May 5, 2012 / Opportunity

Do Women in Science Receive Special Treatment?


The following article is cross-post with the express permission from the blog Female Science Professor. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Quite often, I get a comment or e-mail along the lines of “Why do women need special treatment?” (to get a job), “Men have to struggle too” (but no one is helping us), “Why are you so obsessed with gender?” (just do your Science), and/or the tired old question “Why are you Female Science Professor and not just a Science Professor?” (like the men). Some of these questions are politely expressed, and some are not.

The answers to these questions are in the blog archives in various places, so that’s not what I am going to write about today.

What I’m wondering about today is whether there is any significance to the fact that some people (men and women) don’t see sexism and discrimination in academia or elsewhere, although supposedly objective measures as well as the personal experience of many indicates that these problems persist.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s ignore the more extreme, rude, and what-about-me viewpoints (including those held by people who think “feminazi” is a really clever word). Today, in May 2012, let’s consider instead whether an apparently neutral, non-hostile lack of awareness is:

  1. overall a good thing, indicating a change for the better (sexism is so rare, some people have no idea it exists because they have never encountered it); or
  2. the same-old bad thing: sexism is as prevalent as ever and the fact that some people don’t see it — in their own lives or in the experiences of others — is one reason why it persists.

Does anyone believe in the more optimistic of the two possibilities listed above? I think that it might apply locally to some people and environments, and in that sense a ‘lack of awareness’ (again, of the non-hostile sort) does indicate progress. But I don’t think this is the primary explanation, alas.

In coming to that conclusion, I dove into the archives to see what I have written about this topic over the past 6 years, and thought about whether I have — in my own career and life, keeping in mind the effect of my increasing age and seniority on my experiences — seen a change just since I have been writing this blog. I have seen a change for the better — a substantial one in my own life/career and a not-insignificant one in my general field of science — but still not as much as I would expect given the increasing number of female students, postdocs, and faculty in the STEM fields. The feeling (by some) that women get jobs, grants, awards etc. because they are women and not because they are highly qualified persists at a disturbing level.

The persistence of this view is surely related to the still-low numbers of women in some fields, but I wish it did not have to correlate quite so closely, given the slow rate of increase in the participation of women in some fields, particularly at the post-graduate level. For now, I suppose we have to hope that there is some critical level of representation — << 50% but >> 1-2% — at which these perceptions become exceedingly rare.

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