Science and sexism.

Mar 08 2006 Published by under Women and science

It's Blog Against Sexism Day.
There are those inclined to think that sexism is no longer an issue in science. Yes, it's horrible that in the past women were kept from pursuing science and barred from science jobs. But now, the doors are wide open and anyone who wants to can be a scientist.
Things are surely better than they used to be. But it is not yet the case that a woman's entry to science is just as easy and unproblematic as a man's.

There is data around (Tara provides some here) about how much more leaky the science pipeline is for women than for men. There are those who have offered various explanations for this phenomenon other than discrimination against women, ranging from innate biological factors to rational economic calculations by the women themselves. In addition to the attempts carefully to discover a (non-sexist) explanation for the gender gap in science, there are the less careful proclamations of the punditry. The most concise digest of these proclamations that I've seen is "the paradox of the woman scientist" at Thus Spake Zuska:

Women don't have the math skills to do good science. No, they do, but they'd rather stay home with their babies. Women who want to do science are ugly, poorly-dressed, man-hating dykes. Women who want to do science are so cute! How can you take them seriously when women are just so adorable. They distract men from their work by their mere presence. If women were such great scientists, they'd already be working at MIT/Cal Tech/Harvard. But no, women are being hired preferentially over men, and taking over the faculty.
And then, my very favorite paradox relating to women scientists: We are really committed to diversity because science and engineering need the talents of women if we are to remain competitive in this global marketplace. We just don't want to lower standards.

Sing it, sister!
What is most galling, in some ways, is that the gender gap in science is laid at the feet of women -- it must be due to their abilities (or lack thereof), or the choices they make in their education and training, or their inability to fit into the culture of science, which has been chugging along perfectly well for some time now. So you're in a physics department and you're not included in problem-solving sessions (or, you know, you're regularly groped by a "colleague")? You just have to get it into your head that the men in your department want to be left alone to do their work -- toughen up and get your own work done. (Also, stop being "oversensitive to touch", you big baby!)
Of course, when women do "toughen up" and start outperforming men academically, instead of recognizing their achievement, we tend to worry that the evaluation standards are unfair to men.
If you think you're tired of hearing about the problem of women in science, try living it. It can suck the life right out of you.
I probably got by with the normal ration of sexist crap. I had the junior high math teacher who was convinced (and did not hide this conviction from his students) that Girls Just Cannot Do Math. Finishing geometry in one quarter so I could get the hell out of his classroom (for the matrix algebra class at the high school) was not just liberatory, but it let me give him a metaphorical poke in the eye. It did not, however, change his conviction about girls and math. I had the guidance counselor who was concerned that I was overloading with "hard" (i.e., math and science) courses when maybe it would be better if I took some home ec., or even a study hall.
As I went to a women's college, I actually skipped the bulk of the classroom sexism I heard about from peers at other universities. None of my chemistry or physics professors started with the assumption that it was weird to have women in the classroom or the lab, which was nice. I did find out later that at least one of the professors had made offhand comments that chemistry majors at my alma mater probably weren't "up to" graduate programs like the one I went to. Unless this professor was thinking that the graduate school experience should be all margaritas and hot stone massages, I have no idea what this impression was based on; in my graduating class, I was a fair to middling chemistry major -- not one of the stars by any stretch of the imagination -- and I was sufficiently "up to" the graduate program that I earned my Ph.D. in just over four years.
Of course, I got to bask in the sexism provided by students of a nearby technical school, which my boyfriend at the time happened to attend. Said boyfriend had taken to posting photocopies of each of my grad school acceptance letters on his door, proclaiming to the world (or at least to the frat) what a glorious geek his girlfriend was. After acceptance number 5 (out of 5 applications, to top-10 schools) was posted, a frat-brother said, "Wow, she must have applied to a lot of schools." When told that the number of acceptances equalled the number of applications, he replied, "Ohh -- affirmative action."
Because clearly, how else could a chick (from a women's college, no less) get into top graduate programs in chemistry?
And you know, that view was shared by at least some of the men in the graduate program I attended. Because nearly a quarter of our incoming class was female, it was clear that affirmative action had been in high gear during the admissions process. (Meanwhile, I was looking at the numbers and thinking, "Where the hell are the rest of the women?") Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very ... significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because ... well, she's doing it.) Meanwhile, of course, female TAs (in classes like thermodynamics) were treated with contempt by undergraduates. In instances where problem sets and solution sets disagreed about an answer, the fact that the solution set was prepared by a female was treated as reason enough to question its correctness.
Because women don't really understand physical chemistry as well as men do (even, apparently, men who have not yet taken physical chemistry).
The fact that all of this garbage was clearly recognizable as garbage at the time didn't make dealing with it any less tiresome. Some days there was barely enough energy just to do my own homework, grade the stacks of problem sets, and try to get things in the lab to function as they should. Keeping myself from punching the idiots in the nose took up energy I could have used for other things.
Idiots not withstanding, I made it through. I got my Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
And then I left science.
As I've noted before , my reasons for leaving science had a lot to do with the bigger issues I wanted to think about for a living, and the context in which I thought it best to think about them. But the fact remains: I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn't. Instead of helping the sisters, I selfishly pursued my own happiness.
This, my friends, is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn't be if you were just an ordinary human being. I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists. I have also handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn't, or wouldn't, hack it in science.
We owe our daughters (and sons) a world where they can decide what to be, or what to do, based on what they're good at, and what makes them happy, without their having to worry about breaking down barriers for someone else. I'm not sure how we get there from here, but admitting that the problem is real might be a good first step.

