Saturday, January 27, 2007

Personal Views of Science

Here are a few posts about being a female scientist from around the blogosphere:

Megan McLaughlin discusses sex, smarts, and the under-representation of female science and engineering faculty in the context of Larry Summer's contentious women-in-science speech and the subsequent National Academies report that challenged his assumptions.

As I said earlier, I didn’t think that my gender had any relevance to my career aspirations, but I had no idea that women in science were faced with these additional challenges. While I’m relieved that research shows that the obstacles to female success in the highest echelons of academic science aren’t innate, I am also terribly intimidated by the apparent ubiquity of unintentional discrimination and the magnitude of its effects. The path to full professorship is difficult enough, without having to publish twice as many papers in order to compete with male peers.
A Natural Scientist notes that people are sometimes surprised that she
can bake and sew and do "girly" things AND be a scientist too.
I would imagine this myth springs from the dominant old-white-guy paradigm: Old white guys are scientists; they do not bake; therefore scientists do not bake. Their wives and secretaries bake. Their wives stay home; their secretaries are subordinate. Therefore women who bake are not professional scientists. In my lab, I see mental binning going on all the time: girly girl or scientist? Wearing a pretty dress implies somehow that one cannot be serious. If one wishes to be taken seriously, one does not bring in cookies. One does not wear gauzy outfits, ribbons in one's hair, or pointy heels. Above all, one does not dress like a secretary (or like anyone else who doesn't have to worry about bleach, radiation, and coomassie blue). One wears jeans and a polo shirt every day, because that is the paradigm's uniform.
Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr. Free-Ride) has made her slides from her presentation at the 2007 North Carolina Science Blogging Conference available (PowerPoint slides, links to slide references). If you don't have PowerPoint, Zuska has a brief summary and further discussion about women scientists in the blogosphere.
How to explain women popping up in such large numbers in this category of blog conversations, in contrast to some of the other areas? [Dr. Stemwedel's] hypothesis, which is quite reasonable, is as follows: In each woman's department, she may be the only woman or one of only a few women. There are far fewer opportunities on campus for traditional communities of support. The blogosphere offers a place for honest communication, a place where a virtual community of women scientists can gather and trade information and tips. It's a place where all the kinds of questions you may never dare ask in the "real" world can be safely posed, and you can draw on the accumulated wisdom of many other women who may have gone through the same thing.

She's Such a Geek posts about gender stereotypes, two new books profiling women in physics, and a sexist new reality series. There is also an interesting discussion about the "appropriateness" of the essay collection She's Such a Geek for high school students, not only because it includes discussion of sexuality, but because some of the essayists chose to leave academia.
The thing is, the thinking seems to be that to inspire girls to keep up with science and technology, you have to keep it relentlessly positive, talking about how many opportunities they have and how great it is to be someone who’s succeeded in one of these fields. And it’s true—girls really do have lots of opportunities in the scientific and technical fields if they stick with it, and many women do succeed there. Inspiration most definitely comes from having good things to aspire to.

But not every female science/technology career thrives, and for a variety of reasons that can be very different from why men leave. It could be said, with apologies to Tolstoy, that happy careers are all alike, but every unhappy career experiences its own set of obstacles and setbacks. And I think that we shouldn’t sugarcoat the very real issues that a girl could face in her future if she’s considering going into some of the tougher technical careers.
The comments are worth reading too.