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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Karen James said...

Bravo, Peggy! You have hit the nail on the head here. Thank you for articulating my own discomfort with Nusslei-Volhard's article, and for linking to Female Science Professor's 'monomaniacal' post, also excellent.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you are taking this article apart. I had the same problems you had, with that specific paragraph.

I am always amazed at how people who have experiences like she did, judge them to be singularities. Why, if she is interested in science, should other women be less so inclined?

Anonymous said...

I read this post with interest. This do-it-yourself mentality is quite mystifying to people from other cultures. If you are a working mother you are expected to hire other women to help you. It is a way of spreading the wealth and improving the economy.

Anonymous said...

Love this post. As a relatively young, married woman with 2 kids in academic science...I think about this every day. I know I don't want to pay someone to raise my kids (for any more time than is absolutely necessary) so I can work 6am to 10 pm to be a sucessful academic. I had the following post up close and personal on this dilemma recently...

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding perspective. Nicely done!

Anonymous said...


I've just stumbled upon your blog recently, and am really impressed. As a college student, it can be scary to take on a science major, especially with the all too present stereotypes floating around. Blogs like yours are encouraging!

Anonymous said...

While I agree that hiring a housekeeper is not the complete solution, it is something that can help. I myself am a grad student with two children and have been struggling with how to balance doing the stuff I want to do and getting the rest done somehow (maybe not by me). I just posted my thoughts on the housekeeper issue here.

I do agree that some of Dr. Nusslei-Volhard's position on women and their interests is problematic. And while I have been so frustrated by the whole double standard for assertiveness, I'm not planning on becoming a demure little nice girl any time soon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post, Peggy!

Amelie said...

Thanks for the dissection -- I was uncomfortable with something after first reading the article but couldn't quite pinpoint it. It is the perspective of someone who wants to dedicate all her time to science. Which is a valid choice, but not the right path for everyone.

Peggy K said...

nunatak: I believe that the issue of monomaniacalness (if that's a word) is really central to the issue of making the culture of science more welcoming to women. I don't have statistics, but it seems like one of the differences between the top women and men in science, is that the men are more likely to be married with children. Being able to focus most of your attention and time on your work and have a family besides appears to be a male luxury.

jokerine: I do think that Nusslein-Volhard is indeed exceptional, among both women and men. I wonder if part of the difference in her experience is that it's more socially acceptable for women to show their disinterest.

anonymous: Thanks for the link to blue lab coats! (BTW, you can post a comment with your handle and URL, even if you don't have a Google or Blogger account)

Peggy K said...

Science sisters: I'm glad you're encouraged. I believe the opportunities and experiences of women in science have greatly improved over the past few decades, and I have no reason to believe they won't continue improving.

Acmegirl: if you can afford a housekeeper, I'd say that you should definitely go for it. Part of my problem with the suggestion that hiring help is a good solution in general is that it doesn't address the larger issues with the culture of science. Even if you can afford to hire a housekeeper and a nanny, have your groceries delivered and eat in restaurants, the question is whether you spend the time you save spending more hours in the lab, or having quality time with your family and friends. I suspect that Nusslein-Volhard would suggest the former, rather than the latter.
(Also, for some reason your link didn't work - I assume you mean this post.)

Peggy K said...

Amelie: Yes, exactly. There seem to be many scientists that assume that the only proper way to be a scientist is to dedicate all of your time to it. And if you read the piece by Charlotte Allen I linked to recently, some pundits think that changing that culture spells doom for scientific advancement.

Anonymous said...

You are right about the link. Thanks for putting up the right one.
Hiring help does not solve the problems with the "monomaniacal" culture of science. What it does do is relieve one of the sources of stress that can be overwhelming to women who are trying to make a career in science. It may be easier for some women to pay for help than to find a way to share the neverending work that comes with raising children with a partner. Often even the most helpful of partners is unable to give a woman enough breathing room to keep up with men who don't need to concern themselves with housework at all.

Peggy K said...

acmegirl: I think you're right, getting outside household help could make a significant difference in stress levels for working women, since full-time "house husbands" are so extraordinarily rare. I wonder how many graduate students and postdocs are able to afford that option in addition to the cost of daycare.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's not cheap! Lucky for me that my husband has a job that pays pretty well, and is willing to spend some of that on the housekeeping, because I can only just barely afford the daycare, myself. This is why I think the idea of giving a grant specifically for household help is such an interesting idea.