Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tierney weighs in on the Gender Bias Panel

In my last post I discussed the recent National Academies panel on gender bias. In today's NY Times, John Tierney weighs in on the issue. (This one is 'Times Select' - subscription required.)

I'm usually at ideological odds with Tierney, but not quite so much this time. He comes up with a great Onion title for the panel's work:

"This is the kind of science you expect to find in The Onion: 'Academy Forms Committee to Study Gender Discrimination, Bars Men from Participating.' Actually, it did allow a total of one man, Robert Birgeneau of Berkeley, on the 18-member committee, but that was presumably because he was already on record agreeing with the report’s pre-ordained conclusion: academia must stop favoring male scientists and engineers."

Tierney hits some good points (such as how the panel fails to distinguish between bias 30 years ago and bias today). He also gets into the 'innate differences' issue that I avoided in my last post:

"One well-documented difference is the disproportionately large number of boys scoring in the top percentile of the SAT math test. And when you compare boy math whizzes with girl math whizzes, more differences appear. The boys score much higher on the math portion of the SAT than on the verbal, whereas the girls are more balanced — high on the verbal as well as the math.

The girls have more career options, and they have different priorities than the boys, as the psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow have demonstrated by tracking students with the exceptional mathematical ability to become top-flight researchers in science and engineering."

I've got two things to note about this:

- In addition to a disproportionate number of boys in the top math SAT percentile, there is also a disproportionate number of boys in the bottom percentile. In other words, the average score is not so different among boys and girls, but there are more boys on both ends of the curve.

- This difference in the top percentile in SAT math may be relevant to differences in some sciences like theoretical physics or pure math (I have no idea), but, as I hinted at in my last post, I think it's irrelevant in many other fields like biology. Biology has some very quantitative aspects, but the people I know who are outstanding in those areas aren't necessarily the ones who were 'math whizzes' on the SAT. Good biologists need a variety of different skills, not just the ones that lead to a top SAT math score. Also, in biology, rigorous verbal reasoning skills play a much larger role, and recall that girls are overrepresented in the top percentiles of the verbal SAT. So are women innately better biologists?

One statement in Tierney's article especially bugs me- he lumps biology with psychology as a 'soft science.' This idea that men are better at 'hard' sciences and women are better at 'soft' sciences is just crap. Biology is just as much a hard (meaning, roughly, quantitative and experimentally rigorous) science as any other of the natural sciences - geology, astronomy, and yes, physics and chemistry. Biology (evolution, molecular biology, genetics, ecology, etc.) has much more in common with astronomy or geology than with psychology.

UPDATE: If you can access this (subscription required), this Nature Neuroscience Editorial has some interesting references to the primary literature and comments on the differences in SAT scores. They note that the score differences (more boys at the tail ends of the curve) don't occur in all Western countries, suggesting that the effect may very well be cultural. Who knows? It seems like the debate is often just stuck at the level of "Women are less able!" "No they're not, men are just hopelessly predjudiced!" As I made clear in my last post, I think there are other answers.

[This post was edited a few times for clarity.]

Monday, September 25, 2006

The long road to a career in academic biology...

What's a postdoc? 90% of the time, that's the next question I'm asked after people ask me what I do for a living. Or worse, people who know I spent 5 and a half years in grad school will say "wow, I can't believe you're still a student!" It's clear that most people outside the scientific community don't know what postdocs are - Students? Interns? Trainees?

People should know what postdocs are - at very least so that they don't call them students! More importantly, the public should know who is actually doing the vast majority of the experiments and fieldwork that get published in hundreds of scientific journals every week: postdoctoral fellows and grad students. They are the people who pick up the test tubes and pipettes, go the lab bench, and run the experiments. That's not to say that the professor just sits back and gets all the credit - professors are generally full intellectual participants in the research, and they're usually the ones who came up with the main idea for the research project. However, the point here is that grad students and postdocs aren't simply trainees learning their trade; they are practicing scientists who produce valuable, tangible work. Unlike undergraduate education, this is on-the-job training much like any other career field.

Postdocs are no longer students - they have their PhDs, and they're not attending classes, taking tests, or writing a thesis. If a graduate student is an apprentice, a postdoc is a journeyman - a credentialed, capable scientist who is gaining more experience under the guidance of a senior scientist. A postdoctoral position is a chance to learn some new skills and work more independently without having to jump through the administrative hoops of grad school. The research you do as a postdoc lays the foundation for what you'll do in your own lab as a professor.

