Monday, March 31, 2008

Wear Your Science on Your Skin

I was procrastinating doing anything productive this weekend by browsing through Carl Zimmer's Science Tattoo Emporium. There is something about a beautiful tattoo that I find mesmerizing, especially when the design incorporates some science.

Here are a few of the science tattoos on women I especially like:

Very cool!

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Would you like to represent women in physics?

The IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics is looking for delegates to their conference in October.

The Third International Conference on Women in Physics is being planned to take place in Seoul, Korea, October 8-10, 2008. The Conference seeks to understand and analyze the severe under-representation of women in physics and all physics-related fields. Seventy countries have expressed interest in participating. Interested individuals should contact the team leader in their country to inquire about participation.In the United States, we seek applications from women and men interested in joining our diverse national delegation. Graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, faculty, researchers, and administrators in physics (broadly defined), engineering and related fields, as well as social scientists and educators are invited to apply. Details about the conference and the process for applying to the U.S. delegation are provided in the attached flyer. We anticipate that grant funding will be available to support travel costs of all selected participants.

Fundraising is underway to make it possible for at least three delegates (women and men) to attend from each country. One of the attachments invites tax-deductible contributions, which are needed to support the travel of delegates from developing and economically disadvantaged countries.

Please share this message and the attachments with colleagues and acquaintances who might be interested in participating in or supporting the Third IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics. Thank you.

With best regards,
Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, U.S. Delegation Co-Leader
Associate Professor of Physics

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
Olin Way
Needham, MA 02492-1245
Phone: 781-292-2520
Fax: 781-292-2508 or

Abstracts for the conference are due April 30. Check out their web site for more information.

You can learn more about the resolutions and proceedings of the 1st and 2nd conferences on the IUPAP web site.

(via the Engineering Education blog)

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reminder: April 1st Scientiae Carnival

This is just a reminder that the April 1st Scientiae Carnival is fast approaching. As befits an April 1st carnival, this month's theme is "Fools and Foolishness" - but you are welcome to submit posts that don't fit the theme too.

If you'd like to contribute, send a link to your post to scientiaecarnival [a] gmail [dt] com, and add a scientiae-carnival Technorati tag, as explained in the information for contributors.

Thanks to everyone who has submitted so far!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gray-haired woman has semiconductor patent - isn't that adorable?

There is something about a woman's hair turning gray that apparently makes some people assume that she spends her days baking and knitting afghans. For example, take the headline of this post by Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo: Grandpatent: Old Lady Sues Tech Giants for Patents, Bakes Cakes with Lasers. Is the article about an elderly woman who developed a laser in her garage? Nope, it's about 80-year-old Columbia University Professor Emerita Gertrude Neumark Rothschild. Professor Neumark (she doesn't appear to use "Rothschild" professionally) was a staff physicist at Philips Laboratories from 1960 until 1985, then joined the faculty of the Materials Science department at Columbia.

At issue are two patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 4,904,618 and 5,252,499) that cover methods for making semiconductors used in light emitting diodes (LEDs) and laser diodes. As Forbes reports:

Professor Neumark is one of the world's foremost experts on doping wide band-gap semiconductors. During research work at Columbia University, she conceived of the doping process that has had a significant impact on the quality of consumer products. In addition to the blue laser, her patented processes to create blue and ultraviolet LEDs are now used in a large number of products ranging from flat screen TVs, computers, traffic lights, instrument panels, as the background color for mobile-phone screens, in multicolor displays and in numerous other lighting applications.
Last week Neumark's infringement suit against Philips Lumileds was settled with undisclosed terms. In February Neumark filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission, claiming that a number of imported electronics - including Blue-ray disc players, handheld mobile devices, and traffic lights - infringed her patents. The latest news that the ITC is launching an investigation into 30 companies, including Sony, Motorola, and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (maker of Panasonic) for patent infringement.

