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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