I recently read the commentary in Nature titled "Does gender matter?" (B. Barres, v. 442, 133-136, 13 July 2006), as well as an interview with the author (New York Times, Tuesday 18 July 2006). The commentary is very satisfying to read, in that it articulately addresses the issues, integrates facts and anecdotes, and makes constructive suggestions.
Many parts of the article resonated with me. In particular:
- Success in science is driven by "powerful curiosity and the drive to create" rather than competiveness. Being aggressive and competitive may give some an advantage in the current system -- so, let's change the system. Let's take a close look at people's abilities and creativity and productivity and not apply unscientific filters. We all lose if we exclude qualified scientists because of irrational biases.
Anecdote: Years ago, a search committee I was on was considering various interesting and well-qualified candidates. Every time a woman candidate was discussed, one of the old guys on the committee would say "How do we know her research represents her own ideas and not her advisor's?". When a male candidate came up for discussion, the same old guys would say "This research is really impressive. Candidate X is very creative." I pointed out that in both cases the candidates had published, as first authors, papers with their advisors and I didn't see why the issue was being raised for women and not for men. The committee members were aghast at their unconscious biases, and agreed that this was not fair. Morals of the story: (1) Men who think they support the notion of women scientists/colleagues may not put this notion into practice owing to ingrained habits of mind, and (2) This is why women need to be on committees and speak out.
- There need to be more women in leadership positions.
At my university, there has never been a woman department chair in science, engineering, or math in the entire history of the university. A dean recently told me that it will probably be another decade or so before this even has a chance of happening. I have female colleagues with outstanding organizational and leadership skills, but when it comes right down to it, the men can't see having a woman for a boss. During a recent conversation about this topic, one (male) professor here told me that he thinks successful women science professors are 'scary'. My unspoken response was BOO! My actual response was to stare at him incredulously.
- Confidence deficit
On a confidence scale, with 0 = total lack of confidence and 10 = God's gift to science and the world, I'm probably a solid 5. However, the norm for my female students and postdocs is closer to 0-2. Some of my male students and postdocs rank fairly low in confidence as well, but they seem to have the ability to gain confidence through experience, whereas the women can be just as productive and successful and not change their low opinion of themselves. This lack of confidence must develop very early in life for it to be so profound and difficult to dispel.
One statement that surprised me in the commentary was that successful female academics 'pull up the ladder behind them', presumably to enhance their own feelings of success. I certainly don't feel this way, and I don't know any women in my field who do. In my field, the senior women I've met have a sincere interest in helping younger women progress through the academic hoops. We want more company! In fact, even if one were a pull-up-the-ladder kind of person, this would be counterproductive. It's in our own interest to have more women colleagues so that we don't have to be on so many committees.