Sunday, December 31, 2006

More in the NY Times on women in science

The NY Times is reporting on a conference at Rice University about women and science. (Free registration required.)

I've probably already said more than I should have about this subject, but there is stuff in this article that I can't let pass without comment.

I do agree that:
- Women make great scientists. We should have more of them.
- Women have faced severe discrimination on the road to a successful science career, especially the generation that currently holds most tenured faculty positions.

I think the greatest barrier women face in science today is not men looking down on them - it's the disproportionate cost borne by women in a career that demands severe sacrifices of people who are trying to juggle work and family. I believe that in academia there are fewer mechanisms of instutional support for women in tenure-track jobs who need time for family than there are in business or other professions like law or medicine. In terms of managing the grant funding for a research lab and training graduate students, women who hope to get tenure but take time off when their kids are young are at a severe disadvantage. I think we need to fix this (like 'start-up funds' or reserved grants for women who need to get the lab going again after maternity leave), so that the profession does not lose these talented women scientists.

What gets me riled up is the kind of garbage you can find in the Times article today - the claim that women will be judged more harshly than men if they don't use the correct balance of 'we' and 'I' when giving a talk on the collective work in their labs, that women can't be as aggressive as men when negotiating for resources, that they are excluded from networking, and that women are widely viewed by their male professional colleagues as "unsuited" for science. This is simply not true of the colleagues I work with.

One of the more egregious claims reported in the Times is that men show up to faculty job talks in jeans while women have to come in a suit. I have been to a lot of these talks - nobody who is serious about getting the job shows up in jeans, male or female. I have no clue where that ridiculous claim came from. Scientists, men and women, are notorious for dressing casual around the lab, but not when they are applying for competitive tenure-track jobs.

I can't speak for fields outside of my own - research in the basic life sciences, typically done in basic science departments at medical schools. Maybe it's different in all the other fields - social sciences, clinical sciences, engineering. Maybe it's a generational thing - I was born too late (or I'm too male) to really be attuned to the persistent prevalence of sexist attitudes in science. But I really don't see science as a major bastion of misogyny (which yes, it once was). The scientists I know are socially progressive and usually quite politically liberal. I just can't agree that the major reason for the attrition of women in science is the attitude of their male colleagues. The problems are structural problems in the career path which take a high toll on women who chose to have children at some point in their careers.

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