Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Science Women

Women in Science as an Issue is in the news again; or at least, women-in-science is in the weekly Tuesday Science news section of the New York Times in an article by Cornelia Dean. Even if it's not on the front page of the newspaper, the article's existence means that someone still considers the lack of women to be news. One engine driving the frequency of news coverage of the topic is the frequency of conferences and reports about the issue. Let's keep those coming and keep the topic in the face, if not the collective mind, of administrators, legislators, and others with the power to change things.

The part of the article that resonated with me was about how women are perceived:

Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

And because science is still widely viewed as “a male arena,” she said, a woman who succeeds may be viewed as “selfish, manipulative, bitter, untrustworthy, conniving and cold.”

So true. Men who collaborate are open-minded and generous. Women who collaborate do so out of weakness because they are not capable of conducting research independently.

There was also a quotation about how successful women are not liked. I don't know about that. This could be yet another sign that I am delusional, but other than a few chunks of petrified wood, a.k.a. senior faculty in my department, and OK, maybe that guy who really wanted the faculty position that I got instead of him, and maybe just maybe a few people whose papers and proposals I did not give high ratings, but other than those guys, I think that most departmental and other professional colleagues like me (and by the usual objective measures of our profession, I am 'successful'). I don't think successful men are necessarily liked, even though they are respected and/or revered.

And then there is "the aggressiveness question". My take on that is that it is important to be assertive, but that is not the same as being aggressive. I am not aggressive in the least, but I am very assertive. Being assertive can be effective, and assertiveness is much more elegant than aggression. It requires persistence and being articulate about what you want or need for your research. It does not necessarily require social skills (which I do not have in abundance), but humor helps. It also requires that someone at some point listen to you and take you seriously, and that can be the tricky part.

A female colleague said to me recently "I am not thick-skinned enough to write as many proposals and papers as you do." I don't know that I am particularly thick-skinned. I hate getting negative reviews; they can really upset me. But I don't let them stop me. Being persistent is another way of being assertive.

The article says that "the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious", but we can be tenacious as well.


Anonymous said...

I think these articles are great too. People that I know (that are non-scientists) have emailed me and said 'do you feel that way?' and it's generated some pretty interesting dialogue. I agree that persistence is key - and I remember when I realized that being liked wasn't nearly as important as being respected. But, interestingly - I agree with you too - except for a few very difficult senior colleagues (who unfortunately happen to be in positions of power within the department), I feel liked by the majority of the faculty. In a sense, not having 'being liked' as my motivation (which I dropped early on) liberated me. I write alot too - proposals, manuscripts (still need to write more though...always!) and while sometimes I still cringe at a review - I do think that experience makes navigating the system much easier. I don't know if I mean 'easier' - but perhaps a bit less frustrating?

Ms.PhD said...

I am trying to be tenacious, I really am. I certainly don't expect people to like me, I'm used to that. But respected, boy that would be nice.

I have been persistent for a long time already, but it's hard to tell whether it has done me any good.

I do feel that all these stereotypes- exactly like the article says, where what works for men works against women, when we're talking about traits or tactics- are all working against me.

It's hard enough without that, but factoring that in, some days it's hard to hang on to the fraying rope over the alligator pit by the skin of my teeth without wondering, What the hell am I doing this for?

Today was one of those days. These articles frustrate me because for all that everyone writes about it (including us), is anything changing fast enough for it to all be fair, all suddenly, and help me directly?

I don't think I can hold my breath long enough for that to happen.

Anonymous said...

I share Ms. PhD's frustration at this issue: I do feel that all these stereotypes- exactly like the article says, where what works for men works against women, when we're talking about traits or tactics- are all working against me. . I am sorry you are in a place where they are working against me. I too get incredibly frustrated at how the 'male standard' is seen as the ultimate standard or the 'best' standard. Whereas there is little to no acknowledgment that a woman's approach might be different but just as good as (or dare I say sometimes better) than the male approach. Because the male approach is ALWAYS seen as better. That is incredibly frustrating.

I don't know if it's changing fast enough. Some days I think it is (and I have to hope it is for my daughter). Other days I look at the make-up of my company and our leadership and the articles put out in our newsletter and I don't think it's ever going to get better.

