January 20, 2009 / Uncategorized

Getting More Women into Science: The Dawn of The Age of ‘Geek Chic’?


While it is a truism that women are way under-represented in science, we need more data and reasons as to why this is so. On this inauguration day, Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times, writes of optimism In ‘Geek Chic’ and Obama, New Hope for Lifting Women in Science. Angier deserves applause for writing about this issue, as it is time to attract more women into science and keep them there: “Researchers who have long promoted the cause of women in science view the incoming administration with a mix of optimism and we’ll-see-ism.” Supposedly, the new president has “enthusiasm for science,” and there is concomitant rise of “geek chic” and “smart is the new cool.” Of course, it follows that new research funds are necessary.

Angier points out the need for a woman on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology:

The Rosalind Franklin Society, a group devoted to “recognizing the work of prominent women scientists,” has suggested possible co-chairwomen for the panel. Its candidates include Shirley Ann Jackson, a nuclear physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University. Others have proposed Jacqueline Barton, a chemist and MacArthur fellow at the California Institute of Technology. Or, given the increasing importance of brain research, how about a prominent female neuroscientist like Nancy Kanwisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Carla Shatz of Stanford University?

Systematic issues work against women’s scientific ambitions.

Mason and Goulden at UC-Berkeley did extensive data on male/female differences in the family structure and personal lives of academic researchers, which I summarize briefly:

  1. Married with children (tenured): 70% males vs. 44% females (160,000 Ph.D. recipients surveyed across the U.S.)
  2. Marriage, singlehood, divorce: 12 years (same study as above) after receiving the doctorate, tenured women were twice as likely as tenured men to be single, and significantly more likely to be divorced.
  3. Marriage pressures: in a study of 8700 U Calif. system faculty, respondents agreed to “I had fewer children than I wanted” with 50% of women vs. < 20% for men.
  4. Family-unfriendliness of the intended profession: In a U of Calif. survey of 19,000 doctoral students (Mason et al), 2/3 of the respondents planned to have children but 84% women vs. 74% men expressed worry about this issue and changed their plans accordingly.
  5. Women vs. men graduate students, beginning vs. a year later on the path to an academic science career:

    40% men vs. 31% women, beginning
    28% men vs. 20% women, a year later.

Dr. Mason believes that things might change with an executive order for family leave and parental benefits for federal grant recipients, which include many research scientists.

Angier speculates, from a Darwinian point of view, that reproductive years must be sacrificed in the 20s and 30s, with low pay at unempowered positions, with “the remainder of one’s 30s and into the low 40s working madly to earn tenure.” Angier’s point is well taken, but men also must spend these years at the low end of the food chain.

Women have made strides.

The National Science Foundation (Joan Burrelli) says that women have made “strides:”
–50 years ago: 8% of Ph.Ds., but 40% in 2006.
–1973: 6% of Ph.Ds employed full time (academia, business, etc.) vs. 27% in 2006.
–From 1973 – 2006, full professorships in the sciences quadrupled to 20%
–26% are in life sciences vs. 6% in physics.

I’m not sure what these statistics mean. “Quadrupled to 20%,” for example differs from institution to institution, and as a percent of how many at an institution, a department, a center, a full-time equivalent? And at which institutions–The Big 10, the elite private universities, research universities overall?

What does all this mean for progress in the future? Why do women fall out of physics most? Half of high school students in Advanced Placement physics are girls, but they earn 1/5 of the B.S. degrees in Physics. Hyde et al found no gender differences on standardized math tests (with some inconsistencies noted).

Angier turns to the “girls can’t handle the advanced math of physics” argument, that women don’t like physics—it’s cold and abstract, not female friendly. Dr. Gates (U. of Chicago) speculates on cultural issues: “Bubble-headed television shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door?”

Finally, a cross-cultural perspective is considered.

Of 1350 female physicists in 70 countries, R. Ivie and S. Guo of the Am. Institute of Physics found that “worse than family balance and lack of day care options was the problem of public perception.” They surveyed 1350 female physicists in 70 countries. 80% agreed that “attitudes about women in physics needed serious overhaul.”

The New Agenda has published a number of interesting articles about women in science and other professions concerning issues of low expectations, lack of representation by women in government, the new cabinet (many articles and the Cabinet watch on the Home page), articles abut powerful women, how women’s voices are silenced in professions, overt silencers like Larry Summers, women and math, media issues, and gender gap statistics globally and from Norway.* We need to have high expectations.

To quote from Jo Handelsman, president of the Franklin society and a microbiologist at the U of Wisconsin:

People say, oh, we shouldn’t have quotas, but diversity is a form of excellence, and there are plenty of outstanding women out there. … You don’t have to lower your standards in the slightest — you just have to pay attention.

