Women in Science — Will we ever stop being sexist?

As all of you are hopefully aware of, we live in a rather sexist country. Of course, it has been getting better over the years, but it is still a huge deal, especially for those of us women in the sciences as some stats (and plain observation) can show.The whole topic of women in science and sexism resurfaced when Harvard’s President, Lawrence H. Summers, gave a talk on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce” back in January. Since there are many articles that discuss his speech (although few which actually quote him directly), I thought it’d be easier to go to the transcript to make a few direct quotations:

From people who “rise to leadership positions in their forties … [society] expect[s] a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect-and this is harder to measure-but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.”

The main problem with this thought is that Summers is assuming women would much rather be in the home caring for children than accomplishing something in a “leadership position,” whereas men would never have such a desire. Summers continues to attribute the lack of women in science fields at Harvard to “by far, 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” — apparently women have less power, less intensity, and are less apt in science and engineering. Anyway, this came out a while ago and I’m sure you’ve all heard about it, but if you haven’t and want to hear more, there are plenty of articles you can browse:
* “Who Stole Harvard?” from National Review Online.
* “Blinded by Science” from The Harbus Online (Harvard’s Business Newspaper)
* “Interest’ can’t dictate women’s sports” from The Sun-Sentinel

But, the real reason I’m making this post is not to comment on Summers’ months-old speech, but to discuss an article from the Friday’s (April 15) New York Times titled “For Women in Sciences, Slow Progress in Academia” (it starts about 3/4 down the page). (It’s also linked here as “For Women in Sciences, the Pace of Progress in Academia Is Slow.”) This article, which refers to Summers’ speech several times, reports that:

“Men are given longer letters of recommendation than women, and their letters are more focused on relevant credentials. Men and women are more likely to vote to hire a male job applicant than a woman with an identical record. Women applying for a postdoctoral fellowship had to be 2.5 times as productive to receive the same competence score as the average male applicant.”

This is nothing too surprising, but I find it very saddening that our country is still in such a sexist state, especially since I am a woman interested in the sciences. I’ve always felt that sexism is a problem that has not been properly addressed, but for the most part ignored in hopes that women will quit “complaining.”

9 Responses to “Women in Science — Will we ever stop being sexist?”

I think the root of equality is probably found in changing how we raise our children. To be perfectly frank, most shy, timid, and yielding people that I know are female. Moreover, I’d be willing to bet that a large part of that behavior has nothing to do with their sex, and everything to do with their early experiences and education.

A quick example:
I’ve seen mothers let the boy-child tumble in the dirt and play with bugs, while the girl-child is told that she must not “get her cute little dress messy” or that “she could get hurt”. Getting that behavior instilled in you from the age of 1 to the age of 14 or so, when they start talking about equality of the sexes? It’s over by that point, sorry. If there is to be change in the perception of the capabilities of women, it will come from EARLY education.

That’s the shame, really– I see crusader’s for women rights who don’t realize it starts at the age of one, when the cute little baby girl is put in a dress that the parents want kept clean to show off how pretty she is– as if her job is to be pretty, and nothing else. Guess what? That’s exactly the attitude you’re supposed to be trying to fight against.

Paradoxdruid - April 18th, 2005 at 9:08 am

Damn that’s shitty. Unfortunately, I’m too tired or too stupid to figure out a solution. Any ideas?

Owen - April 17th, 2005 at 9:54 pm

Get the attention, and energies, of the apathetic masses?

Teisha - April 17th, 2005 at 10:42 pm

But what causes those different expectations in people’s minds? They don’t appear from nowhere. They’re instilled sometime before adulthood, and I still posit it’s in early childhood (say ages 4 to 10).

Paradoxdruid - April 18th, 2005 at 6:10 pm

I’m not so sure about that… I don’t think I was ever told to be careful about keeping my clothes clean as a child, but instead went out daily to find bugs and such, but still ended up rather timid in many ways. I think it’s not only how children are raised, but what’s expected of men and women as -adults- is different as well.

Teisha - April 18th, 2005 at 4:02 pm

I think that Druid is partially right, but crediting or blaming solely nature or nuture over simplifies the issue. Men and women DO have biological differences. We do have differeneces in our brains, our biochemistry, our phyisiology. However, this doesn’t make women incapable of taking on tough jobs. While most science and science related fields are male dominated, veterinary medicine is female dominated. It’s only one example, but it’s important to realize that there is at least one example.

However, as Druid said, we treat children differently based on gender. When I studied physchology, we read about a study that would take a young baby and dress it as a boy or a girl and present it to the “test subjects.” When dressed as a boy people would say “What a handsome man” or “Look how big and strong you are” and so forth. When dressed as a girl they would say “How pretty” or “What a sweet, cute princess” and so forth. It’s ingrained in our culture. And while many women- such as Teisha and myself- were raised in more equitable circumstances, I’m sure that our parents missed out on things and said things that fed into the cultural standards.

So what happens when a woman’s biology and environment create a creature that almost invariably smiles when her name is spoken and who wants to take care of others? Is she incapable of being a scientist? No! I think, though, that she might fear becoming a scientist. Fear the controversy, the hard times, the fights. I’ve been a “victim” (victim just seems a strong word to me, even now) of on-the-job sexual discrimination. It hurts and it makes you feel helpless. But as long as women and men fight for the equal treatment of women, those who fight against will lose ground and eventually lose completely. But it definitely won’t change overnight.

