Friday, March 11, 2011

Causes of women's underrepresentation in science

I always feel awkward if somebody brings up the topic of women's underrepresentation in physics. Though I'm one of these underrepresented women, I don't actually have a lot to say about the possible causes that hasn't been said a million times already. I'm not a social scientist and I'm not a neurologist and I don't follow the relevant literature. That leaves me with my own experience to talk about, but I generally dislike talking about myself. Also, exactly by virtue of being one of the aberrations I'm not the right person to ask why there aren't more girls studying physics.

I'm generally supportive of all these women's networks, especially those aiming at providing the all-important much talked about 'role models' for young girls - something that in today's overconnected world can be done without much effort - and groups dedicated to helping with issues that women are more likely to want to discuss (Breastfeeding in my office - do or don't?). I've on occasion participated in on or the other meeting and such, and I think most of these initiatives serve a good purpose in providing encouragement and connections to others in similar situations and can be very helpful indeed.

But thing is I get along well with my male colleagues and I have no reason to suspect any sort of systematic bias has conspired against me at any point. Of course one or the other guy is an asshole, but nothing surprising about that. Just that I know many of my female colleagues have made bad experiences and I don't want to do a disservice to them by saying I think much more important than gender bias is that the typical academic career is simply incompatible with many women's priorities. Do I have to spell it out? If you're lucky enough to get tenure, you'll on the average get there in the late thirties or early forties. If you're a man, you can then go marry a younger woman and start thinking about reproduction. If you're a woman, you better freeze some eggs in time if you want to wait that long.

Interestingly, I yesterday came across a paper examining the question if it's a bias against women causing their underrepresentation in science

In their paper the authors surveyed studies past the mid 80s on bias against women in manuscript and grant reviews and in hiring. They basically found that while there's the occasional outlying study claiming to have found a bias against women, these outlying results haven't been reproduced, and most studies found very little or no bias in either direction. (That is, one should add, after productivity has been corrected for by available resources since women are more likely to work in positions with limited resources which by itself is correlated with lower productivity.)

Now, as I said, I'm not an expert on these questions so it's hard for me to tell if their survey of available data is complete. But if it is, one should pay attention to their conclusions. They argue that looking at the evidence, or lack thereof, efforts to reduce gender bias are misdirected since there is already little or no bias to find. Instead, one should focus on making career options more friendly towards women's life plans so one doesn't unnecessarily lose them early. Quoting from a report on gender issues by the General Accounting Office and referring to the UC-Berkeley's "Family Friendly Edge" program, they suggest measures such as
"stopping tenure clocks for family formation and tenure-track positions seguing from part-time to full-time [...], adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing, no-cost grant extensions, supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave, reduction in teaching responsibilities for women with newborns, grants for retooling after leaves of absence, couples-hiring, and childcare to attend professional meetings [...], [Employer providing] high-quality childcare and emergency backup care, summer camps and school break care, [...] instruct[ions for] committees to ignore family-related gaps in CVs."

They kind of forgot to say that maybe most important is a decent maternity and parental leave to begin with, Sweden tells you how to.

Of course one should add it's not just women affected by this. Men who don't want to wait with having a family till they have job security and/or who have a partner not in the mood moving with them around the globe are in the present system also likely to drop out early. That's got nothing to do with hitting a glass ceiling. It's more like following the arrow that points to the open door.

44 comments:

Joseph Smidt said...

I'm very glad you have not experienced much bias. Also, this is the second study someone has pointed out to me in the last few months concluding no evidence for bias against women, so that is a good sign. I really hope this stays the case.

Funny though, because I sat through an hour long speech at the AAS meeting for astronomers in Seattle in January were the speaker made it sound like gender bias is out of control. Glad to know that speaker may have been full of garbage. (The talk seemed fishy in the first place given conclusions were drawn from no data with no error bars.)

But the rest of the AAS talks were filled with good science with good data!

Phillip Helbig said...

I agree.

Also, I think the focus on the sciences is a red herring. There are more male 3-Michelin-star cooks, chess players, rock musicians who are neither singers nor related to nor romantically involved in someone else in the band, mentally retarded people, soldiers, criminals, politicians, garbage men, composers, painters, racecar drivers etc. There are more women primary school teachers, nurses, secretaries etc. It is silly to think that in all cases where one sex is preferred that it is due to the lack of role models, prejudice etc. To anyone who looks at it objectively, there are two reasons: one are innate biological differences (if you don't believe they exist, have a man and a woman walk into a bar and ask people of the opposite sex to have sex with them that night) and the other is the fact that, even if the average is the same, the distribution of abilities is broader in males, so for categories where extremes are important (criminals, Nobel-Prize winners), one will have more males.