New Agenda Articles

The Tyranny Of Low Expectations: Democratic Women Politicians Celebrate
50 Most Powerful Women….and “Drama”???
And it’s definitely not the U.S. House of Ladies
Is NBC Finally Getting the Message???
Hurra for kvinnfolk i Scandinavia, or ‘Hurray for women in Scandinavia’: Gender Quotas and the 40% Rule
Powerful Women Silenced….
Why does the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus agree with Larry Summers that women are genetically inferior to men?
Repackaging Larry Summers: “Maybe women really ARE dumb”
Quotas Improve Women’s Political Participation
The U.S. is 27th in the Global Gender Gap Index
Larry Summers may be off the short list for Treasury!
Summers is Over: The Washington Post reports on The New Agenda’s anti-Summers position
Women & the Financial Mess
Who Answers to Women?

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  • the15th

    Angier’s article is good overall. But “geek chic” usually translates to “higher social status for male geeks.” Since the “geek” reputation of science isn’t really what’s keeping women from the field in the first place, making it more chic doesn’t help.

  • Anna

    Very very interesting article.

    A curious side note: Heard on NPR several months ago that some public schools have been experimenting with seperating boys and girls during adolescence for math (and science, as well…don’t recall) class because they observed that girls did much better in classes when boys weren’t in the same class. They attributed this to such factors as boys hogging up the computers in mixed classes and girls not being assertive to demand equal time (you gotta wonder where the teacher is in all of this) and boy’s style of interaction and assertion re: getting attention while girls became more passive. I thought it was interesting.

    I LOVE these articles on TNA’s web site. They open up world’s of information that I greatly appreciate.

  • Sis

    The science geek I admire so much–researcher Dr. Diane Harper, who was instrumental in developing Gardasil. When she saw how it was being marketed she say whoa, this isn’t right. She was threatened by Merck (and risked losing her Merck contracts for her lab) and ignored by media until a small New Hampshire media outfit wrote her up, then the biggies (sheep) took notice and began interviewing her. Still a lot of people don’t know one of the major instrumental researchers for Gardasil was a woman, and she’s saying ‘just a minute there, this is not the truth’.

  • Nell

    Here are some data from May 2008 from the site below:

    “Currently, 12 FORTUNE 500 companies are run by women, and a total of 24 FORTUNE 1000 companies have women in the top job. That’s down from last year, when 25 FORTUNE 1000 companies were run by women.”
    This has probably changed by now but even so, 12 is 2% and it would take several more to increase it to 3%.
    Oh, and for Sis–the cotton gin was invented by a woman but it was a man who applied for and got the patent.

  • Nell

    from USAToday 1/2/09: “Ellen Kullman replaced Chad Holliday at DuPont (DD) Thursday to start 2009, which brings to 13 the number of female CEOs running the USA’s largest 500 publicly traded companies.
    That’s a record. But it’s only one more than last year, a year when Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin missed becoming the first female president and vice president, and a year when frustration continued to mount on the corporate side over the plodding progress of women.”
    Guess it is still at 2 percent!!! I know this ain’t politics but it is indicative of our society and its respect for women.

  • Anna

    Nell – Thanks for the info. (Now I’m thoroughly depressed for the day, as if the Inuaguration didn’t put me teetering on the edge.) There’s so much work to do on so many fronts. Hopefully TNA can be a sort of clearinghouse for identifying and prioritizing and helping us focus our efforts.

  • Sis

    Yes I knew about that one Neil. In those foggy boggy places in my memory.

  • Personal Realities that may contribute to less woman in science from my perspective (an artist married to a biologist with two small children):

    1. Scientists are expected to be entirely devoted/married to their work, so there is an idea that having children make you less serious about your work. This makes the decision to have children very difficult in science, because women with families are perceived as less dedicated to their work. So a woman deciding to be a scientist may find the culture of pure devotion to your science/work not conducive to a lifestyle with family. This is NOT a job that someone aspires to because of the paycheck…. and the paycheck is not much for most scientists.

    2. Many scientists travel extensively leaving families behind.

    3. The Post Doc experience requires scientists to go anywhere geographically where there is the appropriate research leaving families always in a state of moving to a new state or country. This is great for a single person, but devastating to families.

    So any woman, or man that truly wants a family would be forced to think very seriously about there choice because the lifestyle of a scientist, particularly in the early years is not always conducive to family life.

  • I think Maria’s right on. Not just in science, but in any job that “particularly in the early years is not always conducive to family life,” women aren’t well represented.

    Like much else, there are things we can do individually and things we need to make companies/government do. In the latter category are preventing assumptions that women will not be dedicated, and ensuring that schools and companies do not suggest either openly or discreetly that boys are better able to do or more likely to enjoy science.

    In the former category, ensuring before marriage that a spouse will equally prioritize a woman’s job, and committing to share childcare/housework rather than the woman agreeing to take on the heavier load of the latter (to the detriment of her career) are important.