ShortSpeedFreak - April 20th, 2005 at 2:26 pm

About veterinarians — when you said that women make the majority I had to check that since for about a year I wanted to become a vet, and volunteered at several clinics with clearly more male than female vets in general, but I _think_ you were right. However, I couldn’t find anything conclusive — the articles I found (“Women and Work: Then, Now, and Predicting the Future for Women in the Workplace”:http://humanresources.about.com/od/worklifebalance/a/business_women_3.htm
and “Women Soon to be Majority of Veterinarians”:http://www.anapsid.org/vets/vetdemos.html ) were a bit outdated and all only _predicated_ that women would predominate the veterinary field because there were more women than men in vet school (I’ve known a few vets that decide, after vet school, that they don’t want to be a vet afterall).
But, I’m sure there are some current stats out there somewhere… Anyway, my point is that even a science field that is assumed to be female-dominated might
not be or, if it is, has only been so over the past few years.

As an interesting side-note though, I found “a more-recent (only year-old) article about what jobs are held by what genders/ethnicities,”:http://southflorida.bizjournals.com/specials/jobs_gender_race/
and it lists the jobs with the highest percentage of women:
* Preschool and kindergarten teachers 97.8%
* Dental hygienists 97.7%
* Dental assistants 97.1%
* Secretaries and administrative assistants 96.5%
* Speech-language pathologists 95.1%
The only thing real surprising to me is the speech-language pathologist. As a comparison, the stats for men aren’t that surprising either, and show that women are, of course, not the only pigeon-holed gender:
* Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics 99.0%
* Brickmasons, blockmasons and stonemasons 98.9%
* Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists 98.8%
* Derrick, rotary drill and service unit operators and roustabouts, oil, gas and mining 98.7%
* Cement masons, concrete finishers and terrazzo workers 98.7%

The psychology study you mention is interesting — was this mainly for the U.S. and European cultures, or did they look at other cultures as well (i.e. Asian,
African)? Something that still perpetuates the gender-bias in lesser developed countries is who the family picks to educate, and who should stay home and raise children. Of course, that probably goes without saying…

“But as long as women and men fight for the equal treatment of women, those who fight against will lose ground and eventually lose completely. But it
definitely won’t change overnight.” I think this is a very optimisitc statement… I can only hope that it will happen, but I’m sure it will take some time. Even if we work on the “nurture” aspect, the “nature” part won’t

Teisha - April 20th, 2005 at 4:26 pm

I honestly don’t remember what cultures they looked at, though my suspision is that it was done in America on typical American folks. Thanks for the stats, by the way. That’s pretty interesting stuff. I’m not shocked my the dental assistant one . . . I don’t think I’ve ever met a male dental assistant.

I try to be optimistic. 🙂 And, while I know the “nature” won’t change, we might become more “accomodating” (I hate to use the word, but it’ll get the point across) to women. I remember speaking to Owen’s mother about law. And she said that as more women have become lawyers, the culture has changed. There’s more collaboration and people talk to each other more than they once did. So, maybe, rather than society assuming that women don’t have the right biological traits to succeed, society will allow for continuing and increased flexibility in career fields. Maybe we should tell Harvard’s president that it’s not that our love of families (mind, I don’t like kids and don’t really want to ever be pregnant or to raise a child) makes us a poor choice for leadership positions, but the narrow definition of traits that make a good leader.

ShortSpeedFreak - April 21st, 2005 at 6:02 pm

Well, this topic may be dead already, but I’m going to post anyway since I have lots of time on my hands.

First off, I believe that there are a LOT of factors going into the lack of women in the sciences and engineering. Parental guidance is always a HUGE factor.

That said, I read an interesting theory a quite a few years ago about the lack of females in technical work, especially engineering. The theory was that since people tend to follow career paths of their role models, and that people tend to choose same sex role models, that the lack of few well known females within the sciences and engineering limits the number of potential role models and therefore fewer enter that profession. It also added that as a field saturates, then the fields more closely related will start to fill due like an overflow.

If you look at engineering, the two fields of engineering that have the highest percentage of females are chemical and aerospace. There have been several female astronaughts, which have spurned many young girls to strive to enter that field.

Chemical engineering I believe is getting spillover from the biological sciences. I think bioscience has been getting spillover from the social sciences (which is definitely saturated. CU is something like 70% women for the social science majors) and the pre-meds (who used to be directed to nursing but are now directed to be doctors).

I’ve seen the direct influence of role models on choice of major. I would say that 90% of the aerospace majors I know/knew stated that astronaughts were their heroes as a child, and the women especially pointed out all of the female astronaughts as having huge influences on their life choices. I choose physics in part because of my physics teacher and Feynmann.

Once you start factoring in a lot of social pressures to have children before 30, and that women are still considered the primary care giver, those become direct limiting factors as to how far up the chain they go.

We were on the right track for a while. Female enrollment in engineering was at all time highs at the end of the 90s, chemical engineering was 40% female. That number has gone down, and I would like to blame the return of the social conservative agenda for attempting to reverse some of the gains. It really doesn’t help that Laura Bush is a stepford wife.

stephen - May 27th, 2005 at 12:14 pm

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