So the story here isn't about a cake-baking granny at all (surprise!). It's about a materials scientist going after big companies for patent infringement. Some of the Gizmodo commenters do protest the headline as disrespectful and sexist, but they are shot down because "old lady" stereotypes are "funny". As Diaz argues:
That's you reading between lines from your politically correct mind. I chose to find the funny side of things, and the image of an old lady -no matter her education and achievements- fighting 30 huge corporations makes me smile. It is funny, and the article exaggerates that. Actually, if you think about it, the only sexist and derogatory statement (against old ladies who bake cakes) is yours, who apparently think that baking cakes and just being an old woman is a bad attribute for a PhD to have.
Apparently it's not sexist because an elderly woman baking cakes is a positive stereotype, and the fact that one is involved in a technology dispute is inherently amusing. I guess I just have no sense of humor.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, Sexism and Stereotypes

The March 11 issue of Current Biology has an article (pdf) by Nobel-prize winning geneticist and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard about her experiences as woman scientist in Germany. She attended a girls' high school where she had good science teachers. She also does not recall any "gender problems" for most of her career as a graduate student.

Her first experience with discrimination came when she published the data from her thesis: even though she had generated the data and written the paper, the male graduate student who started the project was made first author because he had a family and "he needs his career". Her first experience with open prejudice was as a postdoc:

My supervisor had the attitude of giving women a chance, but at the same time was expecting them to fail. This made me very angry. It was no fun to work under a bosswho openly declared that women in principle cannot do great science - "there is no female Einstein" - but could excel in other professions, such as pottery.
This made Nüsslein-Volhard work hard to "show them" that she could be successful. I wonder how many of her female colleagues decided that it wasn't worth the misery to stay in science. After her postdoc, she was offered a group leader position at EMBL in Heidelberg, with the stipulation that she would have to share the lab with a younger male colleague. That actually turned out to be fortuitous, because that colleague was Eric Wieschaus. Their collaboration won them the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1995. However, it took years of hard work for her to gain the recognition and resources that her "male colleagues had received without special merits."

While open discrimination against women is much rarer today, Nüsslein-Volhard asks what the current aims for improving the position of women in science should be.
I confess that I do not thing that [aiming for 50% of all high level positions in all fields be filled with women] is reasonable. I have observed that while many women may admire me for my success, they admit that they "would not want my job". Men and women are different by nature, not only because of their education or the roles traditionally ascribed to them by society. Of course, I do not think that women are in any way less intelligent than men or do not have the capacity to do excellent science in principle. It is not a matter of skills or talent, but acocording to my observations the strengths, aims and interests of women differ from those of many of their male contemporaries, at least on average. I know many women who share my disgust for the personal pride, vanity and narrow focus of some successful male colleagues and in turn appreciate the more considerate, broad-minded way some female colleagues do their science. I understand women who hate to push themselves forward, or who are not willing to narrow down their spectrum of interests, including family and friends. I have often experienced that women in my family -- much more so than men -- have a hard time understanding my passion for science, while they are more interested in social issues, art and music.
I have to disagree with Nüsslein-Volhard that the fact that women in her family are less interested in science than the men necessarily shows that there is some inherent different in interests between the genders. If it is more socially acceptable for women to be interested in the arts than science, then it is not surprising that their energies are focused in that direction.

As for women not "pushing themselves forward", it's not just a matter of women being socialized to be less aggressive. Women who are "pushy" may suffer a social cost for their behavior.

Also, as PZ Myers points out, the idea that the stereotype that women are "more considerate" or "broad-minded" is not necessarily true and potentially as harmful as negative stereotypes.
An individual woman ought be able to be ambitious, pushy, vain, and focused and succeed in science without her approach being considered in conflict with her gender. It isn't. Similarly, an individual male researcher can be considerate and giving and helpful without betraying his sex. I want women to succeed in science because I don't want anyone to be hindered in their careers by the imposition of stereotypes, and let's not have women graduate students walk into a lab under the shadow of an expectation that they have to be the liberal nurturers of the research group, the ones who'll be interested in art and music more than the nerdy males. It's a nice reputation to have, I'm sure, but it's also an imposition of an unfair expectation on women that we don't place on men.
Nüsslein-Volhard goes on to talk about other difficulties that women often face, such as childbirth and a greater responsibility childcare and housework. Her solution is not greater flexibility in work schedules or any other changes in the culture of academic science. Instead she recommends day care and the hiring housekeepers. Towards that end, she has establish the Christiane Nüsslein-Voldhard-Foundation that provides grants to female graduate students and post-docs for childcare and household help.

