Girl, Interrupting

September 1, 2010

On women in science

Filed under: science ethics,women,women in science — sylviamclain @ 10:44 am
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I am always in 2 minds about Women in Science. There is something about that title that reminds me of the Muppet Show and I can hear the announcement line sounding like ‘Pigs in Space’ – and it just sounds silly..

I am, after all, a woman in science though I haven’t really ever thought of myself as that. I don’t mean I think I am not a scientist (I am) and I am pretty clear that I am a woman, but those things don’t seem like they should be mutually exclusive to me. The term Woman in Science actually points out that that subject (women) in Science is something somehow different.

I have always thought, in my job why does (should) it matter that I am a woman? Other than I obviously use different washroom facilities. My position on this as a graduate student was a follows: I am training to be a scientist, and I am just as good (or bad) as the next guy or gal, I should be judged on my merits not on my reproductive equipment. So I was adamantly against participating in any society which highlights the fact I am different – I didn’t want to be a part of women in science groups, full stop, which to me seemed divisive and separates women even further from a male dominated profession.

It is true that women are under-represented in many sciences, especially the physical sciences, and they did not participate in professional science (except on the sly) until fairly recently. There are some pretty amazing stories about women who worked in science against all of the odds. There are amazing individual stories about Rosalind Franklin, Caroline Hershel and so many others that worked in science before they were really ‘allowed’ and yes it really was ‘allowed’.

And we love these stories! I do, they are great, and impressive. In the UK they love an underdog, and in the US they love the pioneer American dream spirit – against all odds! These amazing forerunners fought the system and won. Individually this is powerful stuff. But should you really have to fight against the odds just to have a job in science? And what about all of the women who probably fought the good fight and still failed, or had to give it up, or quit to have children (as a lot of people did, as it was “normal”) who knows about them? My mother (who is a social worker) always told me that if she had it to do all over again she would be a wildlife biologist, or a park ranger. But my mother was born in the 30’s in Southern US and as she said – that’s just the way it was, women were either nurse’s, teachers or social workers – so she didn’t even KNOW she had a choice, really.

And some of the women, I am sad to say, who have succeeded against all odds are the worst about repressing other women, just like some of the most conservative people about social equality are the very ones that could have used a leg up, simply because they themselves fought ‘against the odds’ and therefore think ‘why can’t everyone else?’

I really don’t want to be and hope I am not like that, not that I have a startling Nobel prize winning career, but I don’t want to be intolerant of people with different backgrounds (be they women or whatever under-represented portion of the population) who didn’t do what I did. No one’s life is the same. I also think by excluding people you cut your base, you necessarily limit what can be done, just like only funding the elite. And while —– (insert whatever under-represented group you like) aren’t ‘excluded’ in any formal sense these days, they may well be excluded in an unconscious manner, unconscious bias – and this can sting, and in some instances be so discouraging, people just think – forget it, I can’t (or don’t want to) deal with this.

I think about some of the things that have been said to me in my scientific career, for instance:

When I got my first independent fellowship from NSF, I was ultra-excited, and a senior (male) professor told me –
“You only got it because you are a woman” ?!?!

When I was on an interview panel with a male colleague who said (in response to a question I asked the candidate)
” She just thinks that because she is a woman”

Thankfully, these instances, at least in my career, have been rare. Most people don’t think or at least don’t say things like this.

So here is the two minds bit – bias still exists, and I truely believe that all people, regardless of race, gender, etc. should be encouraged not discouraged, so maybe a women in science group is the way to do this? But I still don’t want to be a member, because I don’t want to classify myself as different, but I think, as I didn’t used to think, there is a place for this, whether or not I want to participate myself.

So if you want to join a women in science (or whatever group) I have one thing to say –

you go girl!

June 17, 2010

Persevering against all odds is NOT the way forward

Beware of the hype..

Most of us love a good old perseverance, against all odds, pulling yourself up by your boot straps story.

And there are thousands of them about scientific people – some apocryphal, some mythological and some of them are even true.

Are most great scientists like this? Should we take these stories to heart during these difficult financial times? Definitely not.

So many people love to talk about Einstein and how he merely worked as a lowly patent officer and then miraculously launched into cutting edge world physics – apocryphally on his own, where he was anti-establishment, beyond the realm of normal stuffy academics.
But the man had a PhD in Physics and worked hard, incredibly hard, and importantly always maintained access to the library at University of Vienna, where he read alot. And his job at the patent office, wasn’t exacly, what most people probably think it was. They weren’t paper pushing bored bureaucrats at Einstein’s patent office, like the driver’s license offices of today. Nope, they were scientists trying to prove if what was being patented was actually scientifically sound. Intellectually, it was a fabulous place to be.