I still seem like a student to my friends in other careers because my job as a postdoc is only temporary (3-5 years), and I still make well below the median US income. (Starting postdoc salaries range from $30k to ~$40k, and rise to $40-$45k after 2 years of experience.) This is why the career path of an academic scientist seems so long - you hardly earn anything and don't settle down until you're in your mid- to late 30's, even though you have a doctorate and you do demanding, highly technical work. You spend 5+ years as a grad student with a 22k annual salary, no retirement benefits, and bare-bones health insurance. Your reward for earning a PhD? A temporary job with a low salary, no retirement benefits, and if you're lucky, decent health insurance. All this, while your friends who went to law school finished their degrees years ago, got paid $50-60k during a brief clerkship, and are now raking in more money than you'll make as a tenured scientist.

On the other hand, if you work with a good mentor, you wouldn't trade this job for any other. In spite of the unsustainable pay level (you'll never retire or send your kids to college on it), as a science postdoc you get to continually drive your intellect and creativity, you get to play with fun, high-tech toys, and you have a degree of independence that almost rivals that of a freelance writer.

Monday, September 18, 2006

National Academy panel tries to tell us how to keep more women in science:

The NY Times has published an article titled Institutions Hinder Female Academics, Panel Says. (You can check out the full report and the panel's press release.) The panel in question was convened by the National Academy of Sciences to look at how women are faring in academic science and technology careers. Unfortunately, I think this whole issue is tainted by ideology, resulting in often illogical arguments. OK I confess, I'm male and I'm white, but give me a chance here.

Some of the claims made by this panel (and by others in this debate) are absurd, and their suggestions threaten to pile more ridiculous bureaucracy on already overburdened academic administrators. But let me start with some postive comments first:

The chair of the panel, Donna E. Shalala, said "The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population." Absolutely! Women should not be discriminated against, period. And yes, women were severely discriminated against in academic science not too long ago. As far as 'innate differences' in generaly ability go, in my field of biology it seems pretty obvious that there aren't any - plenty of women are first-rate biologists. (There's more on this 'innate ablity' issue, but that's for another post, another day.)

In fact, because their are so many first-rate women in my field, I have a hard time believing that there is "unconscious but pervasive bias, and 'arbitrary and subjective' evaluation processes..." The men in the departments I have been in, from grad students to full professors, work with these outstanding women every day - there is simply no way they could believe that these women were somehow not as suitable for science. The claim that there is some unconscious cultural bias against women is flat out wrong. What kind of serious, specific evidence for unconscious bias does this panel have? They have none - at least none that can't be better explained by other causes that I'll get to below.

I'm struggling here to convey how far-fetched these claims of patronization or bias are when comapred against the every-day reality that I work in. It's just as absurd as claiming there is a bias against Jews in science, that's the best I can put it - successful women are so pervasive in my field, that to say male scientists somehow look down on them is just plain insulting. On top of that, academic scientists tend to be fairly liberal and progressively minded about racial and gender equality. These absurd claims of bias just don't fit the culture.

Many of the recommendations by this panel are outrageous. Look at this:
"> Measures of success underlying performance-evaluation systems are often arbitrary and frequently applied in ways that place women at a disadvantage. "Assertiveness," for example, may be viewed as a socially unacceptable trait for women but suitable for men."

These people really think that tenure committees members are thinking "Well, she does great work, she has nice legs, but her assertiveness is so unseemly in a woman,"??? Scientists love being with other assertive people, men or women. Asking hard questions is a good thing - it's banged into your head from your first week in graduate school. When people ask me hard questions after I give a talk, I take it as a compliment - it means they are interested in my work, and that I explained it clearly enough for the audience to follow. When I get no questions, I'm disappointed. Most scientists, men and women, feel the same way. The top women in my field, the ones who have been promoted by those misogynist tenure committees, are very assertive. As they should be. And they're not viewed as 'more masculine' (as I've heard some partisans claim), 'underfeminized' or somehow abnormal of their gender. And there's not some checkbox for 'assertiveness' in performance evaluations, as the panel seems to imply.

