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