While I'm sure the grants are very helpful, I'll admit the idea that the solution to improving the representation of women in science is to facilitate what amounts to hiring a housewife bothers me a bit. It seems based on the premise that to be a successful scientist, one must focus on science to the exclusion of other interests. Coincidently, Female Science Professor posted today about her disagreement with a colleague who wanted his female grad students to exhibit more "monomania" towards science.
You can work hard and be intensely interested in your research without being a monomaniac. I certainly don't expect monomaniacity (monomaniacness?) from my own students. Surely having a balanced life in grad school is a healthier way to be and better preparation for a happy life after grad school. I've said it before many times: It's not the women who should change, it's the culture. No one should have to be a monomaniac to succeed.
Simply hiring a housekeeper is only a partial solution for women (and men) who want to have a life outside of their scientific research.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

First Korean Astronaut Yi So-yeon

South Korea's first astronaut is going to be Yi So-yeon (also written Lee Soyeon), a biomechanical engineer. Yi will be just shy of 30 when she rides the Space Shuttle Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, replacing Sally Ride as the youngest astronaut to date. In fact, according to Wikipedia, her doctorate was conferred less than two weeks ago, on February 2.

Michael Hurt of SeoulGlow
informally interviewed Yi in 2006 and early 2007, where she talks about what inspired her to become an astronaut:

First, when I watched sci-fi movies as a kid, there were always cool astronauts flying the spaceship. There was always one female scientist. Always exactly one female scientist. And that female scientist is always smart, and if something happens, she always explains everything well, and then... if all the men start fighting, she calms them all down ... There's always one like that. She's always thin, pretty, and always blonde. [. . .] Yeah, so watching these cool women back then, I thought, "Ahh! I want to be a cool scientist like that!" [English translation from the subtitles]
Hurt also asked her if she had any specific "hopes" as a woman:
From working at school as an engineer, there are some physically trying things, that men are better at doing . . . Working through things precisely, exactly, putting things together . . . women are good at things like that. Because there are things like that, I want to [show?] a side of women, that we also have great abilities. "Ahh, even though she's a woman, without whining or complaining, she can do a really good job!" That's my biggest goal . . . to show that to people. [English translation from the subtitles]
Watch part 2 of the interview, where she talks about training in Russia, the comments of "netizens" about her appearance (which she takes in good humor), and finishing her dissertation. Yi's enthusiasm seems a far cry from the macho astronaut stereotype. (There's supposed to be a part 3, but it doesn't look like it was ever posted).

Yi replaced male roboticist Ko San, who was removed after he "took reading material out of the center without permission in September and lent a book without authorization in February." Wow, strict.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Fellowships

In addition to the Awards for Women in Science, L'Oreal-UNESCO awarded fifteen young women Fellowships for Women in Science. These are scientists to watch for in the future. The awardees are listed below. I've linked to additional information about the winners, if I could find any.