Then we have the mythological – the Good Will Hunting model, where the poor Boston working-class boy who sweeps the floor is actually a mathematical genius and can solve things just by well, you know, gazing at numbers on the wall knowing what they mean – with NO training. Which would be akin to learning to speak Chinese by just looking at the characters, which I have tried – it doesn’t work ( but maybe I am just not a genius).

But, really. This just doesn’t happen. Almost every story like this, when you behind this veneer of idiot savant, there is usually some training, sometimes autodiadectic, hard work and some pre-exposure to the subject at hand.

Then there are the stories about women – how against all odds they overcame adversity to do the scientific research they were passionate about and always wanted to do. Rosalind Franklin is a good example – she was shunned, ousted, and eventually (posthumously in fact) given credit for her contributions to science. This is cool, don’t get me wrong, against-all-odds stories usually puts a tear even in my crusty eye.

But think how much MORE Dr. Franklin could have done with more support and more funding!

And while these are great stories, they are also really dangerous stories.

Why? Because sometimes it leads people to believe that ALL science is conducted, or rather all science COULD be best conducted against the odds by people so passionate they don’t care about things like, getting paid! AND this gives governments a good excuse NOT to fund science or higher education under the idea the adversity is the mother of invention. The real quote, as you know, is necessity is the mother of invention.

But a mother is not the only parent – whether you are single parented or not, it takes two – in some capacity. And what I am getting at is the other parent is almost always SCHOOL and TRAINING. Thinking, and thinking well, takes an awful lot of reading, grist to the mill and work.

So should we give up on science funding and vainly hope that all of the researchers and geniuses out there will just beat the odds and discover what they were going to discover anyway?

Perhaps some would say – yes, sure, why not? If Einstein can do it so can anyone else (I think it is worth mentioning here, Einstein was a theorist… back in the day when they didn’t need computers, but now to be a theorist you really need them, and they cost money).

On the surface this might seem sort of viable.

For instance, the UK, per capita, has a higher scientific publication rate and a higher citation rate from those publications compared to the rest of the world, second only to the US, despite spending a smaller proportion of their GDP, on the average, on science funding than most countries (the US actually spends a lower proportion of their GDP, but the US has a much bigger GDP than Britain).

Now in the current funding climate, this should give us a warm fuzzy smug feeling in the UK, we can pump ourselves up know that we can achieve so much with ‘so little’ and persevere despite the lack of funding.

It really isn’t much solace however, largely because it is NOT TRUE.

These are statistics from 2004, AFTER the UK has increased its R&D budget over a 10 year period from 1992 to 2003, under Labour, to be close to the highest in Europe by the end of 10 the year period. However, NOW, the science, R&D and Higher educations budgets are decreasing, so these publication statistics will undoubtedly get worse, the UK won’t be soaring at #2 after all of the budget cuts.

When you are close to the top of research and innovation is when you want to put in MORE money to keep up the momentum, not slide back into wartime austerity measures, and start bringing up stories about those who persevered without.

This is true especially now, when most UK-based industries are failing and new ‘technologically based industries’ are needed. ALL of the candidates in the recent UK general election were in agreement about this, during the election anyway, though not apparently any more.

A ‘make do and mend’ mentality, persevering against the odds are admirable individual qualities and of course help with research, teaching and reading science. But relying on these qualities to emerge from underfunded science and education sectors is not simply less than ideal, it is the death toll for science, innovation and higher education en masse.

But I guess we will get some good stories out of it.

May 13, 2010

Dumb and Dumber: the mismeasure of women

Oh no here we go again..

Every 5 – 10 years the good old IQ debate comes up…. and usually some minority comes out on bottom, women, African-Americans – yet no one ever asks themselves why is it that White males never come out on bottom, now THAT would be really different.

But nope, women are dumber than men and Professor Richard Lynn has been ‘brave’ enough to say it, after all he probably thinks he is refreshingly just speaking the truth. Prof Lynn says its science – but he concedes women have better spelling skills so they’ve got that going for them – and after a ‘life time’ of research he should know!

Apparently what he doesn’t know is anything about IQ tests – and Binet’s (the inventor of the IQ test) worst nightmare is coming true – he was afraid to publish his results. He invented the test ONLY TO IDENTIFY WEAK STUDENTS WHO COULD IMPROVE, that is it, and he was afraid these investigations would be used to ‘tag’ people for life… which apparently it has 100 years on.

