Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why are Senior Female Scientists So Heavily Outnumbered by Men?

Biologist Anna Kushner wrote a letter to Wired Science that asks the question "Why are Senior Female Scientists So Heavily Outnumbered by Men?". In her graduate school class, for example, there were seven women and one man, but the faculty in her department were 48 men and 7 women. She doesn't have the answer to her question, but she has what I think is a reasonable take on the issue. She says it's not acceptable that women have to choose between family and career, or that they are made to feel unwelcome, or that they are thought of as less because they are women.

So what is the solution? Let women make their own decisions whether to stay or to go. Remove as many obstacles and pressures as possible and let the choice be theirs. Isn’t that the whole point of the much-maligned term, feminism? Institute reasonable day care at universities. Allow for extended maternity leave and the option of paternity leave. Don’t cut women any breaks. They are no less inherently able to achieve than men, regardless of what certain Nobel Prize winners and heads of major Universities may say. They don’t need pity or hand me downs. They just need the freedom to choose.
And that is what is so often missing - free choice made from a level playing field. That doesn't seem that radical to me. It apparently was mindblowing to a number of the readers at Wired, who took the opportunity to flaunt their sexism in the comments. So much for rational discourse. There is a more reasonable discussion at Anna's blog.

ETA: There's also a discussion at Jezebel.

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Anonymous said...

I don't have a strong view about the representation of men and women at a senior level in science, but the premise that an unequal outcome indicates an unlevel playing field seems questionable to me. Women are penalized by private household decisionmaking not the gradient of the playing field. What you advocate is for the state to intervene in countless private discussions between wives and husbands precisely to unlevel the playing field -- at the expense of society at large, of course, including lots of people who could care less whether scientific discoveries are made by women or men. Why not instead empower your 7 women students to make sure their household choices adequately reflect their preferences?


Peggy K said...

anon: The notion that the playing field is not level is not solely based on the fact that women are underrepresented in the sciences. It's based on real women's experiences of bias and discrimination. It has gotten better in the past 50 years, but women are still both expected to place their families over their careers and are penalized when they do.

I'm also not sure why you think this is advocating any sort of official intervention in family life. The fact is that many women want to have both a career and a family, as do many men. The system as it now stands not only penalizes women who want to spend time with their families, but men that do as well.