  • Yonelle Dea MOUKOUMBI (Gabon). Student. Agronomy: genetic diversity and development of new varieties of rice (Nerica) that grow in African lowlands. Host institution: Africa Rice Centre, Cotonou, Benin
  • Maria Joao RODRIGUES (Mozambique). Marine biology: evaluation of the impact of diseases on coral communities of the Western Indian Ocean. Host institutions: ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Australia; Institute of Marine Science, Zanzibar, Tanzania; Wildlife Conservation Society, Kenya
  • Hanneline Adri SMIT (South Africa). Comparative phylogeography: exploration of historical factors which may have shaped current biodiversity in two neighboring regions of South Africa. Host institution: University of California, Berkeley, USA
Latin America - Caribbean
  • Carolina TROCHINE (translated) (Argentina). Ecology: study of the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus on lake ecosystems in Argentina. Host institution: Natural Environmental Research Institute, University of Aarhus, Denmark
  • Andrea VON GROLL (translated) (Brazil). Microbiology: identification of certain strains of Mycobactérium tuberculosis particularly virulent in a region of Brazil. Host institution: Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium
  • Lina Maria SAAVEDRA DIAZ (Colombia). Conservation ecology: management and conservation of local coastal fisheries in Colombia. Host institution: University of New Hampshire, Durham, USA
Asia - Pacific:
  • Made Tri Ari Penia KRESNOWATI (Indonesia). Bioprocess technology: conception of a bioreactor prototype for the production of stem cells. Host institution: Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
  • Naranjargal DASHDORJ (Mongolia). Neuroscience: study by IRM of the interaction of different areas of the brain during the processing of emotional information in both healthy and depressed patients. Host institution: School of Medical and Surgical Sciences, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
  • Susanna PHOBOO (Nepal). Ecophysiology: study of the ecology and physiology of Chiraito, a medicinal plant in Nepal. Host institution: Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA
Arab States:
  • Jamillah ZAMOON (Kuwait). Structural biology: characterization of a protein with healing properties that is produced by catfish. Host institution: Rosalind Franklin University, Chicago, USA
  • Magda BOU DAGHER KHARRAT (Lebanon). Environmental sciences: evaluation of the ecological and genetic diversity of Lebanese flora. Host institution: University of Paris Sud XI, France
  • Hakima AMJRES (Morocco). Microbiology: characterization of sugar-producing bacteria found in hot springs and areas of high salt concentration. Host institution: University of Agronomic Sciences, Gembloux, Belgium
Europe - North America:
  • Federica MIGLIARDO (translated) (Italy). Biophysics: study of the bioprotective mechanisms developed by organisms in extreme conditions (pressure, salt, temperature, acidity). Host institution: Laboratory of dynamics and structure of molecular materials, University of Lille I, France
  • Alma TOSTMANN (translated) (The Netherlands). Biomedical science: study of type 2 diabetes on the effectiveness of tuberculosis treatment in Tanzanian patients. Host institution: Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, Moshi, Tanzania
  • Maja ZAGMAJSTER (Slovenia). Conservation biology: analysis of the unique animal species found in the underground habitats of the Dinaric Alps in the Balkans. Host institutions: University of Florida, Gainesville, and American University, Washington, DC, USA

2008 L'OREAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

Yesterday five women from around the world were presented with L'OREAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO. The awards alternate between the life sciences and material sciences, with this year's awards going to leading life scientists.

Africa & Arab States: Professor Lihadh Al-Gazali

"For her contributions to the characterization of inherited disorders."
Dr. Al-Gazali is a professor in Clinical Genetics an Pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at United Arab Emirates University. Her research focuses on birth defects and genetic disorders, and established a registry for monitoring birth defects in the UAE.

She told L'Oreal that she believes the biggest obstacle for women in science was trying to balance professional and family life. They are also "generally excluded from the male-dominated 'networking' that is ever-prevalent in scientific circles." She believes the obstacles are similar the world over:
In my personal experience, I did not find any difference between my culture (Iraqi) and western culture regarding working as a woman in Science.
• Asia/Pacific: Assistant Professor V. Narry Kim
"For elucidating the formation of a new class of RNA molecules involved in gene regulation"
Dr. Narry Kim is one of the pioneers in the study of the biology of microRNAs (miRNAs) at Seoul National University in Korea. miRNA are relatively short RNA sequences that regulate gene expression. The field is rather new - miRNAs were first described in 1993. She is by far the youngest award winner this year, having only received her Ph.D. in 1998. In 2005 Kim was interviewed in Quest (an Invitrogen-sponsored magazine), where she talked about her research and running a lab. It's not surprising to me that she turns out to be passionate about her research and seems to do more than normal days could accommodate:
Science is always full of interesting inquiries, and I am thrilled when I'm challenged to seek out answers to new questions. I have a tendency to concentrate on what intrigues me most, which is both one of my strengths and weaknesses. I follow my intuition to lead me in the right direction on what to work on, and I naturally end up devoting all my energy to it. These days I try not to bury myself completely in research and instead attempt to gain a balance among the various roles I perform as a group leader and a teacher, as well as a mother and wife. It is sometimes a difficult challenge for me to carry so much responsibility, but I enjoy all of my roles and the diversity in my life. I realize that I am truly a lucky person.
As she told L'Oreal, however, it wasn't always easy:
[Working as a scientist in Korea] we were often tol that it might be difficult to get a decent permanent position as a woman, even when we excelled in terms of scientific capability. That was very discouraging. The working environment in the lab in Korea in the early 1990's was not very friendly to women students. But things have in many ways improved signficiantly over the last ten years. The difficulty still remains, however, esspecially with childcare - which needs changes not only in Korea but also worldwide.
In 2007 she was named one of three Korean Woman Scientists of the Year. Her web site links to additional interviews in Korean.