Everyone, and especially Professor Lynn, should take a day off to read Stephen J. Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man to understand how IQ tests actually work, instead of just repeating these numbers that mean nothing much to anyone, and the world would be a lot better off. The Mismeasure of Man is an entire book on the problems with testing people for things like intelligence (the key being in the title) ranging from Eugenics to IQ testing.

Specifically, Gould writes about the inaccuracies and problems in these tests with a focus on why the statistics can be misleading. Incidentally, the Mismeasure of Man was written partially as a response to the 1994 book The Bell Curve where scientists argued that IQ was a predictor in things like unwanted pregnancy and job success, oh yes and that men are smarter than women.

Prof. Lynn even brought up the point that women have smaller brains! In fact polar bears have bigger brains than humans (even adjusting for body mass) so well maybe they really have the highest IQ, but you don’t see many Nobel prize polar bears – male or female.
Coincidentally, my favourite refutation of brain size was when mathematical genius Gauss was found to have a brain size slightly below average at 3.3 lbs the researchers did note it had more folds than other brains – so in this case size didn’t matter, but only for Gauss, because he was a genius.

Ohh and apparently its genetic, so that must mean that intelligent genes are only on the y-chromosome then, wow! who knew? I guess the Human Genome project folks missed that one – or maybe it was made up of only women scientist who weren’t smart enough to spot it – that elusive intelligence gene.

If you think this argument might be ok because Professor Lynn is a scientist, then why don’t you go and read what ‘scientists’ said about Africans during the heyday of the slave trade, or if you don’t feel a particular worry about slavery, go and read what Hitler’s scientists said about the intelligence of the ‘average Jew” – IN BOTH CASES these scientists were well respected within their community….

But the real issue is why this keeps happening? Why do ‘learned’ folks keep saying things like this?

On the simplest level it is a way of not taking responsibility for disenfranchised portions of society. It is also easier not to redress the balance by simply deciding that women are dumber than men and then as a society there is nothing we have to do about it.

Often when some gender or race is under-represented in an academic field there is no one reason for this. And to be honest in the case of women, this is getting better, either we are overcoming our inherent IQ deficiency, or women and girls are actually being encouraged to participate more in science, which is good. The more the merrier. However, there are also less women in science today because we are still playing catch up, from the 300 or so years science has been a profession.

One of Prof. Lynn’s points is that not many women have won the big science prizes – Nobel, Fields medal in Mathematics or are Members of the Royal Society.

Well why? His conclusion is…. limited intelligence, though he does say women can be ‘above-average’ just not geniuses – I feel better already, so that’s something…

But think a bit more about it – it is true, there are less female Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) for instance than their male counterparts – but how do you get to be an FRS? – you get to be an FRS by being voted in by other FRS’s. And of course there is no reason to ever think women would be disenfranchised from this by chauvinism, is there? It must just be because women are dumber.

It is also worth mentioning that women, until quite recently, were kept out of academic jobs, as late as the 1950s, and weren’t allowed to actively engage from their male colleagues. The perfect example of this was Rosalind Franklin, who was in part responsible for discovering that DNA was helical – and missed out on the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick because she died very young – wasn’t even allowed to dine or go to the pub with her colleagues as University dining rooms were male only, and her male colleagues chose to go to male-only pubs to discuss science.

However, science doesn’t work usually in a vacuum, so you could almost argue she was more clever by going it alone… (but I don’t really think that is fair either)

But this was in the 1950s – This is 60 years later and this really should be a non-issue – women are in science, women are being encouraged in science, and we should keep doing this, so why the resurrection of the 1950’s issue? What we need to do as a scientific community is stop distinguishing between the gender or race of scientists, I don’t mean in the recruitment phase, I mean in the practising phase – once you are a scientist it shouldn’t matter if you are a woman in your profession.

But this still IS an issue, and partly because people like Prof. Lynn make it an issue and a resurecction of an age old argument still appears in the news. But the best way to kill a stupid issue, is to ignore it, so I shouldn’t even be writing this

I guess true integration for women in science will come when they are referred to as ‘scientists’ rather than ‘female scientists’ and when papers stop publishing silly articles about how women will never be as smart as boys…

and in the meantime, while you are waiting – go and read the Mismeasure of Man. Oh and I’m off to iron my husband’s shirts.

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