So Tired of this Subject

Posted by barb on Mar 3, 2005 in Science Musings

Salon has an article about innate differences between men and women — this time pertaining to how ethical men and women are. Of course, they mention the whole Summers’ debacle, saying:

Rosener’s statements barely caused a ripple, and women generally nodded in agreement. In contrast, all hell broke loose when Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, said that one reason women don’t ascend to the highest positions in science might be due to the “intrinsic aptitude” of men in this area. Incidentally, Summers also listed old-fashioned gender discrimination and the lower likelihood that women will take jobs requiring incredibly long hours as other reasons women do not get the top jobs in the sciences, which has been largely overlooked in the firestorm following his comments.

No, Salon, Summers’ comments on “old-fashioned gender discrimination and the lower likelihood that women will take jobs requiring incredibly long hours” were not overlooked — most of us commenting on Summers mentioned them. What infuriated us is that he proposed that innate differences were the primary cause, listing the other two as less important causes for women entering (and continuing in) the science fields. If we look at data already available, his prioritization of the reasons that women don’t enter science are exactly wrong. We’re pissed because he didn’t bother looking at the available data, and just ran his mouth.

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Confirmation that Summers is an idiot

Posted by barb on Feb 18, 2005 in Science Musings

The transcript of Summers’ speech from a few weeks ago is now available on-line. You know the one — the one that pissed everyone off, where he dismisses discrimination as a factor for the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. I bitched about it and then tried to react more calmly. The more fool, I. Summers is a dick (as Bitch Ph.D. has so eloquently pointed out). Read the transcript for yourself.

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

So, discrimination and socialization might be a factor, but they are really secondary to innate differences? That’s contrary to other findings (thanks to Sean at Preposterous Universe for posting that plot).

When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what’s happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out.

Yeah, and what’s happening is that at 20 or 25 they are finding that there is a lot of discrimination; there are barriers that are built either by society as a whole or the science community itself that are difficult for women to break through. Just because people are dropping out later in their career is not “evidence” of an innate deficiency. It just means that the pressures against continuing in that career appear later rather than sooner.

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

So here he says outright that aptitude is the problem, followed distantly by socialization and discrimination.

He actually has a few reasonable points, unfortunately it takes too long to get to them. It’s not until the second-to-last paragraph, just before he opens up for questions, which is frankly too late, because I’m already pissed off and seething.

I’ve been struck at Harvard that there’s something unfortunate and ironic about the fact that if you’re a faculty member and you have a kid who’s 18 who goes to college, we in effect, through an interest-free loan, give you about $9,000. If you have a six-year-old, we give you nothing. And I don’t think we’re very different from most other universities in this regard, but there is something odd about that strategic choice, if the goal is to recruit people to come to the university.

He actually addresses one of the root problems — the problem of childcare and encouraging younger qualified applicants who might be just starting a family.

We would like to believe that you can take a year off, or two years off, or three years off, or be half-time for five years, and it affects your productivity during the time, but that it really doesn’t have any fundamental effect on the career path. And a whole set of conclusions would follow from that in terms of flexible work arrangements and so forth….But it would be useful to explore a variety of kinds of natural interruption experiments, to see what actual difference it makes, and to see whether it’s actually true, and to see in what ways interruptions can be managed, and in what fields it makes a difference.

This is exactly what the sociologist at the AAS in Denver last summer was discovering. For anyone to make it to a tenure-track position, they need a “straight trajectory” — taking time off for anything (starting a family, caring for a sick parent, burnout) seemed to be a near kiss-of-death for a student’s career.

Perhaps the last few questions that Summers raised, buried at the end of an infuriating speech, would have been a better jumping-off point for his talk, rather than “provoking” us with idiotic statements that innate differences are the primary cause for the unequal representation of women in science.

[via Bitch Ph.D.]

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Diminished by Discrimination We Scarcely See

Posted by barb on Feb 7, 2005 in Science Musings

Diminished by Discrimination We Scarcely See, an article from yesterday’s Washington Post, by Meg Urry, a professor at Yale University, and an all-around-powerful force for women in astronomy.

That’s the thing: Discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face. It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success. These subtle distinctions help make women feel out of place.

I don’t have anything to add. Just read it.

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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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