• Europe: Professor Ada Yonath
"For her structural studies of the protein biosynthesis system and its disruption by antibiotics."
Dr. Ada Yonath is a structural biologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Her research focuses on determining the structure of ribosomes, a large complex of proteins and RNA that uses a messenger RNA template to assemble amino acids into polypeptide chains. According to the Jerusalem Post, her achievements are in spite of the fact her research was "scoffed at for years":
She was the first in the world to pioneer ribosomal crystallography against all odds and single handedly, when others couldn't even conceive its possibility.
In the course of her career, she developed new methods that have become standard in crystallography today.

In her interview on the L'Oreal web site, she talks about the encouragement she received to pursue a career in science:
My father died when I was 11 years old and left my mother with me and my sister but no income, so I was needed at home. Nevertheless, my mother realized my luust for science and provided me with massive emotional support. She did not object to my academic studies, although at the time this was not so common for females. When I became a scientist, my mother, sister, and later on my daughter and granddaughter always supported my scientific activies, in my presence as well as in my frequent absences.
Yonath has also won the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry and the Israel Prize, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Israel Academy of Sciences.

• Latin America: Professor Ana Belén Elgoyhen
"For her contributions to the understanding of the molecular basis of hearing."
Dr. Ana Belén Elgoyhen is an investigator at the Institute for Research on Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology, National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her research focuses on the physiology of hearing, particularly the transmission of signals in the cochlea.

In her interview with L'Oreal, she noted that the number of women in science and other professions has increased dramatically. She notes, however, that women have more outside responsibilities than men:
I think the opportunities are equal for men and women. However, in general women go slower in this frantic race because we have extra work compared to men; we are scientists, we have to help support our family, we give birth to our children and raise them, and we have to run the house and family.
I suspect that young scientists might find her recipe for success to be discouraging:
The key to success is hard work, intelligence, a huge cup of luck and being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right, good people.
• North America: Professor Elizabeth Blackburn
"For the discovery of the nature and maintenance of chromosome ends and their roles in cancer and aging."
University of California at San Francisco biochemistry professor Elizabeth Blackburn studies telomeres, the repetitive DNA sequences that protect the ends of chromosomes from destruction. In 2007 Time Magazine named her one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World".

Blackburn has received numerous awards, including the National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology, the Australia Prize, the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Biomedical Research (called the "American Nobel"). She is a former president of the American Society for Cell Biology and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. From 2002 to 2004 she served on the President's Council on Bioethics, on which she fought for a policy on human embryonic stem cell research that was based on science rather than politics. Not surprisingly, she was one of two committee member who were not appointed to a second term.

She told L'Oreal that growing up in Australia, she received encouragement from her mother - a physician - to pursue a career in science. She notes that women still encounter discrimination in the sciences:
Even when women are accomplished scientists, discriminatory remarks can have a devastating effect. The vulnerable early stage of being a scientist is one where a young woman can be especially impacted. What does a young person who does not have a career of achievements and recognition to fall back on do for reassurance?
Unfortunately, she didn't give an answer to that question.