Comments are off for this post

  • J-Dog says:

    It should be Blog Against Sexism EVERY FRIGGIN' DAY!
    On a lighter note, thank you ladies for blazing the trail (better than blazing the saddles) so my daughter can go out and kick some major ChemE butt in a couple of years. If some old codger gets in her way, I trust she will kick them in the figurative - or literal - nuts. You DON'T want to get her mad at you Mr....

  • P.M.Bryant says:

    Thanks for posting so eloquently about this subject.
    I have a hard time believing you have let anyone down by leaving science to pursue your interests. For one thing, the field you entered is not exactly female-dominated, or is it? Another thing, being able to pursue the career of one's dreams is one of the points of the ongoing fight for true equality, I would hope.

  • Kristin says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am another female scientist who leaked out of the pipeline (physics) and felt guilty about letting down the cause of women in physics, even though I was far from a star.
    I might note that though I directly encountered a very small amount of overt sexism, and likely a greater amount of inadvertent, unintentional sexism in terms of a failure to understand where I was coming from, I have enough friends who are still in technical fields to clue me in on how the power balance still favors men. I have a few anecdotes in my own "Blog Against Sexism Day" entry.

  • ceresina says:

    That's amazing.
    If you don't {work; stay at home; dress up; dress down; do math; do humanities; ... }, you're letting down the feminist sisterhood. According to someone.
    Thank you so much for articulating that. I'd never heard it put that way before.

  • Janet, I pray that it's getting better with my generation (born '64, PhD '89). Women outnumber men in most of our grad program in biomedical disciplines and all of my Ph.D. graduates have been women. My lab has generally run 3:1 women to men and two of my former postdocs, the best I've ver had, have just gotten tenure track faculty positions this year - both women.
    I was raised by a strong Mom (and grandmother, too) who was encouraged by my Dad to go to nursing school when I was 10 - not a grad program, but certainly better than being a secretary for a Pfizer salesperson. I never knew anything about a gender disparity until I got to university, although my highly-technical, chemistry-heavy program had women kicking our asses most of the time and our valedictorian was a woman. The most successful person from my pharmacology grad program is a woman who had such high aspirations that she leads a $30 million/yr health consulting business in NYC - lab was too 'small potatoes' for her. One of my best friends as a postdoc had Science papers and was recruited by Duke and Cornell but preferred a large Midwest state school where her first R01 has been renewed.
    Mine are all anecdotes, of course, but I have grown up with excellence among women my entire life and career. Hell, I married one of the smartest people I know, who went to schools that would've laughed at my applications if I had the guts to apply. Now that we have a 3.5 y.o. daughter, I'll do all I can to be sure a similar culture exists for her. And, as for the one open slot I'll be having this summer due to my postdoc getting a tenure-track faculty position, well, we're always accepting applications...and my history tells me 3 to 1 that a woman will be my top candidate.