Bee said...

Hi Phillip,

The reasons you mention are the ones that will remain once social predispositions are gone. Problem is to figure out when this is the case. There are ways to test for bias, but it's much harder to distinguish between choices people make because of cognitive abilities and because of wanting to live up to images they've encountered for how their future might look. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Joseph,

Do you have a reference for the other study you're mentioning? Best,

B.

Peter Shor said...

The cause isn't just the fact that academic careers are not that compatible with child-rearing; at the graduate level, many more women students are going into biology than are going into math or physics, and in an academic career in biology you have the same obstacles to taking time off to have children.

If there is some social predisposition women have to not going into math and physics, I think it's clear that it starts at high school or earlier. Unfortunately, I don't have any idea either how to pinpoint the problems or address them.

Peter Shor said...

Let me also add that, although I don't think it's the major impediment to women going into science, I do agree that we should go out of our way to make career options more compatible with women's life plans.

Joseph Smidt said...

Bee,

I apologize, I thought the second was a journal article in Nature, but the link I was sent was just a news article in Nature referring to your same study.

False alarm saying a second study.

Bee said...

Hi Peter,

Well, yes, what you say is true if you mean with 'underrepresentation' less than 50%. I meant with underrepresentation that less women are working in these fields than who'd want to. Women prefer working on something that helps others etc, it's actually mentioned in the study I quoted. That's fine as long as such choices aren't based on misinformation. I think that children and teenagers in school in many cases have a very poor idea of what working in academia is like and what they'll actually be working on. So there's something to be done there. But that wasn't really the question that the study addresses. It's not about why do so few girls study these fields to begin with but why do they drop out later. Which is an important question since they as well as society have invested time, money and effort into their education. Best,

B.

Plato said...

A global hub for sharing International Women's Day news, events and resources

Uncle Al said...

Either admit and promote by blind objective competence or drown. Diversity is admission by disqualification - incompetent incompetence. Even crap requires skill: Art, music, wine, food, entertainment, sports; economics, psychology, history; Enviro-whinerism, Ozone Hole, (Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming) Climate Change; religion, politics, Femlib, queer nation...

The universe runs on good ideas. Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed, an equal opportunity destroyer,

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/usdecay.png
engineering, physical, mathematics versus social

March or die. Victimology and rule of the disempowered always finds the ever less qualified. A White woman is euchred by a Chicana two-fer. She is euchred by a sexually harassed Black lesbian single mother of six, intellectually challenged intravenous drug addict with AIDS doing the Macarena in a wheelchair. Sparkles!

Bee walks on her own two legs. Abolish gilded palanquins.

Nirmalya said...

Here's something that tries to explain why more women aren't taking up sciences:


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heidi-grant-halvorson-phd/girls-confidence_b_828418.html

GMP said...

Let me offer you a viewpoint of someone who grew up in Europe but moved to the US as an adult. I also did not believe all the stories of discrimination in science until I lived here for a few years. The culture is different, women in science and engineering are really viewed much more like black sheep than what I was used to growing up (for instance, 50% of my class in undergrad -- physics major -- were women; you will never see that in the US). The reason is societal/cultural: people in the US are, on average, suprisingly conservative and religious for a developed country. At least it was a surprise to me. I cannot describe how many people commented during the various stages of my PhD and faculty career that I should just let my husband work and I should stay home and tend to the kids, or "your poor husband, he has to follow you for your work," (there's nothing to pity him for, he has a very good job and is very happy with it) or "you must not spend any time with your kids (a.k.a. you must be a crappy mom) since you are a professor." All these things get to you. Now, I grew up where I did and I have some base resilience to this crap simply because I wasn't fed it since an early age. But I can totally imagine how hard it is for young women who grow up in the US to sift through the garbage, the messages fed to them since an early age, that they as females are not supposed to do or be anything but pretty/fuckable/eventually spawn some kids and always follow the guy.

Hermitage said...

