Our Science, Our Selves

By Sarah Greene Our Science, Our Selves Gender biases are deep, entrenched, and persistent. What science stands to lose as a result. There’s reason to fear greater disparity in coming years. This month’s Careers feature ("Are Women Better PIs?") opens with a story from Sue Rosser, author of the recently published Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. In 1973, as a postdoc in zoology at the University of Wis

By | June 1, 2010

 

Our Science, Our Selves

Gender biases are deep, entrenched, and persistent. What science stands to lose as a result.

There’s reason to fear greater disparity in coming years.
 

This month’s Careers feature ("Are Women Better PIs?") opens with a story from Sue Rosser, author of the recently published Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. In 1973, as a postdoc in zoology at the University of Wisconsin and pregnant with her second child, she was advised by her PI to get an abortion. She didn’t. That same year, I made my way to forestry school at Northern Arizona University. I was told that women couldn’t be forest rangers, and urged to find another course of study. I did.

This was just before the flowering of “women’s lib”; a year or two later, it’s unlikely that such politically incorrect statements would be vocalized. Yet 5 years later, when I entered graduate school as a budding soil microbiologist, in a large lab with 20-some grad students and postdocs, there was only one other woman colleague. My lab mates were quick to point out that no female had ever made it to PhD in that lab. I didn’t, and she didn’t.

Some neuroscientists who study consciousness, memory, and emotion believe that natural selection is at work when we construct our life narratives. The story we build as “self” is not shaped by facts and logic, but drawn from reconsolidated memories—tidied up to give meaning to disparate events. For instance, it makes evolutionary sense for women to recall giving birth as a glorious event rather than an infliction of the greatest pain they might ever experience. My narrative arcs to a satisfying career on the edge of science, but not in it. Many of my female friends live on the edge or outside of their chosen careers, be they molecular biologists, comedians, or jazz musicians. We can only speculate how many of our decisions were shaped by gender bias and our brain’s capacity to shift that bias into stories with happy endings.

Yet moving beyond individual lives, how does gender bias affect the arc of science? A weary topic, nearly 40 years later, but the findings of ongoing studies continue to demand our attention. Recent reports by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Academy of Sciences indicate that while women now outnumber men as life scientists earning PhDs (52 percent), they still comprise a meager proportion of PIs in this arena (15 percent). In addition, the AAUW study found that women job applicants have to publish three more papers in prestigious journals (or 20 more in lesser known journals) to be judged as productive as male applicants.

While it may be argued that some women simply prefer the role of primary nurturer (though take note: “happiness” researchers have found women only slightly prefer childcare to washing dishes), there’s no doubt that our culture remains infused with gender bias. For instance, psychologists have attributed the widening gap in computer sciences to video and computer games marketed to boys. And while the life sciences have seen a much greater increase in female representation than have the physical sciences, there’s reason to fear greater disparity in coming years, as imaging and analysis of massive data sets require more skills in the physical sciences and technology. Studies have shown that the more technical the field, the more “male” it becomes, and consequently the more bias against women.

The sciences stand to lose if gender biases are not corrected. On the “nature” side of the equation, studies have shown differences in male and female wiring of the brain. One profound study by Richard Haier of UC Irvine demonstrated that when men process difficult math equations, there is much higher temporal lobe metabolism in the grey matter, while women’s similar computations light up previously ignored anatomies in the white matter (Neuroimage, 25:320–27, 2005). These different neural pathways suggest that contributions by women could have meaningful alternative outcomes in the oeuvre of scientific breakthroughs.

John Donne observed that “every woman is a science” more than 400 years ago; let’s conjure the means for her to bring that unique sensibility to the bench.

 
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Comments

Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

June 3, 2010

Most people that I know with science Ph.D.s, including most of the best and most original or dedicated students, have never been close to a steady or even well-paying university job. There are many graduate students for every possible position, and the great majority of these will be disappointed, and economically disadvantaged,if they persist in the pursuit of academic employment. It has been this way since the post WW-II ramp up, which created unrealistic expectations of the opportunities in science. Whether from Cornell or Cal-Tech, many of the students that I have corresponded with over the years just 'disappear' from the academic scene. In the 70's and 80's, as universities struggled to comply with 'affirmative action' goals, 'white' males were routinely screened out of most job opportunities in academia. I know this from my own experience at the time. Freedom from discrimination as an action does not guarantee any results, but commitment to the principle is right for yourself, and it is right for science. Graduates of all sexes looking for academic employment are like a pack of wolves working over a very small carcass, perhaps only a rat carcass. Let's stop being advocates for 'my race' and 'my sex,' and look at the big picture here. Graduate education has been a holding pond for a long time, but the stream that you want to follow out of this pond has been blocked for many decades now.
Avatar of: MORGAN GIDDINGS

MORGAN GIDDINGS

Posts: 11

June 8, 2010

I am sympathetic to the discussion, but I don't think that it really helps women all that much.\n\nOur society has trained most of us to look outside of ourselves whenever we encounter an obstacle.\n\n"They rejected my proposal, the reviewer must be an ignoramus!" (when in fact the fault always lies with us as the writers)\n\n"The oil spill in the gulf is caused by big irresponsible oil companies!" (when in fact the oil companies are big and irresponsible only because we keep driving cars and buying gas from them)\n\n"My science career is moving slowly because I'm a woman and there are barriers!" (when in fact we could be doing a number of things to personally overcome those barriers so that this wouldn't be an issue).\n\nI have more thoughts about this, and "what to do about it," on my blog:\nhttp://morganonscience.com/politics-of-science/women-and-science-careers/\nor http://tinyurl.com/27wxss3\n

June 8, 2010

The article states "And while the life sciences have seen a much greater increase in female representation than have the physical sciences, there?s reason to fear greater disparity in coming years, as imaging and analysis of massive data sets require more skills in the physical sciences and technology. Studies have shown that the more technical the field, the more ?male? it becomes, and consequently the more bias against women."\n\nHow does this work? A field becomes something that attracts more men than women or is one that men do better in and somehow "gender bias" arises? The author recognizes that men and women are wired differently (something that many feminists refuse to recognize). Why is this "bias"? Why not just recognize that there are differences and deal with them. No, women should not be discriminated against (I have heard other horror tales about women in academia), but they also should not be allowed to cry "bias" every time something doesn't go their way. That attitude simply brings more division and animosity to the discussion.\n\nRead more: Our Science, Our Selves - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57454/#ixzz0qI3PZSj4\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

June 8, 2010

As the author obliquely acknowledges, this is indeed a tiresome topic. \n\nWhining about discrimination may have been relevant in the 1970s, but the point is moot now: these days, there are more female college graduates, more female physicians, and more female PhDs in a growing number of disciplines than male. The lack of women in leadership positions is simply a function of the time lag from the days of overt discrimination. In 5-10 years, males in many of these disciplines will be in the minority. \n\nAs somebody formerly in a scientific leadership position, I say let the women take over! Then perhaps they'll see how anticlimactic and ultimately meaningless such a goal is.\n\nAs the Chinese say, be careful what you wish for...\n

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