  • Though biology tends to be more 'equal' than physics or chemistry, in my program I'm actually seeing things swing the opposite way. If you count the 3 labs in my hallway, there are 3 women phd students and one male. My cohort was 50/50.
    The prospective students who were here last week? 17 of 20 were women. I was surprised and quite happy to see that.
    I'm also lucky to have several female faculty I respect not only in my department, but in the building.
    Encouraging, but we still have a long way to go. Just ask my two sisters who went/are attending a tech school for college. One of them is studying chemistry, actually.

  • Super Sally says:

    Just a couple of footnotes about your early experiences.
    In my final interview with the middle school math teacher BEFORE you got the geometry book to be able to self-study Geo I in a quarter (because we know the teacher wasn't giving YOU any help) I ended our diescussion with the statement: "You will give Janet the geometry book by Monday, or I will go over you head and leave footprints on the way over". (Please recall how bald the man was to get the full effect of the imagery.) You had the book on Monday.
    Your high school guidance counselor was the best in the school, but we still had to work hard to get what you (and your siblings) needed out of the school. When he said to your parents about scheduling the courses you wanted (and we encourages) "There are only 8 periods in the school day," replied in unison "So, fill them with the courses she wants." We later worked out methods of subterfuge to be able to schedule courses AND teachers of merit for you all.
    Thanks for the rant, on behalf of all of us who have felt anything from the chill to blunt force sexism in our travels theough science eduation and work.

  • Lab Cat says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It isn't the first time I've heard that US women were told that "they couldn't do Math". Fortunately, I didn't meet sexism at my British state school. Probably the Math and Science teachers were grateful to have anyone who was interested, keen and capable.
    I have never really faced any overt sexism throughout my career, but there has been plenty of invert sexism. Just being treated differently, but I am never be sure if that is due gender or personal issues.
    I'm now an assistant professor of food chemist - I use physical chemistry to study reactions that occur in food. But I am struggling to succeed in an academic environment. While I think the US is better at this level than in Britain (I still cringe when I have to talk to some of the "old boys" from British Universities as I can just feel their arrogance and patronization.) there is still a disconnect between myself and my male colleagues. Not helped by the fact that I am the only chemist in a department of microbiologists, virologists and molecular biologists. I have had a complete lack of mentoring, but that is universal within my department.

  • Polly Anna says:

    Oh, my! It all sounds so simple.
    According to fellow polyannas, stat-quoting (got my Science paper, got my R01), back-patting Able Farmboy and BotoxicalGirl, all this is much ado about nothing; we are there, or soon to be there.
    Yet I hear some grad exec committees (mostly male of course) are attributing the increasing female composition of graduate programs to the same forces that have increased the composition of Asians.
    1. The increasingly thoughtless assembly line, high throughput technical data production nature of science at the expense of deep thinking hypothesis driven science (women and Asians are better at repetitive mass production and have "more precise hands" as techicians).
    2. The loss of "high quality" domestic male applicants to other "softer," but higher paying disciplines better suited for fulfillment of the "food gathering" gene cluster. All associated with the decline of American scientific education in grades K1-12 in general.
    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  • Brandon says:

    I read this guy's (his name is Philip Greenspun) essay on women in science and, from what I understand, it is about the pay and happiness derived from positions in the field. The essay can be found here-
    I must say however, that it bothered me a bit- I'm a physics and mathematics student in my senior year at a four year university, and he goes to some detail about pay scales and the- eh, lets say the type of work, that scientists typically do and puts it in a context that implies some science doctorates are mistakes. I really enjoy the work (I help run the physics labs at my university) and the courses, but I'm also looking at my degrees (including post bachelor education) as being an investment. Do you feel that you are better off working in philosophy instead of science? Would you rather have never pursued the chemistry Ph.D. and gone straight into philosophy, had you known then what you know today?
    P.S. Thanks for all the great posts, I'm really enjoying this science blogs website!!