I found the methods and suppositions of this paper to be rather fanciful. But unlike, per say, 'arsenic-gate' their conclusion is something platable to the general scientific community so it is not scrutinized as closely as it should be.

A Scientist and a Woman addresses my key concerns in detail better than I ever could:
http://scientistandwoman.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/understanding-current-causes-of-womens-underrepresentation-in-science/

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I would have to admit the conclusions arrived at by Cecil and Williams I find a little surprising. That’s not simply them finding the playing field for women in the sciences as equitable as they do, yet more so that women’s opportunities pretty much match their composite expectations; and in a way of speaking also their desires and ambitions. To be truthful it all seems a little too good to be true and thus that’s what I suspect it is.

Now as not being an inhabitant of the ivory tower, I can only draw upon a fussier and more indirect set of observations, which for me equates with women respective of engineering. The reason for this is as being employed in the manufacturing sector, engineers are the subset of the demographic to which I’m most familiar and have more frequent interaction. Also it is a profession to which one of daughters was initially aspired, although later abandoned and having me to wish at the time I had discouraged her to ever having made the attempt.

Now I could ramble on a lot about what my feeling are, yet when it comes right down to the nitty gritty of any occupation, is to ask, why anyone would like to have it as their own. I’ve seen some negative reasonings offered in the presented paper, such as women like ‘people’ more than ‘things’ and the biological clock card played, none of which hold up to the mass of evidence if taken from a broader perspective. That is to note that women in business are becoming increasingly more influential and powerful, in the pursuit of the most abstract and yet general of all ‘things’, with that being money. That is there are many women so focused and dedicated that they willingly give up any prospect of having a family to help assure their goals in such regard. So then it can’t be as simple as all that.

Anyway, back to engineering and how it relates to the question. It was only a few years ago that Engineers Canada took serious note of a situation, that although initially encouraged by the rise in the number of women in the profession after 1980, it peaked in 2000 and has since been in a slow yet persistent decline, with less than 20% of current engineering undergraduates being women, which coupled with a dropout rate has them still only representative of 9% of registered professional engineers.

To address this situation they set up a task force, which conducted a study of the problem which came out with a report in September 2009. In reading it one will not find what one might call a single answer, yet rather perhaps a single problem at that it being related to culture. That’s not the person’s culture a genders culture or a nations culture, yet rather the engineering culture, which still remains what it’s been since the dawn of the profession and doesn’t seem to be changing.

The good that I found in all this profession self examination, was not just to propose ways this culture could change, yet more so with the current state of the world, with the pressures and demands for new answers placed upon it that a cultural change is what’s absolutely required; not just to have equity in the profession for women yet to have the profession able to meet the challenges which all of us need to be meet.

“Women engineers, it could be said, are akin to canaries in the coal mine; their plight warns of a greater threat that extends far beyond the immediate and obvious issue of equity and fair play in the workplace.”

-Janice Calnan and Leo Valiquette,” Paying Heed to the Canaries in the Coal Mine”: Strategies to attract and retain more women in the engineering profession through Green Light Leadership” , for Engineers Canada (March 31, 2010)

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I surrender as no matter what I do (or don't do )it doesn’t seem to satisfy the Blogger god :-)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I've freed some of your comments from the spam-list. I also found two older ones from you, addressed at Steven. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Many thanks to my guardian angel in such matters:-)

“Free at last; free at last; thank God Almighty we are free at last.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream, (August 28, 1963)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Well, comments might get stuck in the spam filter, but die Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts are free) ;-)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks so much as I can’t recall of a song in English that expresses such a truth which related to the best of the human spirit more clearly. Thus this gets relegated to my favourites.

Best,

Phil

Zephir said...

Rather than the women's underrepresentation in science it's interesting for me, why nobody is disscussing the women's underrepresentation and quotas in IT technologies, for example. Apparently sorta double measure is applied here.

shiftingphases.com said...

An interesting and balanced commentary, thanks. I am surprised by the comment that "there is already little or no bias to find. Instead, one should focus on making career options more friendly towards women's life plans"

If career options are unfriendly toward most women's life plans (in a way that is not true of most men), isn't that the very definition of systematic bias?

I liked your metaphor about "following the arrow that points to the open door." Systemic bias isn't the kind where someone is a jerk. It's the kind where the door that leads to the exit was built a long time ago and happens to be located on the path that is mostly taken by one group.

Steven Colyer said...