As part of the awards festivities, there was a special gala celebration for the 10th anniversary of the awards, with 37 former Laureates in attendance. That must have been an amazing crowd. The current and former Laureates signed the Charter of Commitment "For Women in Science," committing themselves to:
- Act as a role model to inspire future generations
- Transmit passion for scientific research
- Encourage women scientists to act as agents of change
- Strengthen and support scientific research on all continents
- Foster creativity and innovation
- Advocate for diversity and gender equity
- Build sustainable networks for women scientists
- Participate as women scientists in public policy decision making
- Shape attitudes to change the face of science
- Promote science as a source of progress
Those goals sound like they could lead to positive change both for women interested in science careers, in in the public perception of science.

(And shock horror, four of the five winners are wearing pants in their group photo. Don't tell Erik Jensen.)

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Is the gender gap in academic science because women are dumb, or simply lack ambition?

If you read one or more liberal blogs (or subscribe to the Washington Post), you will be familiar with Charlotte Allen's recent column that points out how silly, dumb and generally inferior to men women are. Of course she included the "fact" that the reason why women are underrepresented in science and engineering is because of our inherent inferiority.

I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills, two areas where, researchers agree, women consistently outpace men.[ . . .]

The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons. Yes, they can do their jobs and do them well, and I don't think anyone should put obstacles in their paths. I predict that over the long run, however, even with all the special mentoring and role-modeling the 21st century can provide, the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason.

It's all written in a cutesy style that allowed the Washington Post editor John Pomfret to claim that it was just a joke, written "tongue in cheek". Tongue-in-cheek humor only works if your audience knows you don't seriously believe what you've written. There is the possibility that Allen is just a poor writer. So, is that the case?

The Post hosted a live Q&A session with Allen this afternoon, and she clarified her position:

Washington: When I read this, I immediately thought it was written ironically. Were you surprised that so many people took it literally?

Charlotte Allen: I wouldn't quite use the word "ironic," but yes, I meant to be funny but with a serious point--that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don't act serious. Also, that women and men really are different.

And specifically on the point about women in traditionally male careers:

Washington: You write that you doubt women's representation in such fields as law (the Supreme Court) and medicine (brain surgeons) will rise much in the 21st century. However more women than men currently are graduating from law school and medical school. Could you please comment on this apparent contradiction?

Charlotte Allen: That's absolutely true, but the proportion of women at the highest levels of these fields is going to remain relatively small, I predict.

Could that be due to sexism instead of women's inferiority?

West Lafayette, Ind.: Your idea of fun is to paint a (horribly inaccurate) picture of your sex as stupid?

Charlotte Allen: How about an accurate picture?

And women must be inferior, because there is no discrimination, no sir. It's just the opposite!
Charlotte Allen: I don't think that women are at all discouraged these days from careers in math and science, gently and subtly or otherwise. In fact, schools and colleges these days bend over backwards to urge girls and women to take science courses, major in science, etc.
So no, the column wasn't at all tongue-in-cheek or a joke. It's easy to chuckle and suggest that Ms. Allen should only speak for herself. However, I think that in allowing Allen's column to run without comment or clarification, the Washington Post is just helping reinforce the idea that there is a level playing field for men and women in the sciences, and that the reason for the gender gap in scientific fields because women aren't interested or can't hack it intellectually, rather than because of problems within the system and inherent sexist biases.

Allen's column got lots of attention, but she isn't alone. Christina Hoff Sommers suggests in the latest issue of The American that the reason for gender differences is that women just aren't interested. She attacks both the National Academy of Science report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, and and Wenneras and Wold's study that showed gender bias in peer review, and comes to the conclusion that trying to eliminate gender inequity is an anti-intellectual conspiracy that is actually dangerous to the American way of life:

The power and glory of science and engineer­ing is that they are, adamantly, evidence-based. But the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious. When the bastions of science pay obsequious attention to the flimsy and turn a blind eye to the serious, it is hard to maintain the view that the science enterprise is somehow immune to the enthu­siasms that have corrupted other, supposedly “softer” academic fields.

[. . .]