  • Polly, not back-patting at all. Just saying that there are some of us out here trying to make a difference starting in our own labs. Moreover, none of my statement cites either of your points, especially the "thoughtless assembly line." The women who've trained with us are also the most experimentally creative and best writers I've ever worked with.
    But I continue to be deeply concerned about what needs to be done and live everyday with a physician-scientist-mother who is struggling to make it work in a so-called Research-1 paternalistic empire. I'm not asking for credit, but rather registering one anecdote of an XY who has many female colleagues making it work for them.

  • Aetiology says:

    Belated news of import

    Guess I should've held off an extra day on this post. Yesterday was blog against sexism day. Lots of excellent posts linked there if you're looking to spend several hours getting depressed, then pissed off, then ready to go out...

  • MissPrism says:

    Polly, those attitudes are terrifying and they show there's a very long way to go. But I think we should be allowed now and again to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come, too.

  • Polly Anna says:

    Oh, my! Sorry for the misspelling, Abel.
    .....such high aspirations that she leads a $30 million/yr health consulting business in friends as a postdoc had Science papers and was recruited by Duke and Cornell but preferred a large Midwest state school where her first R01 has been renewed......postdoc getting a tenure-track faculty position.... misled me.
    Owww, "the Midwest state school" putdown while going gaaa-gaaa over Duke and Cornell fooled me.
    Please forgive me for suspecting that you might be encouraging those girls to play copycat in pursuit of batting averages like the majority of their male counterparts.
    At the expense of learning to enjoy playing the game, following their ideas, making great conceptual advances, and to be excellent for its own reward.
    Oh, goodness! I can't resist copying a post of mine from another site in response to the same general topic:
    Oh, my! It all seems so simple. The honest, open and altruistic practice of science, the search for truth by a method that all must eventually agree upon and reproduce, is its own reward. The high E/A members of the species will always be at a disadvantage in inverse proportion to which this "raison de etre" can be achieved (E=estrogen; A=androgen.
    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  • Polly, no good deed goes unpunished, eh? I fear you may be reading into my comments whatever supports your anger. For this, I apologize. But I would certainly welcome constructive comments on how you think I could modify my behavior in a way that would help the trainees who I am honored to guide.
    No put-down intended about the Midwestern state school which, in my opinion, is one of the top 3 state research universities in the country. Moreover, I aggressively counseled this colleague against Duke in particular since I knew personally at the time that they ate their own young and, until recently, had a poor record of junior faculty development regardless of E/A ratios. In her current position, she is an internationally well-respected scientist with a loving home life as well. I have never seen her happier or more fulfilled.
    I'm also sorry that I have to balance my mentoring with the actual, fact-based performance metrics required to survive in this increasingly competitive funding environment and with outcomes-driven promotion and tenure committees. I don't consider it solely as, "At the expense of learning to enjoy playing the game, following their ideas, making great conceptual advances, and to be excellent for its own reward." If they can't stay funded, they no longer will have the luxury of pursuing their dreams and making conceptual advances because they will be out of a job. Assuming that they want to stay in this business, pretending these metrics don't exist is a disservice to them. If they wish to pursue science in another paradigm that suits them, I still continue to support them. If they choose to leave science altogether, I support them equally in whatever endeavor they choose.
    Lest you think me an androgen-raged misogynist, I will also note that two of my three Ph.D. grads are happily pursuing their family lives prior to getting back into science full-time - I heartily supported their choices to do what was right for them, not me. When, and even if, they choose to return to science, they will receive my highest level of endorsement as they pursue their own happiness and balance in their love for science and their families.
    If this doesn't satisfy you, rest assured that I am not a terribly successful scientist by low E/A ratios: I have never had more than five people in my group and am struggling with one R01 to keep the two people I have. I am only making a small dent in gender inequality issues but, IMHO, in the correct direction.

  • Kate says:

    What a fantastic post! After the comments war at Pharyngula from Larry Summers' resignation I didn't have the energy to do my blog against sexism post on science. But you told a beautiful, personal, and yet universal story. Thank you!