It's basically because Western Culture doesn't reward "girls" for being "professionals."

Western Culture on the other hand does reward young human females for being "fashionable", for being wombs that give birth to heirs, for keeping the house clean, and rewarding the hubby with slippers, a beer, and a rubdown etc. when he comes home from work, and of course a hot meal ready to eat, with napkins.

Geez, why is this even an issue? Honestly, did I just step back in a time machine to 1964?

A mean really, there's bigger issues re women today, like the Russian Mob whoring Ukrainian girls, clitorectomies in Africa, the whole 4-wife system in Islam, kitchen fires in some parts (not the good parts) of India, etc.

I'm sorry, but the situation for women in The West today, while not perfect, is getting better and is shitloads better than it was a generation and a half ago.

So I cannot engage.

Arun said...

Where I work is IMO good; but I have heard too many stories from near and dear about technical meetings where the woman's ideas are ignored until some male "comes up" with the very same idea to believe in the crap that there is no bias against women. If you are fortunate enough to be in a position not to have noticed it good for you!

Arun said...

Sorry Colyer but then there is always a bigger problem. You don't engage then you are part of the problem. Like saying being a jerk with a woman science student at IIT Delhi is OK because 50 miles away someone is beating his wife, so "think of the bigger problem". Ptooey!

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

“Geez, why is this even an issue?"

Let’s make the answer easier. You are an engineer and a father of daughters correct. So based on your experience in the profession would you encourage your daughters to becoming one; if yes, why, if not, why. Please try to factor out the current general downturn in the employment scene from influencing your answer.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

My youngest wants to be a doctor, and probably will be as she's an A+ student. My oldest daughter is hyper-talented in art, and probably will be that too. I always encourage my kids to follow their dreams, to combine the best combination of talent and passion.

The girl who was hands down the best student in my high school senior class became a computer engineer and then got her MBA. She lives alone.

Hi Arun,

I never said bias of any kind is OK, and I never said being a jerk with any woman or student or person is OK, I don't know where you got that impression. In fact there is still a glass ceiling for women and minorities in the board room. I was merely pointing out how far women have come in so short a period of time. OK Arun, I will engage, God forbid I become part of the problem.

tlp225 said...

How about a different approach to the question of why women leave science. Ask them! All these studies examine the environment or talk to the men and women who didn't leave science. And all they can do is guess why these other women left. Find them and ask them. That would probably be very enlightening.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

“The girl who was hands down the best student in my high school senior class became a computer engineer and then got her MBA. She lives alone.”

You still didn’t address my question as to what you would advise if any of those choices were engineering. However you comment regarding the fate of the women who did seem to telegraph what that might be if forced. The thing is Steven I work with a lot of engineers and know why you might avoid such a question:-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

I asked at our 20th high school reunion why she didn't get married, and she responded that she couldn't find anyone smarter than her. Not AS smart; smarter. She had a point, I guess, but to each their own, eh?

WHAT question? I do not care what professions people choose, as long as it's a good fit between their talent and interests.

As far as girls going into the sciences and engineering, I see alot of that sure, but as has been stated a lot more in medicine and the biological fields. I don't know why. To each their own, again.

However if they do choose engineering, I hope they can curse well, cuz there sure seems to be a lot of that in engineering.

Steven Colyer said...

As an example of how far we've come in the US, check out this page. That's the Mid InfraRed Photonics Lab (NSF Funded) at Princeton, headed up by Austria's very own Claire Gmachl. There's only one euro-white guy in the main group, and 2 of the three undergrads are white dudes. The rest are all women or minorities.

I'm not sure how typical that is across the country, but it's good enough for me.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

I don’t believe anyone would deny things have come a long way. I think though the basic point being made is that an overall cultural change must eventually transpire before we can truly reap the benefits availed with an expansion of attitude. That is I think things are still too much thought of in terms of women entering a man’s world, instead of a total cultural change where such conceptions or their opposites would hold no meaning. This cultural change may come too late for us perhaps, yet maybe it's what’s required for those you envision capable of inhabiting those distance worlds.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

That is I think things are still too much thought of in terms of women entering a man’s world

And right there you both defined the problem but inadvertently belied yourself in stating the problem that the problem is in the statement Phil, and not in the the solution. (I'm starting to write like you Phil ... logically like a Philosopher writes ...noticed? ... Christ I don't know what to make of that, except it will probably piss off Neil Bates. :-))

In short Phil, you "assumed" that the "problem" is it's a man world.

