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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Gender and Science, part eight million and some odd. [20050118|12:17]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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(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.
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Comments:
From: ripperlyn
2005-01-18 14:12 (UTC)
Enlightening and thought-provoking, as usual. :)
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[User Picture]From: kujawski
2005-01-18 17:12 (UTC)

What an idiot

I wish that those losers who have to stay in the halls of academe wouldn't put out such stupid bullshit. Men do better in math and science scores because they think more linearly, whereas women think more like a spiderweb. What happens is that the man will memorize the equations and check the blocks on each step of his education in one straight line, while women by their nature seem to approach problems from different directions and see the applications for their solutions outside of just the next step in the book. It is this outside the box thinking that leads to some of our greatest advancements, and while men have been the ones to make these leaps in the past, this model of gender-based thinking (which I was taught by my mother, who has a PhD in psychology, specifically cognition, or the mechanics of how our brains work) would suggest that men may be more proficient at "plugging and puking" numbers into equaitons and performing rote functions, while women may have a leg up on new innovations.
Focus on strengths. Accentuate the positive. So typical of ivory tower leftists to tell everyone that women are predetermined by genetics to be worse at something as a way of getting them to be better at it. Goes back to the victim mentality of the left, I guess. In that context I understand where he is coming from, though I don't agree with it, in saying that women are "victim" of inferior genes and therefore should get an extra push to help them. Back to Affirmative Action again, sounds like.

-Andrzej Valentyn Kujawski
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-01-18 17:16 (UTC)

bizarre

I just can't imagine the context that would inspire these comments from the leader of one of America's most prestigious universities. Was it a keynote or was it a topic? That is so weird. And yes, totally schewed for no reason. Always so interesting to hear educated people making a case for a set of ideas based on genetics. The study of human genetics is in its infancy. There is not much about behavior that can be derived from the information at this point.
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[User Picture]From: sekl
2005-01-18 17:19 (UTC)
This guy should read the seminal work of our time, "How Not Getting Any Can Lead to Shoddy Mysognistic Research."

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[User Picture]From: foreverdirt
2005-01-18 17:34 (UTC)
Exactly. A point well put - thank you.
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[User Picture]From: wurlitzerprized
2005-01-18 18:55 (UTC)
brava.

this was always a chicken vs. egg argument to me; which came first - women + math/science = no good, or expectation of women +math/science = no good.

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[User Picture]From: wurlitzerprized
2005-01-18 18:57 (UTC)
brava.

this was always a chicken vs. egg argument to me; which came first - women + math/science = no good, or expectation of women +math/science = no good.

granted, i'm a math dyslexic, which prevented me from pursuing more fascinating areas of science that i might have otherwise loved to study, but i don't "blame" my gender, just my unique learning curve and academic proclivities.
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[User Picture]From: enn
2005-01-18 18:59 (UTC)

hello.

you know,, i was in the shower this morning, &i was listening to bbc news on the radio, &, there i was lathering the soap on my limbs, &the story about this science mamby-pamby etc starts in &i couldnt help but think of you.
but it was funny, because i was in the shower ,you see.

aagghghg!
{it is so. cold. in this city today!}
;;e
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[User Picture]From: angelcityblues
2005-01-18 19:12 (UTC)
I really hope that you send him your thoughts. Sealed with a kiss from us.

I remember my sixth-grade teacher, saying about my sister and I, to both of us and our mother in a parent-teacher conference, "All girls choke at math in the sixth grade, I see it all the time." Nevermind that he never got up and taught a math class. He would assign work and expect us to "read the book, that's what they do in college." I was twelve. No wonder I suffered at it later on. Also, he said this in front of my mother, who does math for a living (she's a CPA). Why she didn't take us out of the class, I'll never know.

At least for myself, I experienced a bias on the part of instructors (not just my sixth-grade teacher, there were others down the line, too) that I see pretty clearly now, but didn't at the time (who does when you're fourteen?!). I think, had the expectations been the same for me as it was for the boys, I might have fared better. But when I was struggling, it was difficult for me to ask for, and get, the help that I needed to understand the material. Plus, I was seen as an overachiever anyway; I blew through humanities classes without batting an eye, so my trouble in the sciences was just seen as a "weakness," something that could be ignored because I was good at other things. "Girls are better at humanities, boys are better at sciences. Duh!" At least, that's what I kept getting told. Pretty soon I just went along with it because honestly, by the time I started getting annoyed by it, it really was too late to do very much about it. I still don't know if, given the proper environment in which to become such, I would have been a great scientist. Certainly, looking back on it, I was not given much of an opportunity to find out, and I think that a lot of it had as much to do with gender misconceptions as anything else.

