September 19, 2006

A Gender Gap in Science?

This study came out recently, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Ok, that's wrong.  On the face, without having read the actual text yet, I disagree with [the media's presentation of] it ENTIRELY.

You see, there's a very important factor that either they've overlooked or the media has chosen not to report....

Let me explain:

First of all, I want to make it clear that I've never experienced that kind of discrimination personally.  As an undergrad, while Caltech had 4 times as many males on campus as females, the Bio department was almost 50-50.  In graduate school, out of about 30 students in my program, 6 were guys.  My advisor was female, too.  So was her postdoctoral advisor.

Here, half of my department is female, including our chair.

But on to my main point:

One thing the study doesn't seem to consider is that women often PREFER to opt out of the higher academic jobs because of the demanding schedule.  We CHOOSE to remain in a comfortable lab, where our schedule is more flexible, we can work with the people we choose to work with, and we have time to be ourselves and actually SEE our families.

This is the elephant in the living room.  Academic Science has many of them.

Sure, a lot of women who are Dr. Shalala's age and even up to 20 years younger had to deal with chauvinist pigs and glass ceilings and all that.  They had to CHOOSE between a career and a family.  Women scientists of MY generation can have both, and are frequently choosing personal fulfillment over professional, in many cases.  I did.  That's why I teach, rather than pursuing a traditional academic career track.

What these older chickies can't stand is the rearrangement of priorities in younger female scientists.  They hate it that we wouldn't follow them blindly through the glass ceiling, that we can stop about a foot lower and say "Thanks, I'm good."  That we refuse to blaze their trail just because it's there.

I'm not naive enough to say that discrimination DOESN'T exist. However, that doesn't mean that gender-based discrimination is the ONLY reason why women don't get the highest jobs in academic science and engineering. And it's naive of THEM to say otherwise.

Posted by caltechgirl at September 19, 2006 11:27 AM | TrackBack

I agree with you 100%!

Posted by: Amanda at September 19, 2006 11:35 AM

You make some really good points and I would agree that discrimination isn't the only reason, however in some sciences - for example, Computer Science (my field) - it definitely exists and is a huge problem. There are many studies that I've run across that indicate that the discrimination problem isn't as pronounced in sciences other than CS - and for that I'm grateful.

Why we have such a problem in CS, I'm not sure - and neither is the majority of the CS world. But it's not even all discrimination - some of it is the perception of discrimination that chases young women out of the field before they really give it a fair shake. Some of it is stereotypical profiling of the "computer geek". And some of it is the boys club attitude found in CS departments - even amongst students. I ran into to it to a degree in my undergrad and got around it primarily by either self-deprication (deflect their posturing with blondeness and it loses its appeal) or simple tom-boyishness (which wasn't a stretch for me, still isn't.) (But I was the sole female in the major all four years.) Ran into it some in my MS but got around it by saying I wanted to teach (a traditionally female role.) (Was one of probably 5 females in the Master's program). Run into it daily in my corporate job - haven't figured a way out of it yet because I don't want to be the discrimination chick.

Anyway, in some scientific fields it really is a problem - not always for the reasons they state, and we shouldn't negate or neglect the points you raise either.

Posted by: beth at September 19, 2006 02:33 PM

I was one of very few females at the time in my field of Computer Science. Hey, I graduated in '89. What I ran into was that most of the women I worked with had 'an attitude'. Which in turn fed the 'good ol boys' and ... you get the picture. The few times I ran into some kind of harassment, I met it head on and it was solved. Like telling the VP my eyes were on my head not on my chest. But believe it or not, I had more issues with the women. I had a woman boss who did not want to give me a raise because I didn't give 120%. Like you, I enjoyed my vacations and family time (though I did not have children at the time). She couldn't understand why I didn't want to work 80 hours a week and 'show the men up'. Uhhh. Considering I was doing the same work as a man who was 2 levels senior to me, why would have I have to do any more to 'show someone up'? sigh... you got me started. I'll stop here. Enjoy your life. Don't let the ones with no self assurance get you down.

