Tuesday, March 8, 2011

awesome infographic by Caroline Tucker
(click to go large)

There exists a problem in science so complicated that decades of work have yet to solve it. Its causes and consequences make some of the toughest questions in complex analysis or astrophysics look like child’s play. And yet when we consider this problem, the conclusion is immediately obvious and simple: it should not exist.

I am talking about the fact that today, in 2011, female scientists are punished solely because they are female scientists.

In theory, this problem doesn’t exist anymore. Multiple waves of feminism should have chipped away whatever glass ceilings once capped our ivory towers. Women are receiving more PhDs than men in many fields and they are earning such a high proportion of bachelor’s degrees that we may have to rethink that name.

But in the last several weeks, some disturbing realities have resurfaced in the science media. At the end of January, Nature reported that women earn fewer scholarly awards than they should, based on the proportion of their respective fields that they represent. That same week, Science published a graph showing the number of European Research Council grants awarded to women in its last funding round – 9.4%.

Stats like these are nothing new; they pop up all the time. What is new, however, is the article that followed in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a few days later. It turns out that there is no longer much evidence for overt discrimination against women applying for jobs or grants in quantitative fields. Instead, disparities in available resources are causing many of the differences between women and men’s scientific careers.

Yes, there are discrepancies in publication acceptance rates and grants, but the authors attribute these to factors like women occupying more positions at teaching-intensive schools rather than research institutions. When they compared men and women with similar resources, the biases disappeared, or in some cases, favoured women. (If you don’t want to read the whole article, there’s a nice summary of it here.)

Ok great, the science community isn’t explicitly discriminating against women. But this leads us to a much more troubling conclusion; the culprits are actually deeply engrained societal expectations and constraints that likely extend well beyond the sciences, and certainly beyond the scope of this blog post, though a few of them are highlighted in this thoughtful opinion piece.

Here’s what I will say: it’s not written in our DNA. How many times have you heard lines like, “Men and women are just different, they always will be, our brains aren’t wired the same”? This kind of just so statement is rarely backed up with evidence. For a good debunking of these misconceptions, check out two new books, reviewed here.

Now it’s possible that I, as a young male grad student, do not hold the most valuable two cents on these issues. I could keep rambling about things that I don’t fully understand, but my perspective is limited, and I think maybe the most constructive thing to do at this point would be to hear about other people’s ideas and experiences in the comments section below. So I’m cutting this short and leaving it incomplete in favour of a more open forum. In particular, it occurred to me that we in the ecology and evolution community have a unique opportunity to shed light on many gender issues. The PNAS article focuses on the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, but comparing mathy fields to less-mathy fields entails a lot of confounding factors. In ecology and evolution, however, we cover the whole spectrum, from the completely mathless and descriptive, to the suspender-wearing, calculator-toting quants. We generally all come from relatively similar biology backgrounds, eliminating many of those confounding factors, and it would be great to hear how you all think these issues play out in E & E. So go for it blogosphere, do your thing.


Anonymous said...

I wrote a long diatribe about author, but I deleted it and instead wish that he would think about and answer some questions of my own.

I ask the author: What does equity and equality look like to you? What does SYSTEMIC discrimination mean to you? What "privileges", or ways that you have been advantaged or empowered, have you realized you have that others don't (white, male, straight, non-physically disabled, U.S. citizen, etc.)? Answering these questions will enlighten you to better understand what you claim to not know and the idea of social justice, should you be open to the idea.

I write as a male biologist who reads EEB & Flow regularly (RSS feed).

Marc Cadotte said...

I like the fact that,as evidenced by the PNAS article, empiricism can drive or refine our understanding of where systematic barriers arise. Hopefully, actions attempting to deal with realized gender inequalities use this type of evidence, or else we may end with more well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided strategies.

As for the comment above (which is actually a diatribe), I'm not sure what the point is of those types of comments. Ad hominem pigeon-holes do little to understand the current gender patterns in academia. Also, I think that this comment exemplifies part of the problem, namely, marginalizing the voice of a person because of perceived gender, racial and nationality classes. Dealing with inequality, especially as complex as this, requires the engagement of all participants.

Caroline Tucker said...

I thought the PNAS paper's conclusions were fairly positive. The authors didn't find strong evidence that women received less grant money, or had to work harder to achieve the same job status and career status as men. However, what was apparent is that some of the barriers women face are a function of how society, rather than academia in particular, is structured.
One fact of being female is that reproduction creates a unique demand on your time - women are fertile for a short period of time, during which in academia, you're likely a busy, poorly paid student, or at early, time-demanding career stages. The result is that women who want to have children may choose more flexible positions, which may pay less or offer fewer opportunities for advancement or research. This isn’t unique to academia, and reflects the fact that society in general still doesn’t provide enough support for women who wish to reproduce and have the career of their choice. I was discussing the current data on the proportion of women in academia with my mother, and she was surprised to hear about the pressures that women in academia may struggle with in relationship to having children and achieving "success" in their chosen field. The conversation that evolved - about whether men are actually more gifted in math and other science-related skills, whether women have a greater natural propensity for nurturing than men - reminded me that deep in its core, society is still structured around the assumption of women as gifted in the home sphere, and men in the professional sphere.
Until society has changed enough that men and women alike can succeed at home and in the workplace, I think it's important to catalog past inequities, current improvements, and take stock of what remains to be fixed.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see more studies that measure the effect of remedies such as women-only scholarships and awards, mentorship programs for school-aged girls, and grants aimed at increasing female participation in science at every level.

It seems like a number of these solutions have popped up in recent years in response to the leaky pipeline. Instead of focusing on documenting the pipeline and finding increasingly sophisticated methods to control for/eliminate confounds, why not deal with the decade or more of 'solutions' and measure their effects?

These studies may be out there, this is a genuine question to the bloggers and not just Friday afternoon grumbling...

Marc Cadotte said...

@above comment:
Agreed. Also, the paper was fairly America-centric; and the US had probably the worst maternity support compared to many other western countries (here in Canada, parental leave is about a year and can be split between both parents). It would be interesting to see comparisons between countries to see if robust social programs make a difference, or if the pressures on women are beyond simple one-year programs.