Monday, May 21, 2007

"Why Aren't More Women in Science?"

Computer scientist Gregory V. Wilson has reviewed the 2006 anthology Why Aren't More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence for Dr. Dobbs Journal, calling it possibly "the most important book I've ever reviewed."

Assembled in the wake of the Larry Summers controversy by Cornell Human Ecology Professors Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, the book is unique in its inclusion of a wide diversity of views from both the sociological and biological perspectives. According to an interview with the editors by Inside Higher Education, Ceci and Williams wanted to be sure that all voices in the debate would be heard, even those making unpopular but data-supported arguments.

It is only by open and honest consideration of all types of evidence that society can hope to navigate this issue. What, if anything, should be done to increase the representation of women in certain fields? The answer to this seemingly simple and straightforward question is anything but simple, and it requires consideration of multiple viewpoints and diverse types of data. (Note that we said data, not rhetoric.) It should not be left to a coterie of science policy aficionados to decide whether the current state of affairs is unfair, and if it is unfair, to decide what should be done to encourage greater participation by girls and women.
Editors Ceci and Williams conclude that there is no easy solution to closing the gender gap:
The bottom line is that the pipeline leading females into mathematically-intensive science careers leaks at every step along the way, from elementary school through post-Ph.D. tenure decisions. If you look only at the women who earn doctorates in the sciences, a smaller proportion of them are in satisfying, successful careers than is true of men. Either they managed to get tenure, but express lower levels of satisfaction with their jobs, or they never go on tenure track, or they quickly go off tenure track to raise families, care for elders, or follow partners. The “barriers” they face are those associated with being asked to perform maximally at jobs at a time in their lives when other needs compete for their energy and time, such as family care. Some opine that if women had the flexibility to move slower at first until their family needs were met, they could be very productive later in their scientific careers. As evidence for this assertion there are some very limited small-scale data from one or two fields showing that mid-career and older female scientists produce articles that are cited more highly than articles by their male colleagues — thus leading to the argument that women would excel, if only they could be allowed delayed start-ups. As we see it, there is no easy solution to this situation, and if delayed start-ups were permitted, it would raise a host of other serious issues having to do with gender equity and ensuring and evaluating progress in professional fields.
Wilson gives an overview of the topics covered and notes that the book is refreshingly lacking in overt politics, concluding that "These are scientists, wrestling with an emotive issue as objectively as they can. For that alone, it's worth reading." Wilson himself has written about the gender imbalance in the computer sciences.
Several years ago, Michelle Levesque and I looked at the gender balance in open source (see Open Source, Cold Shoulder). While the male:female ratio in the software industry is between 7:1 and 12:1, depending on how you measure it, the ratio in open source is at least 200:1, and probably worse. For a community that talks so loudly about freedom and rights, I think that's shameful; I think it's even more shameful that so many people in that community choose not to notice, or say (rather defensively), "Well, it's not my fault." I think some social refactoring is long overdue; I think that programs like the one Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher led at Carnegie-Mellon, and described in their book Unlocking the Clubhouse, matter a lot more than copyright reform or the fight against software patents. Sadly, though, our profession is self-selected for people who don't agree, and that, I think, is the greatest shame of all.
Why Aren't More Women. . . sounds like an interesting book, but $35 is a bit pricey for me. I'll have to wait until it goes into the Amazon bargain bin (or my local library gets a copy) to read it.

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