seven hiring cycles at my university, the only woman who was hired was hired because the school mandated that a woman be hired.

The article reports that several women left Summers’ talk. He got off lucky. There should have been some kind of “storming the stage.” Our only hope is that this will be the impetus needed to oust Summers’.

[via Pharyngula]

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Women in Astronomy

Posted by barb on Jan 15, 2005 in Science Musings

I was asked to be the graduate student representative on a panel discussion today for the Committe on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). In 2003 they had held a meeting in Pasadena to discuss progress since the first Baltimore meeting in 1992. As a result of the Pasadena meeting, the CSWA has drafted a set of recommendations aimed at increasing the retention of women in astronomy.

Right now, over 50% of the American Astronomical Society members aged 18-23 are female. However, less than 20% of tenure-track positions in astronomy are held by women. The main thrust of the recommendations is that women advance in the same proportions as the enter the field. So that, for a class entering graduate school with 25% women, it would be hoped that of the members of that class graduating with a PhD, 25% would be female. This does not seem to be the case. Women are dropping out at a greater rate than men.

The Pasadena recommendations start with a few guiding principles. It’s somewhat embarassing that these principles need to be written at all. For example, the first principle is that men and women are equally capable of doing astronomy. The recommendations themselves range from sexual harassment awareness training to mentoring programs to active recruitment of women for open faculty positions.

Read more…

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Score one for science

Posted by barb on Jan 13, 2005 in Science Musings

From CNN: Judge: Evolution stickers are unconstitutional.

In ruling that the stickers violate the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that labeling evolution a “theory” played on the popular definition of the word as a “hunch” and could confuse students.

Finally a voice of reason….



Couldn’t have said it better

Posted by barb on Jan 13, 2005 in Science Musings

From Preposterous Universe:

Lost in the confusion is the crucial point: that observations like these represent the first steps towards what will be a major project over the next couple of decades, mapping out the spacetime in the vicinity of black holes. Plans are in the works for ultra-high resolution X-ray satellites like Constellation X that will directly image the inner edge of accretion disks near black holes, and gravitational-wave observatories like LISA will open an incredibly precise new window on the way in which black holes curve spacetime. At least, if we can somehow find the money — and really good science stories have an important role in making that possible.

Here he is discussing some results from the AAS meeting that appeared in the press this week. I’m sitting behind the Constellation-X booth in San Diego as I write this, and it’s nice to see that someone understands the importance of these upcoming missions. In all the “Exploration” flap, HST has been the recipient of much sympathy and rallying. However, there are some important planned missions that are coming under the axe (or at least having their budgets hammered) that are not making it into the headlines. I’m not saying that we should let HST go, but it would be nice to find someone in the press fighting for us as well.



Deep Impact Launch

Posted by barb on Jan 12, 2005 in Science Musings

Deep Impact is scheduled to launch in about 80 minutes from now (at 1:47 PM, East-coast time). Deep Impact is a mission that will, for the first time, give astronomers a glimpse of the inside of a comet. Up to now, we have only been able to study the crust, but Deep Impact is sending a one-ton (or so) battering ram to Comet Temple I. They will then be able to study ejecta from the impact to see what’s under the surface.

You can follow the launch by following the links on the Deep Impact Homepage. Here’s wishing for a successful launch!

UPDATE: It launched at 1:47 Eastern time. Check out the NASA Deep Impact page for launch footage.




Posted by barb on Jan 11, 2005 in Science Musings

This morning’s invited session at the American Astrophysical Society meeting in San Diego was by Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, entitled “Intelligent Design and the Creation/Evolution Controversy”.

I have been following some of the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents’ efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution in our schools on Phayrngula’s weblog. This means that much of the talk was more of a review of the subject than completely new material.

For those of you unfamiliar with ID, it is the creationist’s sadly veiled attempt at cloaking “creation” into a science. The problem, of course, is that scientific theories, by definition, must be testable. ID is basically a process of elimination — we can’t currently explain some complex biological system, therefore there must be some designer of some sort that designed it that way. One thing that Scott brought up was one major problem with ID as a “scientific theory” is that it does not distinguish between the unknown and the unknowable. Just because we don’t understand the workings of a complex biological system doesn’t mean that we will never be able to understand that system. However, just because we start understanding that one system, we will not undermine or discorage the ID propoenents — there will always be something else that we don’t understand yet.

One telling illustration she made was how the science community deals with a new theory versus how the ID community would have us do it (I do not include ID in the scientific community — it’s not science). It looked something like this (though more spiffy in PowerPoint):

Science community:
Great Idea –> Research –> Peer Review –> [Feedback loop between Research and Peer Review until…] –> Scientific Consensus –> Classroom and Textbook coverage of Great Idea

ID community:
Great Idea –> Classroom and Textbook coverage of Great Idea

The ID community wants the scientific community to acknowledge the work of ID even though there has been no peer reviewed papers on ID in any respected scientific journal (the Stephan Meyer “peer reviewed” paper notwhithstanding). In fact, the ID community wants science classes across the US to include their “science” in the curriculum…without any credible research or peer review. Yeah. Right.

The fundamental problem, however, with ID and with scientists fighting ID is that the ID doctrine has turned the “belief” in evolution into the non-belief in God. People react strongly against being told that their God doesn’t exist, of course. However, the “belief” in evolution (there’s nothing to believe or disbelieve here, it’s a well-established scientific theory), does not have to be a disbelief in God…they just want everyone to think that.

Her suggestions for what we, the scientific community, could do:

  • Explicity teach the nature of science
  • Explicitly teach evolution (evolution of the stars, galaxies, as well as biological system)
  • Keep up with local school board happenings
  • Join the AIBS/NCSE list -serve for news on local ID/creationist/evolution news

Unfortunately, because ID proponents have turned this into an emotional and religious issue, these items will not ultimately work. ID proponents do not listen to logic; instead they spout the party line and ignore scientist’s refutations of their claims. Their main tactic is to shout louder. Sadly, I don’t know what can be done to prevent the ID attacks on our science education; right now we can only fight them as they come.

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News from the Universe: 01/05/05 (brief note)

Posted by barb on Jan 5, 2005 in Science Musings

Swift‘s first light!

NASA posted Swift’s first-light images today, along with a press release about a slew of bursts that the BAT (Burst Alert Telescope — Swift’s GRB watchdog) observed during instrument calibration last month.

The image is the BAT’s “first light” gamma-ray image showing Cygnus X-1 (top) and Cygnus X-3 (bottom).


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