American scientific excellence is a precious national resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation’s health and safety. Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Burton Richter, Nobel laureate in physics, once pointed out that MIT alone—its faculty, alumni, and staff—started more than 5,000 companies in the past 50 years. Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results? So far, no one in Congress has even thought to ask.

She makes it sound so scary. Apparently cooperatively could be the death knell of American innovation, or something*. However, as pointed out by Reality-Based Community blogger Jonathan Kulik, the numbers of women getting PhDs in scientific fields and engineering has been steadily increasing since the early 1970s, as shown in this graph from the NAS study.
I find it highly unlikely that women receiving PhDs in physics or mathematics or biology were either coerced into studying a subject they weren't interested in, or were admitted to their programs with weak credentials under the guise of filling a gender quota. According to that graph, the percentage of women receiving PhDs in the biological sciences in the mid-1960s was about 12%, and that has increased to about 45% today. Maybe 40 years from now (hopefully sooner), women will be similarly represented in physics and engineering.

Are the organizations and activists currently pushing for a more equitable system simply trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist? I personally don't think so. Programs that encourage girls to pursue engineering or chemistry or physics act as a counterbalance to social pressures telling them that they can't or shouldn't enter those fields. No one is forcing girls to become scientists.

I also think that changing the way science departments are run to allow more flexible hours and time for child care, or other non-work matters are good for both women and men. Fewer and fewer male scientists have the luxury of a full-time homemaking wife or the money for a housekeeper, nanny and cook, and, in what might come as a surprise to Ms. Sommers, many men want to spend time with their families too.

It's no coincidence that Christina Hoff Sommers is the National Advisory Board Chairman of the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), and Charlotte Allen is one of their frequent contributors. Like Sommers, Allen has also written about the terrible feminists who are trying to artificially increase the representation of women in science (see "Maneaters: Women who make the world worse (and the men who do what they say) got the best of Larry Summers"). The IWF's policy stance is anti-feminist, anti-Title IX, and seems to fight very hard for the maintenance of the status-quo gender-wise. Based on their philosophy of "personal responsibility" they argue that the "gender gap" in wages is due to women preferring flexible work schedules and shorter working hours, and, since women clearly aren't setting money as their highest priority, that's not a problem (and traditional marriage is the solution to any worries about financial insecurity, anyway). In their world, there are no biases against women, and, in fact, the feminists have created a system that actually discriminates against boys.

Of the two opinion pieces, I actually find Allen's to be the most troubling, even though it is less targeted at women in science, since the Washington Post gave her such a prominent stage to showcase her opinions. Is it such a strange notion that telling girls that they just aren't biologically capable of doing well at mathematics or science actually has a negative influence on girls' perceived interest in those subjects? After all, if the common wisdom (it was in the Post!) is that girls don't like science, liking science is a sure sign that one is not "a real girl" (not to mention the effect of stereotype threat on achievement). The "women can't do science" stereotype likely also affects the perceptions of both men and women as to the competence and qualifications of women scientists and engineers. I think it's unfortunate that the Washington Post decided to publish Allen's column. It certainly doesn't make me interested in reading the rest of their paper.

(Jenn at Fairer Science has also posted about Allen's column.)

* Perhaps Sommers should be more concerned about the influx of foreign PhD students and postdocs who are depressing wages for native-born PhDs because of their apparent willingness to work for lower wages.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

March Scientiae Carnival at Rants of a Feminist Engineer (and call for posts for the April carnival)

The March 1 edition of the Scientiae Carnival at Rants of a Feminist Engineer celebrated the carnival's first birthday and the onset of spring with the theme of "Renewal". As usual there are some great posts linked there, so go check it out.

The next edition will be right here at Women in Science. Since it will be posted on April 1 , it seemed appropriate to me for the theme to be "Fools and Foolishness". You can use the theme to take an introspective look at something foolish in your own past or write about the foolishness of others. And, as always, off-theme posts are also welcome.

If you'd like to contribute, send a link to your post to scientiaecarnival [a] gmail [dt] com, and add a scientiae-carnival Technorati tag, as explained in the information for contributors.

I look forward to reading your entries.

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