Another recommendation by this panel is that "Federal funding agencies and foundations, in collaboration with professional and scientific societies, should hold mandatory national meetings to educate university department chairs, agency program officers, and members of review panels on ways to minimize the effects of gender bias in performance evaluations." I can't think of a bigger waste of time than to have department chairs and reviewers fly out to Washington every so often and be indoctrinated in how not to be biased. These people know how to identify good science, and as I said above, I think the claims of 'unconscious bias' are insulting and absurd.

Muddled up in all of this insulting smearing of male scientists - men who are well educated and culturally progressive - is a discussion of the real problem:

"Also, structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial support from their spouses. Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a "wife" is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. Today about 90 percent of the spouses of women science and engineering faculty are employed full time. For the spouses of male faculty, it is nearly half. "

This is really the heart of it. As an academic scientist, no one can really fill in for you when you have to take time off for your family. Sure, other people can teach your classes, but nobody can run your lab for you. Nobody can come up with your ideas for you, design your experiments for you, recruit graduate students and postdocs for you, or write your papers and grant proposals for you. If you have to take maternity leave, or go part-time to care for kids, it's hard to keep up, and the progress in your lab slows down. The university may give you all the paid time off you need, but it still won't help when it comes to keeping a spot at the top of your field.

The situation is exacerbated by the long, poverty-ridden training period in a scientist's career. The financial pressure to stay single or childless is strong during this period. It's hard to take time off to have kids when you're a grad student with a poverty-level salary, bad health insurance, and no money going towards a retirement fund. The situation gets a little better when you're a postdoc, but not much. And all of this lasts for 10 years or even more. That financial pressure goes away to some degree when you land a tenure-track job, but then you're faced with a choice - take time off (or go part time) for kids, or drive your career forward. The pressure is there for men too (I've felt it, believe me), but as the report points out, men more frequently have spousal support at home. And even if women did have equal spousal support, child-bearing and raising still have a greater time/physical/emotional impact on women. The decision between a career or full-time parenthood will always be a hard one for women - the pressures of biology are strong enough that there will always be more women than men who drop out of the workforce to become full-time parents, no matter how supportive our institutions are.

Many of us, if not most of us, really do want to become parents at some point. Deciding to never have kids is a huge decision. Equally huge, is deciding whether to stay home or go back to a career. It's hard to decide whether to send your kids to day care or after-school care, and only see them before 8:30 am and after 6 at night (especially if both spouses have careers). It's hard to juggle the time pressures. Most of your free time vaporizes when you have kids, and a career sucks away whatever is left. And no free time just sucks.

No amount of mandatory sensitivity meetings in Washington will cure this. What we really need is room for people to slow things down if they need it. Deciding how to balance career and family is an intensely personal one, and universities can give their scientists some breathing room. Here a few suggestions:

- More universities should allow you to 'stop the tenure clock' if you need it for a year or so to devote time to family. The tenure decision can be thus delayed by a year.

- Universities and funding agencies should make money available for women to restart their labs after time away. Taking time off means you miss several grant cycles and end up with no money to run your lab. Not having grant funding is a very big deal when it comes to getting tenure. Removing that pressure for awhile after maternity leave would help immensely. So would having institutional support for women who want time off when the time is ticking away on a currently funded grant. Grant review committees can have money earmarked for this too.

- Make better health and financial benefits available to women scientists while they are still in training. While it's probably impossible to not lose some ground on your thesis over a break, (if you take a year off, you can't really go back and start at the same place - the field will have moved on, and you'll need to pick a more relevant research question), some planning and support from thesis advisors and departments would help a lot. Outside finanical support is important too - a thesis advisor, already on a tight budget, can't afford to support someone who is not working in the lab.

It's tough - everyone's competing for precious tenure-track slots, universities put tremendous pressure on their academic scientists to bring in grant money, and individual scientific fields move fast. I often wish science in general would slow down - James Watson famously had a lot of spare time on his hands when he and Crick were working on the struture of DNA. Adding federal regulations will just make things worse by sucking up more of people's time (and money!!). What we really need is more money to support women who want to take time off or slow down. If individual scientists, department heads, and university administrators weren't under such financial pressure, we could keep more outstanding women scientists in the top levels of the profession.