  • the15th

    The academic scientists I know, tenured and not, are not generally married to their work. Many work a 40-hour week or less and are still very successful. As a grad student, I would run into faculty in the lab sometimes on the weekends, but not a lot of them. I certainly believe that some male scientists would like women to think that one needs to be married to the job, in order to discourage entrance to their exclusive club, but the reality is more nuanced.

    The academy still has a long way to go in being family-friendly, and there is a severe shortage of science jobs that exacerbates the problem (and that is covered up by moneyed interests who want to promote the idea of a “scientist shortage.”) But until, as Octo says, men are willing to “equally prioritize a woman’s job,” even a 40-hour commitment is going to be too much for a lot of women who have to do almost all the housework and childcare. A lot of the problem is still at home.

  • the15th

    (By “some male scientists,” I don’t mean Maria’s husband — I was thinking of certain Inside Higher Ed commenters who are always there to defend the sanctity of science when women threaten to intrude.)

    By the way, this was a top research university where the professors and postdocs appeared to have actual lives and work normal weeks.

  • KayJL

    the new president of Wellesley (since mid-2007) is a scientist, which should be inspiring to the women at that school, and Wellesley is already a magnet for women who go very far in life in their respective fields.

  • drek

    You’re not welcome in the field.

  • Dittoing and adding to what the15th has said about “A lot of the problem is still at home.”

    I think it’s an issue about male spouses (when the woman’s spouse is male) according equal priority to her career, but also her insisting that he do so.

    I think an uncomfortable little truth underlying and hampering women’s economic and professional equality is that we often see work as optional (if we have the privilege to do so, which some do and some don’t) and men see it as mandatory. Even where women either do not have the privilege to have this choice or choose to work, we often assume we will be the lesser bread-winner and act accordingly. Much more often than men, we assume we will at most need to take care of ourselves, but not a family. Men often assume they will have to support a family.

    So while much fault does lie with men, until the above imbalance evens out (and no, that doesn’t mean all women have to work or have to choose based on economic factors, just that we do both of these things with the same frequency that men do on average) I don’t think we can achieve the stated goals.

  • Anna

    Remember, pleeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaase that “work” means working outside or inside of the home. Let’s not talk as if it’s the default to meaning outside of the home.

    OK. Now this is probably going to be an unpopular sentiment, but from what I’ve seen among friends who are academics (many in the sciences) it looks like many folks wants to have it all. Of course, it’s the women/Mom’s who suffer cause the buck always stops with them when it comes to childcare, and they know it (not to mention professional advancement as has been addressed in this piece). But, I look around, among all sorts of professionals and I see couples who are very career driven, who want to achieve all they can in their chosen career, who also want to have a family, and as far as I can tell, it’s the children who really suffer. Why have a family if there’s not enough parent time to really spend with one’s own children? Something’s got to give. There are only so many hours in the day and our energy has its limits. I see these super full professional lives that add children into the mix, but neither parent wants to give up anything. So, the kids get crammed in where there is no space and it looks awful, at least to me.

    Then, of course, there are those who work low paying jobs where both parents have to work (assuming it’s a two parent household) and that’s got a whole host of problems of its own.

    Where do children come into these conversations? Are they not the foundation of our society? Who is raising them? Baby sitters, day care workers, teachers?

    On this subject, a great book: THE WAR AGAINST PARENTS: What We Cann Do for American’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West.

  • Anna

    Speaking of Darwin and women in science and achievement and recognition, here’s a great name that plays second fiddle in most history books, though some enllightened folks have ventured to guess that her discoveries and contributions were greater than her famed, household name husband, Louis: Mary Leakey

  • “Remember, pleeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaase that “work” means working outside or inside of the home.”

    If by working inside the home you mean child care or housework or both, then technically yes. But pretending that there’s an equivalence here doesn’t do women any favors, IMO.

    Depending upon how many kids one has, of course, bringing them up typically does not cover a working life time. Once they are all in school, most of the workday is open. Parenting is not, at that point, a full time gig; it can be accompanied by paid work, and if it isn’t, then the spouse at home is not under the same kind of pressure as the spouse at the workplace (which might be home — mine is).

    As a mom, I believe too that bringing up children is critically important. I’m not suggesting we take that lightly. I am suggesting that full-time caretaking/housework will never come with an attractive paycheck, and therefore it will never come with the same kind of long-term security or professional advancement opportunity that paid work offers.

    Again, that doesn’t mean all women need to shift into the latter. Just that ideally, enough women do and enough men carry their weight in the caretaking/housework areas that there is more of a balance.

    Because if that doesn’t happen, we can blithely insist on the appropriate nomenclature, and I personally am happy to oblige in that regard, but that’s a surface issue. Substantively, nothing will change, and Caitlin Flanagan will continue to sell books.

  • Anna,

    Good point about girls doing better in all-girl classes. I suppose math (and science?) classes have more of the situations where such social factors would show up?