And it was. In 1960.

But it's not 1960 anymore Phil, and I just gave an example where the "problem", if you wish to re-direct (or at least consider doing so), is that white males have become the new minority, other than the other way around, and I do believe I just gave an example of what I'm talking about.

Uncle Al is right: Only the most competent should be selected.

I happen to know (knew once) Claire Gmachl, and what I know about Claire is she would accept nothing less. She's the new Schrodinger (in Applied Physics not Theoretical, which she doesn't exactly suck at). Wiki her up to see what I mean.

GMP said...

Claire Gmachl kicks ass. However, does she have a family?

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

I don't know, I lost touch with her ten years ago, when she was about 30. She was single then, but for grad students: 3+ years after getting your PhD, when I met her socially, you're just getting started in life. This is the price you pay for learning more than 99% of Humanity. Sucks in the short run, works best in the long run if you manage it well, as she (and many others) obviously has.

She shined at Bell Labs and would be a superstar there still had the US Gov not pulled the plug on the place. She shines now at Princeton. There are worse places to work. :-)

GMP said...

Steven, I know of Claire Gmachl's reputation and she's beyond a doubt absolutely impressive. I ask if she has a family because most guys whom I know of her age and prominence do have families; in fact, families don't seem to slow them down one bit as someone's at home holding the fort. In contrast, many women of such prominence opt out of having a family altogether (I don't know if that holds for Gmachl); I think that is just very sad, that for women it's either/or...

Steven Colyer said...

Well, like I said we've lost touch so I don't know if she's married let alone produced children. What I will speculate though is that if Paul Dirac, a person whose personality closely resembles my own (for good and for bad), could find love at Princeton, then I have no doubt Claire would have found love there as well, unless her passion for her work was so strong she didn't see the forest for the trees so to speak. And she definitely had passion for her work. Really good to see her continued success, good for her, eh?

The bigger issue that Bee alludes to:

HOW CAN a woman balance an intense career in Science, AND as a Mom ?!

The answer? The answer is this:

She can, but it's not easy. But who said "life" was "easy."? It sure ain't, and yah, it's tougher for women than for men.

But ...

Women ARE tougher than men. Right?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

Yes you’re right it is no longer totally a man’s world; that is who brings home the bacon one. However, who predominately fries it still has to go a bit further, as well as who wipes the snotty noses and even more often who has the world present as just little bit brighter. Now if this depended on evolution I would agree perhaps we expect too much. The fact is however the organ that Dr. Gmachl has above her neck, which has her able to run her own show at Princeton is why it that’s not true.

The one thing I would agree is it will take a lot more reasoned compassion from all sides (including government and industry) to complete this cultural paradigm shift. Anyway all the good stuff of the old world is already long gone; like those liquid lunches and the acceptability of totally inebriating your perspective clients. Now that I think about it I’m surprised it worked as long as it did:-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Phil wrote:

liquid lunches

LOL!! Holy crap man, I forgot about those. I didn't engage, for I was but a child in my 20's NOT DOING the Calculus which I was trained to do, but rather filling out the tight Exxon data sheets that I was paid to fill out and kept my bosses in a position to have said liquid lunches.

Pretty funny, you reminded me, of watching my bosses return from "lunch" and the walls of the office keeping them upright. LOL, God. :-)

Do people still do that anymore? What? ... were they to the manor born, or something?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

“Do people still do that anymore?”

I’m told it’s even diminishing in Eastern Europe. However I am surprised your bosses didn’t insist that you join them on occasion; that is just to be certain you had the right stuff :-)

Best,

Phil

Eric said...

Steven,
Paul Dirac's personality resembled yours? What a load of shit. A woman sidled up to Dirac at a dinner at his college and told him she'd made bet that she could get him to talk.
His reply: "You lose".

You can't STOP talking. Know thyself.

Steven Colyer said...

I only talk on-line Eric. In real life, I'm quite quiet. If spoken to, I'll respond, but at any party I'm a wallflower. Wasn't always that way, just since my late 20's.

Phil, they did take me out. Then I made the mistake of asking a customer named "Skelly" if he was Irish. That was the last time they took me out. Which was fine with me. I don't think "Shut up and calculate" is an insult. It's my default condition, it makes me happiest.