Making real changes in the landscape of science.

I want to commend to you a pair of posts that strike me as calls to action. Both relate to the oft-discussed "pipeline problem" in the sciences. And, I take it that both authors are interested in making science (and especially academic science) a less hostile environment not just for women, but for others who love science but, frankly, may not have much patience for current institutional or societal barriers to entry to the tribe of science.

Responding to the recent NAS panel's finding that institutional bias is responsible for the lower rates at which women in science departments are hired and promoted -- and to the seemingly endless replaying, everytime a finding of this sort is released, of the heated denials that the scientific community we have right now could be anything but a meritocracy -- Kate wonders whether this is any kind of way to fix things. She writes:

I've been around the blogosphere long enough that I've seen the same arguments, the same ignorance, the same banter several times now. I can imagine what folks are going to say about this, no matter how unequivocal or elegant the results. It's interesting that in the face of such helpful evidence I feel so tired. This panel's results bolster the argument that there are "outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women." And I have a million ideas for how to fix this.
Here's the issue. Most of my ideas involve tearing down the entire academic structure and starting over. They also involve a lot of people power. ...
[T]here is one major problem with blogging, and it also applies to online activism. Online petitions are easy to set up, easy to sign, easy to send. Email-writing campaigns where you give folks a form and just have them enter their email addresses use minimal brain function. In the end, the kind of change that will be necessary to create an academy where young people have power, where women and people of color are better represented, where families and spouses aren't torn apart, and where work is rational... the kind of change necessary for this requires that we get together in person. We need to form unions. We need to reach out in larger and larger numbers. We need to figure out rational ways to promote good decision-making. We need to erase hierarchy.

(Bold emphasis added.)
Large scale institutional change is hard. But so is having the same arguments every six months. Maybe it really is time to see what's worth salvaging and what we ought to kiss goodbye.
And Jessica Henig has a thoughtful post that reminds us that it isn't enough to fix broken academe is we don't also address problems in the larger society that helped to get us here:

It does bear repeating ... that the crisis of women in the sciences is not one that's constrained to the sciences; rather, more than anything else it is a symptom of a larger problem. I've been thinking a lot lately about why I didn't get into science ... and in my own experience, it had nothing to do with discouraging teachers or administrators or advisors or even fellow students. I had a great physics teacher in high school and another in college, for instance, and both thought quite highly of me. But somehow, even with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and rocks and stars and the brain, even while going to a math/science magnet for high school and part of junior high, even while suddenly realizing during my high school geology exam that I was enjoying taking an exam, it just never occurred to me that I could be a scientist. The thought never crossed my mind. Even if I had been seriously considering it, I certainly took every less-than-success -- poor grades in chemistry, for instance -- as evidence that I wasn't smart enough, while successes went basically unnoticed. I wasn't brilliant in science, especially compared to some of the other magnet kids, but I assumed that not being brilliant meant not being good enough. I got an 89 on my physics final, so why would I ever imagine that I could succeed? But it wasn't a matter of having my dreams shattered; it was a matter of it never dawning on me that I could have the dream in the first place.

(Bold emphasis added.)
Jessica then considers the call for proposals from Feminist Press and NSF for stories to lure girls into thinking science is cool -- and notices that the examples they provide all play on the patriarchy-approved list of Things Girls Should Like:

Where, in Feminist Press' list, are the girls who want to be scientists? Far from calling for a solution to the problem, this CFP just throws the problem into sharper relief. The problem isn't that girls aren't exposed to science; the problem is that they are prevailed upon to be Girls Doing Science. It's the same problem I used to have with English scholarship -- women scholars won't be treated equally until we can stop being Women Scholars and just be scholars. We don't have to write about feminist theory just because of our chromosomes and reproductive organs. And girls don't have to be coaxed into science via skating costumes and lipstick. That turns science into just another way to fulfill a patriarchal fantasy. But science is, on its own merits, cool. Don't tell me there's no way to sell kids on its sheer coolness.

In other words, for those of us not satisfied with the status quo, we have both school-work and home-work to do.

Comments are off for this post

  • Helen says:

    The girliness-patina thing can repel at all ages. I walked into my undergraduate university's chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, took one look at all the pink crap everywhere, and said, "Oh hell no," and walked right back out again. I found a group that involved playing with power tools instead.
    Then again, machinery + pretty colors when it's not foisted on me as some "what girls are supposed to like" thing doesn't bother me at all, such as in Japan where construction equipment tends to look like this:

  • K8 says:

    First of all, thanks for linking to me and thinking of me! Had no idea you even read my little blog.
    I think it will just be so lovely when it hits us, really hits us what we've built online, and decide to take it to the streets.
    I'm not going to comment-hog with much, but wanted to share a few questions worth asking:
    1) What would it look like if administrators, faculty and students weren't set up to feel like adversaries?
    2) What would it look like if universities understood themselves as potential models for society?
    3) What does rational work look like -- and by rational I mean respecting the many aspects of life that academics are forced to pretend doesn't exist, like changing diapers and doing laundry.
    4) What is good science? Can we be doing better science by decreasing our reliance on men who have wives willing to take care of the house (one of the issues noted on the NAS panel), and taking the steps necessary in the workplace to make it possible for the power structures of the home to change?
    Thanks again!

  • Zuska says:

    Thanks so much for this post. Can't tell you how many different circles my brain is turning in right now. So much to think about. Wonderful quotes, and thanks for leading us all to the original posts. Must...stop...having...headaches. I really, really, really want to do some serious blogging. So much to be said...thanks for being out there to do a lot of the saying.