Sunflower said...

I found you from Sarala's Blogaway.

There are always bias about female in general, especially in science. My background is engineering. I feel the same all the time.

Anonymous said...

Being persistent is another way of being assertive.

I think that's right-- both are about going after your own goals.

Nicole said...

We think way too much about what other people think of us. If we only knew how infrequently others thought of us, we wouldn't worry so much. For some of us, that's what's getting in our way. The scientists I know who are successful and happen to be female don't give a flying f$#@ about what other people think of their personality or strategy for success. They just work, invent, create, and work again. Sure people talk behind their backs about them, but they would do that if they were successful in their chosen field or not.

Zeynel said...

New York Times declared: "the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious"

This is really a stupid statement. New York Times articles are all same. They have been writing the same article for last half a century. They always use the same formula. Truly annoying. Can anybody here enlighten me by telling me one single task in science that cannot be accomplished equally well by any human regardless of their gender?

What part of science is supposed to be difficult for women? When you look at the male dominated European science for the last two thousand years you would see that males failed miserably. I mean these are the people who could not figure out that the earth moved for two thousand years! Give me a break it was clear in Babylonia that the Earth moved. Any women could have told them that if they weren't enslaved in the kitchens.

If anything more humans both male and female should enter science. Science is what defines humans, neither gender have monopoly on it.

This may also be related to how one defines science. By reading this blog I get the impression that only a small percentage of academic life is spent on science. So the part of the problem, in this field at least, seems about protecting academic turfs by denigrating anybody else as unsuitable. It is disappointing that so much of science is dependent on authority and hierarchical structure of academia.

Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...


I hope you don't mind, but I thought you might like to know that some of us are discussing the article -but more importantly, what to do next- over here.

I suspect that some of the views expressed might interest you, and you are all welcome tom join in and share ideas.



Anonymous said...

"Give me a break it was clear in Babylonia that the Earth moved."

Hey, what about Greece? Last time I checked that was in Europe. Also, Babylon developed the heliocentric model when it was run by the Greeks.

"Any women could have told them that if they weren't enslaved in the kitchens."

Aside from the fact that it was "enslaved in fields" and not kitchens (like a lot of men at the time actually), I would have said: "Have fun being burned alive" if this was back in the year 1600. Like the Giordano Bruno burning, it would have been impressive and jolly good fun, but not for me.

Other than that, Science and Technology did pretty well in Middle Ages Europe, even if it was a very patriarchal society (although at the serf/slave level it was more matriarchal in Russia). So were most other places in the world. Certainly, if you told someone from 1200 A.D. that they were living in the Dark Ages, they would laugh at you (well, unless it was a serf family -- then they would stare at you blankly). I find the mechanical clock pretty impressive, as well as the know-how necessary to build giant cathedrals.

Anyways, we don't live in the Dark Ages anymore, but I had to jump in to defend my hobby: history.

Zeynel said...


Thanks for your comments. I enjoyed reading.

Some random comments: All the raw materials needed to discover radio waves were in existence 2000 years ago. Just look at Hertz' original experiment. Why didn't anybody else thought about it before? Two reasons which are connected, one of which you mention. The European society was based on a scholastic model where a professional priestly group controlled the human knowledge database. Only a handful of people were allowed to work in science. If instead of 10, there were 100,000 human beings working on science and technology fields then there would be more scientific discoveries done faster.

Regarding the great European scientific discoveries you mention please check out my blog. I wrote something inspired by your post: http://alphysics1.blogspot.com/2006/12/admin1-all-raw-materials-needed-to.html
Please be the first one to comment on my blog! I'll send you a t-shirt!

For your "we don't live in the Dark Ages anymore," I am not so sure about it when it comes to academic science. Today, just as in Dark Ages most people believe in a deity whose soul is said to permeate the entire universe. Only the name of the deity is different. Check out this site: http://globalpioneering.com/wp02/

For women being enslaved in kitchen, this was what I read in a book that I cannot find right now. I would appreciate any resources in the internet which mentions the state of women in the antiquity around the time of Thales for instance. (or I'll google it later myself) I have a whole theory built on this and I don't want it ruined!

Thanks to Science Professor as well for good posts.

Anonymous said...

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