Monday, December 14, 2009

"Oh he couldn't really mean that"

Of course I'm way behind on my reading on the internet. So the comments made by Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider on December 6, in advance of their receiving the Nobel Prize in medicine, have been out there for awhile. But I only just saw them, thanks to a link on In an article on, Malin Rising with the Associated Press writes:
It is the first time two women have shared a single Nobel science prize. Over the years only 10 women have won the medicine prize.

Blackburn said a more flexible approach to part-time research and career breaks would help women continue to advance their careers during their childbearing years.

"I'm not talking about doing second-rate quality science, far from it," she said. "You can do really good research when you are doing it part-time."

Greider added that she especially wants to see measures to get more women onto committees and decision-making positions.

"I think that something active needs to be done to do that because there has been many, many years where there have been women coming in at a 50 percent level, and yet the levels at the upper echelons hasn't really changed very much," she said.
This has been obvious to women academics, not just scientists, for a long time. The typical career pattern often was (and still is) for women to finish their PhDs, have children a couple or maybe five years later, and then return to their research when their children are school age (with all the interruptions that go with have school-age children). In the 1980s & 1990s, at least, the tenure structure refused to accommodate the career rhythms of women who chose to be mothers as well as academics. I had been assuming that academic departments and research institutions generally were a lot more enlightened these days.
Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider said as many women as men start out in science but are often unable to advance after having children because of a lack of flexibility.

"The career structure is very much a career structure that has worked for men," Blackburn told The Associated Press at the sidelines of a press conference in Stockholm.
Carol Greider's answer to a question in an interview in the October 13 New York Times by Claudia Dreifus takes up a related aspect of gender and the practice of science and the ingrained inferiority-of-women explanation for women's status in the sciences being generally inferior to men's:

A. There’s nothing about the topic that attracts women. It’s probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there’s a slight bias of women to work for women because there’s still a slight cultural bias for men to help men. The derogatory term is the “old boys network.” It’s not that they are biased against women or want to hurt them. They just don’t think of them. And they often feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues.

When Lawrence Summers, then the Harvard president, made that statement a few years ago about why there were fewer successful women in science, I thought, “Oh, he couldn’t really mean that.”’ After reading the actual transcript of his statement, it seems he really did say that women can’t think in that sort of scientific fashion. It was ridiculous!

I mean, women do things differently, which is why I think it would be important if more women were at higher levels in academic medicine. I think people might work together more, things might be more collaborative. It would change how science is done and even how institutions are run. That doesn’t mean that women necessarily have a different way of thinking about the mechanics of experiments. I think it’s more a different social way of interacting that would bring results in differently.
And then her answer to the following, last question is interesting. It's an answer I think most women would understand, but I'm not sure that more than a few men would:

A. I certainly hope it’s a sign that things are going to be different in the future. But I’m a scientist, right? This is one event. I’m not going to see one event and say it’s a trend. I hope it is. One of the things I did with the press conference that Johns Hopkins gave was to have my two kids there. In the newspapers, there’s a picture of me and my kids right there. How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren’t in the picture? That’s a big difference, right? And that makes a statement.

1 comment:

Vandana Singh said...

Thanks for this, Timmi! A subject close to my heart. The last bit reminds me of an article by the astrophysicist Vera Rubin I read some years ago in Physics Today. She is the one who first discovered the evidence for dark matter. In the article she was looking back over her career in science and quite casually and matter-of-factly she marked her highlights by what was going on in her family life, and said things to the effect that when she made such-and-such discovery her younger son was just walking... (I wish I could remember the exact quote). I can't imagine a well-established male scientist saying any such thing in the premier news journal of the field...

How refreshing (at the very least) if there were more women able (through support and opportunity) to rise to the top of their field in science!