Tuesday, September 26, 2006

We Don't Want To?

Too bad NYT columnist John Tierney doesn't have a fact-checker for his essays. If he did, he might have avoided publishing such a deeply flawed column today (NYT, September 26, 2006, "Academy of P.C. Sciences").

It is clear that Tierney is a very sensitive guy, though. His essay oozes with empathy for the lone man on the NAS committee that produced the "Beyond Bias and Barriers" report. I don't know how Robert Birgenau survived the experience of being on a committee in which everyone else was of the OPPOSITE GENDER. Well, OK, I sort of do, since I've been on 57 MILLION committees where I was the only female. I am sure that Tierney would have no trouble believing that those committees all produced objective, scientifically-sound, non-P.C. results, since the gender ratio was apparently skewed the appropriate way.

[note: Several years ago, one of my graduate students said to me, "I don't know if you realize this, but every once in a while, a little bit of sarcasm creeps into your speech." Then he laughed in a not-entirely sane way.]

What sort of person assumes that a committee whose membership is female-dominated is incapable of producing an objective, relevant, accurate document?

What would it take to convince Tierney that there is a problem? A committee of men concluding the same thing as Shalala et al.?

I don't know about you, but based on my own experiences, I found this less than compelling as an explanation for why there are so few women in science:

"As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering: they don’t want to."

I saw nothing in the essay that explained why so many women students "want to" do science and engineering as students. What happens to them after that? They get a Ph.D. in science or engineering and THEN discover that they are more interested in "social values", "people contact" blah blah blah? And since when do science and engineering not involve "people contact", not to mention "social values". Hello! Ever heard of climate change, natural disasters, and energy resource exploration and extraction, not to mention TEACHING students, most of whom could technically be considered "people"?

Yes, what about those women who do not have "different priorities" than men? What about women who are interested in "learning how (a) dishwasher works."? Why don't they succeed in greater numbers? How nice that Patti Hausman found social science, so she doesn't have to care how her dishwasher works, but don't say that we don't have a problem here because we surely do. How cheap to dismiss a report because it was written by women about women. How weak to avoid the main issues and dismiss a problem for which there is abundant evidence, no matter who compiles the data.


Peter Patau said...

Great post. You should drop by Ann Althouse and leave a comment -- she has a bunch of guys discussing the column, most smugly agreeing with Tierney. It might do them some good to hear from a real woman scientist. Or if you'd like to leave a comment at a more friendly venue, drop by here.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to read a Tierney column where he showed even a rudimentary understanding of statistics, data, science, or even basic logic. He was one of the few Times columnists I stopped reading before they started charging.

I'd say just ignore him, but sadly, he does have a fairly loud perch. I'd make some gender observation about NY Time columnists, but I can't stand Dowd either. She makes broad statements about men vs. women with an equal lack of actual knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I headed over to Ann Althouse, too, and thought about commenting, but most of the people commenting there seemed to be missing the point, and I don't they they read the report or have any intention of doing so. Good for you for putting in your two cents, though. The funniest thing to me is that Tierney doesn't seem to have gotten the point, either. The report clearly doesn't call all research into sex differences moot! It discusses a small amount of such research and explains why these things are not helpful in explaining the underrepresentation of women as professors.
This is what I just don't get: if the argument is that after some point in the relatively distant past (say when women were allowed to vote, or maybe sometime during the 60s?) all discrimination and/or chilly climates towards women in the sciences completley stopped, and since then it has been completely biological differences holding women back, then why do more and more women keep creeping in to the sciences (slowly)? Are women somehow evolving to be smarter at a ridiculous rate? Or are we recieving that much help from the crazy "PC" people at the NAS who apparently don't have the best interests of science at heart but just like women? (I know I'm not.)
Isn't it a simpler explanation to say that we are (very slowly) chipping away at the barriers (which still exist) and making progress?

Anonymous said...

I was pretty surprised to read the Tierney op-ed as well. But then again, I shouldn't have been. Since when do the NYT op-ed columnists get their facts right. I am a male scientist, and I am really appalled at the miniscule representation of women on physics/chem/math/engineering faculty. And ridiculous columns like these or foot-in-their-mouth specialists like Larry Summers don't help the cause.

Anyway, in my own little world I think the situation might be improving. In the recent past several prominent "hard science" departments have hired female faculty members, not because of any affirmative action, but because they were the best candidates. I hope that this trend continues, and these women serve as role models so that we don't have to put out these kinds of reports!

Anonymous said...

"We don't want to." Ha ha ha. Of course it couldn't have anything to do with prejudice, discrimination, and evaluation bias. I'm so glad to know that I'm programmed to not want to a) finish my PhD b) become a professor or c) take things apart.

Ms.PhD said...

It's funny. I think what's implied by all this, but not overtly stated by some, is that women do make a conscious or unconscious choice to avoid horrific working conditions. Some of us adore the hard sciences enough that we push past even the crappiest of circumstances just to have a chance to do what we love. Some of us amend our interests so we can find a little niche where we do what we love, but in a friendlier environment. Would we be just as happy doing something different in science, if all fields were equally friendly? Probably.

I didn't read the Tierney column, but this is where my previous comment here re: the NAS report comes back to haunt us all. I think the NAS report does in fact, read like it was written by a bunch of women who assume anecdoctal evidence will fly when supported by only the most meager data. It won't. And what really rankles is that I'm pretty sure there are more studies they could have used to support their main points. So I can see where Tierney and other might not be persuaded.

Weak arguments just weaken our cause. If we're really so well trained, and so science-minded, why not show it? I'm embarrassed when reports like this come out and they're not outstanding pieces of literature. I'll be happy when we reach the day when I don't care how well this kind of report is written- because by then, we'll have reached our goal.

Then there's the group like Abel Pharmboy. These guys are so enlightened, they admit to often forgetting or being shocked at how badly their less-enlightened male colleagues behave. In fact, some of them are in absolute denial that it still goes on. These guys are the ones we should be targeting to help us, because they aren't to blame for causing the problem, but they don't realize they could be part of the solution.

Anonymous said...

This "lone male on all female committee" just cracks me up. Don't they just hate it?

Now I have a question for you, perhaps you would like to write a post on this one. I was in a meeting the other day with 3 other men and one woman. All very senior. The men were all wearing -- well I don't know, actually, that's the point .Something I didn't notice. So was I (probably), I go to work to work and use my brain, so I just wear something that is reasonably clean and unscruffy, and comfortable. There was one other woman in this meeting. She's senior, and I stress senior -- in fact she was technically running the meeting. She was wearing a fuschia-pink push-up lacy bra, and a sort of nightie over the top of it, silky and very thin shoulder straps, a size too big for her so the bra was completely exposed. She kept leaning forward, gesticulating, etc. I was sitting opposite her and gradually noticed -- I don't usually look at what people wear but this kind of impinged on my attention gradually, as I went through the list of items we were discussing. I felt quite disoriented in the end. Goodness knows what the 3 men in the room felt.

Would be interested to know what you think about this.