Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

Gender and Science, part eight million and some odd.

(Provoked by a link from ripperlyn to this tasty news item.)

At a recent conference, the new Harvard University president suggested that men are more often genetically predisposed towards the pursuit of scientific research. He cited boys' consistently higher test scores in math and science as well as the burdens of motherhood as evidence. One of his male colleagues said that this man's "daring" to point out the continuing gender inequities in science and to explore all the potential causes demonstrated his commitment to the advancement of women in science.

I find this highly amusing. For one thing, the "evidence" cited can easily be shown to arise from the existing social structure in academics from elementary school on up. It is not scientifically valid to conclude that test scores and child-rearing concerns constitute proof of genetic causality. At most, they constitute evidence of the correlation between gender inequity, pedagogical methods, and academic culture. While I don't deny that it would be interesting to explore potential genetic links between various types of learning and sex, I hardly think that a reductionist approach – seeking solely for a genetic cause – is going to solve the problem of gender inequity in the upper ranks of academic research science. I can even see why a genetic cause is so appealing to certain members of the academic community. If ever a link between genetically determined traits such as sex or race and scientific learning were convincingly demonstrated, they'd have a most delightful excuse for failing to modify the behaviors which make the academic environment inhospitable to those who don't conform to the dominant archetype.

There are a great many factors which inform the decision of each individual whether or not to continue in academic science. By the time a person becomes a Ph.D. candidate, s/he has already had to explore, very much consciously, the limits of his/her intellectual abilities as well as the social pressures s/he faces from within the scientific community and without. The desire to live a balanced life is not an exclusively female trait. I know many male Ph.D.s who have chosen not to continue on an academic career path because they did not want to work eighty-hour weeks for seven years while attempting to achieve tenure. Instead, they wanted to devote some of their time to other achievements, such as, to pick completely at random here, starting and raising a family. Some of them wanted to dedicate their time to teaching rather than research and hence pursued community college or high school positions instead of posts at R1 institutions. Some went from graduate school into medical or law school because they wanted their work to have more immediate social benefits, or they wanted to make more money. In other words, men have at least as complex a set of priorities to determine for themselves when choosing whether or not to continue a career in academic research as women do.

Additionally, the women currently in academic faculty positions have found ways to overcome the burdens of child-bearing and child-rearing. Some choose to hire nannies, if they are single or have spouses who also work, and accept playing a secondary role in child-rearing. Others choose to hire more postdoctoral help in their research laboratories and distribute certain responsibilities, such as grant-writing, to their subordinates, so that they might have time to devote to playing a primary role in child-rearing. The barriers to child-bearing are hardly insurmountable. By the time a woman comes to the point where she's deciding whether or not to pursue and academic career, child-rearing is but one of her considerations. She is also equally aware of her interest level in the subject matter, her time-management abilities and her interest in devoting her energy to teaching vs. research, to name a few.

My point is that even if men were more often genetically predisposed towards scientific learning than women were, that trait alone would hardly carry them very far once they hit the upper echelons of academia. Oftentimes, difficulty with a particular subject matter can drive a person to achieve more than a person who finds that they can absorb the material with ease. I chose to earn a Ph.D. in the physical sciences partly because I found that physics and chemistry were the most challenging subjects for me in high school, and I had straight As in every subject. I actually had to work to succeed in those classes. In my opinion, if you bind yourself to what you're told you're genetically predisposed to succeed in doing, you're setting yourself up for a life of mediocrity no matter what your sex.
Tags: academia, gender, science
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