Posted by: vw bug at September 19, 2006 07:02 PM

Ah, great minds think alike. See here.

Posted by: rightwingprof at September 20, 2006 07:26 AM

Oh man I could say so much..., but I will summarize.... (from the Engineerign side).

- University was 60/40 female, Science was majority male, which was skewed by engineering, scinces were closer togehter.
- Quite a few women left engineering because they weren't intererested. (Isn't that what women with freedom are allowed to do?)
- On a random note, while in school they would "express concern over the number of women in engineering", they never commented that 2 out of 60 students in psychology were male.

Private Sector:
- Women who strted with me advance at relatively the same rate, where all pretty much at the same point.
- Quite a few Sr. Level women I have met/worked with are single or divorced. However, many of them achivied the most while single and cut back for marrage or children.
- There is a slight bias in favor of hiring women & minorites driven by government affirmative action requirements in contracts.

- Not too much going on here, up to a certian level, the work you do relates in no way to moving up in the agency, call it the ability to "fail upwards".
- There are soem high level women in public agencies and they bust there ass and put their time in like their male counterparts.
- Once again a slight advantage to women & minorites depending on the agency.

But over all, if women choose their career, career path and how far they want to advance in their career...what the hell is the problem?

Posted by: the Pirate at September 20, 2006 08:49 AM

Very well said.

Your comments also apply to professions other than science.

Posted by: Christina at September 20, 2006 08:53 AM

YEP! That's why I quit grad school (biophysics) and I'm now a programmer with two kids.

It was pretty much expected you'd stay in the lab until 1 or 3 am, and (if you were on the "bad campus" in downtown Baltimore) that meant you were stuck there until morning. The last safe bus left at 11.

That's just nuts. I decided I actually wanted to see my husband and not be crazy. (That and I wanted to be paid, and get credit for what I did, and all that fun stuff.)

Oh, plus I didn't get into my top FIVE choices of lab. Not sure why. A few of them someone else just got to before I did, which is normal... but three of them wouldn't even let me do a rotation. And they weren't all full -- they let some of my fellow students do rotations. Male? Yeah. But I think it was more likely discrimination against the biologist. (My degree is in Molecular biology and all the other students were physics majors. If they had a problem with that or what I wanted to study (which I stated VERY CLEARLY when I interviewed) they shouldn't have accepted me.)

Posted by: silvermine at September 20, 2006 12:50 PM

Yep. There's something to be said for contentment. Not everyone wants to climb the ladder like a raging bull. Some who are that type become so bitter. As they say -- you never read on a tombstone that John Doe wished he'd spent more time at the office.

My closest college friends and I were math majors, at a school known for its rigorous math program. I recall our classes being pretty much 50/50 with females to males. And that was in the mid-80s.

Just because we haven't chosen to move mountains with our brains doesn't mean we don't have the aptitude.

It's all about making thoughtful choices.

Posted by: Marie at September 21, 2006 06:30 AM

I just wish that some people could ACCEPT that we're "good" with where we are. I've had people (at meetings, etc.) look at me in disbelief when they find out I don't live in the lab.

eh, whatever. I don't have a spouse/kids but I'm still interested in having a life outside of research.

Which is why I'm at a small, teaching-focused college. I'm pretty happy (but do regularly complain that they need to raise admission standards). If I'm doing well, I publish an article in a minor journal every year and in a "national" journal every two or three years. And I'm not expected to bring in megabucks in grants - I'm kind of left alone to pursue what interests me, and that is what makes me happy.

I think in some sectors there's almost a reverse discrimination - that there are some women that think that if you're not taking a battering ram to some perceived glass ceiling, if you're not engaging in every pissing contest, if you're not trying to forcibly change the world, then you're wasting your time and you're actually a detriment to "the movement." Feh. There's a lot to be said for being happy. And what's to say I'm not changing the world, but that I'm doing it in a different way - through inspiring a student or maybe even doing something OUTSIDE of my work-field.