It's attitudes like our Harvard friend's that go a long way in perpetuating those attitudes.

I could go on. However, I think you're exactly right.
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From: joegotamuffin
2005-01-18 19:13 (UTC)
what a poop head
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[User Picture]From: katyakoshka
2005-01-18 20:14 (UTC)
Ghaa. I was regularly one of the top math students all the way through K-12. Did two years of chem. My favorite part of bio was the biochem/microbio section. The reasons I had any difficulty with calculus stemmed from 1. shitty attendance in favor of asst. costume designer duties (hunting down fabric and vintage clothes on field trips to LA beat out lunch-hour lectures from a man with a moderately heavy foreign accent) and 2. lack of practice for nearly two years. And I'm generally the best in a group at handling simple calculations or directional orientation. Good spatial reasoning, check. Hell, I did better at phonology than syntax in linguistics, contrary to the usual pattern, though the vicious, soul-sucking flu I contracted at the end of the quarter might account for the lower grade in the latter.

There is a reason the audio title we carry via license from Wiley, Boys & Girls Learn Differently, by Michael Gurian, pisses me off.

If we're anomalies that prove the rule otherwise, fine, but I think having parents who always expected the best for me, and made sure I knew I was capable of anything, academically, were what promoted my lack of real math-choking.

Now I need to rustle up some math textbooks and reacquaint myself with the discipline. If I can tear myself away from the Vorkosigans, that is. ;P
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[User Picture]From: communistgnome
2005-01-19 00:08 (UTC)
DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH

He's right, of course. With the height the counters are, and the fact that men are characteristically taller than women, you always have to be worrying about your boobs.

Knocking over beakers, getting lit on fire by bunsen burners, inviting inappropriate groping from colleagues...it's just unacceptable. Your boobs are an obstacle to the scientific process.

Go back to English or History where you can look pretty without having to worry about practical concerns, and where your boobs won't stop AIDS from being cured.

It is much easier for men to keep THEIR little dangly bits safely tucked away, so as not to get caught in drawers, cabinets, interns, etc. As such, they don't have such a physical disposition for wreaking havoc in the lab space.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-22 23:33 (UTC)
Well, hi there! Just got back from Dublin; added you again & to appropriate filters. Yes. :-)
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[User Picture]From: childe_of_fate
2005-01-21 19:42 (UTC)
"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"

well said.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-01-24 20:15 (UTC)
Well, I hope that gets as wide a circulation as the Harvard president's speech, but somehow, I bet it won't. GAH.
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[User Picture]From: 3g0
2005-02-01 00:59 (UTC)
I remembered this post and thought I'd point you to the Becker Posner Blog, where they actually talked about this same event today. Posner's a circuit court judge & Becker is a well-published economist.

I thought Becker's remarks were...um...a little thin, though they in large part echo your last statements here, that women must (and do) diversify their time and interests -- though he suggests this often happens at a baseline much earlier than graduate school, and consequently are less represented in the sciences.

I am, of course, all for the elimination of discrimination -- but I feel that it is somewhat disingenuous to either blame it on eugenic theory OR on institutional sexism. I think another facet of the impetus behind the imbalance may in very large part have to do with women themselves, how we make choices, goals and measures of success.

I kind of snarked a little at both of them, though - the whole 'women have more responsibility' thing, in my opinion is a result of women's continued willingness to shoulder greater than 50% of household/domestic responsibilities instead of deliniating tasks. The responsibility for that can't really be fully blamed on a 1950's culture of pearls & turkey dinners. I think women who really WANT to succeed have to be as innovative and authoritative as males who have similar drives. I think men are currently more than willing to accept their 'share' as it were, so then...it falls to us to change ourselves instead of blaming society for not handing it to us on a silver plate.
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