Sunday, October 6, 2013

US Culture vs Women & Girls doing Science

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an article by Eileen Pollack on the problems faced by women in science. Here's the opening paragraph:
Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.
Interestingly, Pollack reports that before she met Meg Urry, a Yale astrophysicist, in 2010, Urry
predicted that the female students in her department would recognize the struggles she and I had faced but that their support system protected them from the same kind of self-doubt. For instance, under the direction of Bonnie Fleming, the second woman to gain tenure in the physics department at Yale, the students sponsor a semiregular Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Yale. Beyond that, Urry suggested that with so many women studying physics at Yale, and so many of them at the top of their class, the faculty couldn’t help recognizing that their abilities didn’t differ from the men’s. When I mentioned that a tea was being held that afternoon so I could interview female students interested in science and gender, Urry said she would try to attend.
Judith Krauss, the professor who was hosting the tea (she is the former dean of nursing and now master of Silliman College, where I lived as an undergraduate), warned me that very few students would be interested enough to show up. When 80 young women (and three curious men) crowded into the room, Krauss and I were stunned. By the time Urry hurried in, she was lucky to find a seat.
The students clamored to share their stories....
Their stories included treatment from instructors that one would have supposed long gone from the college classroom. Pollack confirms that conditions at Yale are not anomalous:
In the two years that followed, I heard similar accounts echoed among young women in Michigan, upstate New York and Connecticut. I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.
For proof of the stereotypes that continue to shape American attitudes about science, and about women in science in particular, you need only watch an episode of the popular television show “The Big Bang Theory,” about a group of awkward but endearing male Caltech physicists and their neighbor, Penny, an attractive blonde who has moved to L.A. to make it as an actress. Although two of the scientists on the show are women, one, Bernadette, speaks in a voice so shrill it could shatter a test tube. When she was working her way toward a Ph.D. in microbiology, rather than working in a lab, as any real doctoral student would do, she waitressed with Penny. Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Amy, a neurobiologist who becomes semiromantically involved with the childlike but brilliant physicist Sheldon, really does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is in no way the hideously dumpy woman she is presented as on the show. “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom, of course, and therefore every character is a caricature, but what remotely normal young person would want to enter a field populated by misfits like Sheldon, Howard and Raj? And what remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?
Although Americans take for granted that scientists are geeks, in other cultures a gift for math is often seen as demonstrating that a person is intuitive and creative. In 2008, the American Mathematical Society published data from a number of prestigious international competitions in an effort to track standout performers. The American competitors were almost always the children of immigrants, and very rarely female. For example, between 1959 and 2008, Bulgaria sent 21 girls to the International Mathematical Olympiad, while the U.S., from 1974, when it first entered the competition, to 2008, sent only 3; no woman even made the American team until 1998. According to the study’s authors, native-born American students of both sexes steer clear of math clubs and competitions because “only Asians and nerds” would voluntarily do math. “In other words, it is deemed uncool within the social context of U.S.A. middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.”
The study’s findings apply equally in science. Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France “dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.”
That the disparity between men and women’s representation in science and math arises from culture rather than genetics seems beyond dispute.
Do go read the entire article. After looking at entry-level problems and their cultural context, Pollack goes on to examine the discrimination-- much of it based on unconscious bias-- that qualified and successful women in science in the US continue to face.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

I was very impressed by this article, too. The author is working on a book on the subject, which I'm looking forward to. But I found myself once again thinking back to Anna Fels's 2004 book Necessary Dreams, which pointed out the importance of recognition and encouragement. Fels was writing about all fields, not just science and math, but the principles are the same. I notice her book is now out in a Kindle edition and is still in print in paperback.

Timmi Duchamp said...

What I find new & interesting in Pollack's report, Nancy, is her comparison--confirming Ann Hibner Koblitz's comparison in an essay published in the CSZ's Women and Science issue-- of cultural differences & their concomitant outcomes between the US on the one hand & many other countries on the other.

After more than 40 years of feminist struggle, it has become clear to me that there's only so much change that can be accomplished on the individual level, when the culture at large continues to be complacently contemptuous toward women. The main difference between then & now (apart from the lowering of formal barriers to entry like those I faced in 1968) is that women are inculcated with the idea that there's nothing to stop them from succeeding professionally other than they themselves. Since about 1985, for obvious reasons, feminists have shifted their efforts from changing the culture as a whole to changing women as individuals, with the hope that making them stronger & more responsible individuals will be a good-enough solution to gender issues. I took that shift as a temporary, stop-gap measure, but it seems to have become, instead, a sad dead-end. I had to laugh, reading that article, at the Yale faculty women's assumption that women students no longer suffered the usual, predictable slings & arrows of gender bias, sexual harassment, etc. Imagine being that out of touch with the conditions framing the potentials of an entire generation...

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Timmi, I absolutely agree about the importance of changing the culture. One reason I keep coming back to Fels is because she shows so clearly that what most successful men get -- and most women don't -- is recognition. Having the right person take your work seriously at crucial moments makes all the difference in careers. Because this is done so informally, it takes an institutional shift that pays attention to it to change it.

Where I think change on the individual level is most important is in figuring out -- as Pollack did in looking back on why she didn't go on to graduate school in physics -- that we were good enough, that it was the way things worked that put up barriers. Too many women have decided -- as Pollack did -- that they couldn't cut it when in fact they were outstanding. I think realizing this helps us both hang in there on our own individual career paths and fight for better policies for us and for others. The greatest danger of the individual approach is that those who get shunted aside by authority that ignores them (or actively discourages them) blame themselves.