Posted by: ricki at September 21, 2006 06:35 AM

Thank you!

It's significant that none of these studies ever look at science faculty at small, primarily teaching schools. There, faculty tends to be a lot more balanced even in the physical science. My tiny five-person chemistry/physics department has two women, and in our last two searches, at least half the applicants were women. The evidence on this is anecdotal, since no one's really crunched the numbers, but from those I know who looked for small-school academic jobs, a lot of women are opting to go that route if they want to teach and do research. The job is less focused than it would be at a research university, but is also more flexible and less stressful, plus getting to know your students is expected rather than avoided!

Posted by: Wade at September 21, 2006 08:20 AM

They hate it that we wouldn't follow them blindly through the glass ceiling, that we can stop about a foot lower and say "Thanks, I'm good."

Oh God, AMEN.

I do work in a scientific field-I'm an engineer, and the only female one of those in a sea of males. It's not that I don't think I can break through the glass ceiling (which, come to think of it, I don't think can be done)-it's that I don't see the point. I don't want to be a CEO-why take all that stress and pressure?

Being resilient shouldn't be read as being wimpy.

Posted by: Helen at September 21, 2006 11:32 PM

Terrific post. You have made some excellent points here.

Posted by: Richmond at September 22, 2006 11:58 AM

I think you make some good points, that possibly women are more likely to prioritise family and other important parts of life over personal ambition and climbing the career ladder. But, to me, the more interesting question is why this is so. It seems unlikely that it's a coincidence or entirely biologically determined, and I think it's obvious that there is pressure on women to put their own ambitions second to family life etc, when there is often no such pressure on their male counterparts.

Also it works both ways, maybe men are under undue pressure to advance their careers and they miss out on things like spending time with their young children, having a fulfilling life outside of work etc. I think that what we need is a balance between the two extremes for everyone, and a recognition that both career and family are important.

Hopefully this would lead to an improved situation for both women and men, and would even out the gender gap at work and also at home and in childcare.

Posted by: Sarah at September 23, 2006 10:24 AM

Thanks for you comment over at my Weekend Pundit discussion of the same topic. Though I haven't read the book you dismiss, the excellent point you raise in your entry is valid. But why?

The 1991 book Brain Sex by Anne Moirs and David Jessel, which sponsored a revolution to my then-feminist mode of thinking, states it in one word: testosterone.

It's why there are so few female UPS drivers, for instance. Women don't have the drive, no pun intended, to do package delivery for 10 hours a day, a brutal though excellent way for a low-skill guy to make a living. It does have its drawbacks: after air traffic controllers, UPS drivers have the highest rate of divorce of any occupation.

A nice way of looking at it is that brains, which are wired in utero, reconfirm a rather traditional view of the sexes. Your need to have more of a flex schedule, even though you're just as good or better than your male peers, means that advancement will be denied you more often during the course of a career.

At times, though, this is circumvented by affirmative action. But I for one oppose treating people in any other way than as individuals when it comes to the law and the marketplace.

BTW, have you seen the Wikipedia entry on Donna Shalala? It's funny when it goes she's never been married "wink, wink."

Posted by: Brent at September 24, 2006 07:01 AM

For her contribution to utterly unsupported and damaging literature about women and society I have awarded Brizendine the first annual "More Likely to Be Killed By a Terrorist Than Marry Retraction" award, named for the 1986 Newsweek story, retracted this year. See my blog,, for the details. Put another way, A Million Little Made Up Footnotes.

Posted by: Linda Hirshman at September 26, 2006 02:41 PM

Should not be necessary, but I'll mention that this post was a response to the prior comment that it's hard wired in utero, just another example of the poison spread in the social discourse by the Terrorist Retraction Award winning "Female Brain."

Posted by: Linda Hirshman at September 26, 2006 02:44 PM