Archive for the 'Society' Category

No, academic science hasn’t overcome sexism

Here I am teaching Alice in Wonderland about Möbius strips and other fun mathematical concepts at GeekGirlCon last month. According to cultural stereotypes promoted by the New York Times, I shouldn't bother because girls aren't interested in math. [Credit: GeekGirlCon on Flickr]

Here I am teaching Alice in Wonderland about Möbius strips and other fun mathematical concepts at GeekGirlCon last month. According to cultural stereotypes promoted by the New York Times, I shouldn’t bother because girls aren’t interested in math…all evidence to the contrary. [Credit: GeekGirlCon on Flickr]

[Update: Emily Willingham wrote a far more thorough take-down of the New York Times piece than mine. Please go read it!]

I confess I am often guilty of science boosterism. Partly it’s an occupational hazard: most of the stories I write are news items, discussing recently published papers on new experiments or observations. While I hope I’m appropriately skeptical when it’s called for, and while I try to emphasize the messiness of science (along with the need to discuss incremental and marginal results in their proper contexts), my writing is decidedly more “yay! science!” than “here are problems that we need to solve”. Again, it’s a major part of my job to promote science — and I want to. I love science, and I am incredibly privileged to be paid to talk about it every day (even if I’m unlikely to ever be paid enough to get rich or retire or go on vacation).

But maybe it’s better to say I love the results of science, because so many things about the process fail. In particular, I think of all the scientists who might have been, but never had the opportunity — especially those who were denied or pressured into studying something else, or not studying at all. It’s rarer than it used to be for women and girls to be told explicitly that science isn’t for them, but the message is still there and incredibly pervasive.

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects — including math and science — girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.

That’s a sample from an article published online in the New York Times yesterday, which will appear in the print edition tomorrow. From the headline to the end, the article argues that sexism in science is a vestige of the benighted past. The reason women aren’t as numerous as men in physics is that they just aren’t interested in the subject, so it’s all down to biology, not pervasive sexism in the culture. All evidence to the contrary is dismissed out of hand: “That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies.”

I haven’t read the research paper for which the New York Times article is basically an advertisement. (It’s freely available at this link.) And most people won’t (not least because it’s more than 60 pages long in dense academic prose); the Times article is all they’ll see. This article will be used to support the idea that reform isn’t needed, that we don’t have to examine hiring and evaluation processes within universities, or the way we talk to children about science. Our culture already promotes the idea that “girls like fuzzy aminals and wimpy feelings while boys like manly things such as explosions and robots” (with all the wrongheaded assumptions this entails on both sides).

The basis for dismissing sexism seems to be a small study of faculty hiring practices, comparing the percentage of male and female applicants who successfully landed academic physics positions. They didn’t look at retention — the problem that many assistant professors don’t achieve tenure or are slow to be otherwise promoted — and they seem to ignore all of the factors that decide whether women feel welcome in the profession. That seems to be a significant problem, not one that should be dismissed as “anecdotal”.

I’m a physicist who writes about physics and astronomy; I’m no sociologist or social psychologist. However, it really bothers me to see people who supposedly should know better (the authors are professors of human development at Cornell, along with two economists) dismissing cultural factors out of hand to declare there is no bias. Multiple studies — dozens of studies — have shown that many factors apart from innate ability determine whether girls and women succeed in the physical sciences, including the influence of education, family, peers, and cultural influences. (Look up “stereotype threat” for more on this topic.) Active intervention to encourage girls increases their participation in math and science — and doesn’t lower performance across the board.

The whole issue is frustrating and exhausting. Every research paper I cover where all the authors are male represents the world in which we live: one in which women and girls are not-so-subtly told they don’t belong in physics. Every article such as this in the Times is another blow that hurts us all. Every story that claims women/African-Americans/whatever aren’t good enough to make the cut without examining any cultural factors is missing evidence — and is therefore failing at science.

No, sexism and racism are not a thing of the past in academic science, anymore than they are a thing of the past in society at large. Believing yourself to be free of biases is generally a bad assumption, as DN Lee points out in this excellent article on racism in science communication. Believing science as a whole is free of sexism and racism is a lovely dream, but it doesn’t gel with reality. Let’s stop making excuses for the problems in science, and actually fix them.

Update: I have been challenged fairly for letting the women in the comments section defend themselves against charges of unseriousness, impoliteness (while feeling free to be dismissive), etc. I apologize to Kelly and Tara for my passivity. It’s not fair for women to have to deal with this kind of nonsense, and I abdicated my responsibility as comment moderator. Comment moderation is an important task, and one I generally don’t need to spend a lot of time on, but in this case it needed to be done and I failed at it. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to respond in detail to every comment and must do paid work, which this blog is not. So, I am closing the comments for this post, at least temporarily.

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