Your boyfriend must have solved the problem for you.
January 10, 2007 2:14 AM   Subscribe

"Ben Barres's work is much better than his sister's," one scientist remarked to another. The only problem is that Ben Barres and his “sister” Barbara Barres were the same person. An FTM transsexual offers a unique view of the impact of gender discrimination in science, having seen it from both sides. Despite the fact that recent studies have shown that a woman has to be 2.5 times as productive to be judged as scientifically competant as a man in the sciences, many still argue that there is actually a level playing field, a source of some frustration for many women in the field. (For a somewhat easier to read and referenced response to the Physics Today letters, check out Evalyn Gates’ reply at the end.)
posted by kyrademon (87 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a fascinating post, thank you.
posted by jb at 2:33 AM on January 10, 2007


Women in Science.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:50 AM on January 10, 2007



As a women who is in the process of beginning a second career in science, can I just say, ugh.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:04 AM on January 10, 2007


Is that a "Good grief, people still don't believe there's discrimination"-brand ugh, or a "Leave that dead horse alone"-brand ugh, palmcorder? I'd love to hear another first hand perspective.
posted by Jilder at 3:48 AM on January 10, 2007


Great post. I can identify with the frustration, although I'm in a different field.
posted by snap, crackle and pop at 3:53 AM on January 10, 2007


This doesn't surprise me at all. In my experience, respect accorded to women by default is the exception rather than the rule.
posted by miss tea at 4:10 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]



Jilder-- it's very much the former. Though at this (very, very early) phase in my retraining, I can't say I've experienced anything that I would call gender discrimination. My male professors have all been professional and supportive, and there are women in my classes who are kicking serious butt. (Indeed, of the six students who managed to finish my Bio 201 class, 100% were female. Go us.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:18 AM on January 10, 2007


I can't say that at the graduate student level, I see or hear about a lot of my female peers getting discriminated against. Then again, I don't have a lot of female peers at my university.

What I really worry about personally is some latent bias creeping into my actions when I'm teaching a course, and somehow ruining some young woman's last chance at a decent math class. Which is unlikely, but unfortunately possible.

However, I can't imagine that my children will be able to say the same thing, should they go into the sciences. I hope.
posted by TypographicalError at 4:27 AM on January 10, 2007


Perhaps Ben's presentation skills (like his map-reading, apparently) really are better, compared to when he was Barbara? That might shed light on some of the causes of the anti-female bias, if it were so.
posted by Phanx at 4:41 AM on January 10, 2007


Great post - and also great article, kisch mokusch. When I started my professional career (not in science), I believed that gender discrimination no longer had to pose any barrier, but, distressingly, since then I have seen many real examples of its profound effects, in various settings.
posted by sueinnyc at 4:47 AM on January 10, 2007


This is surely an issue in which awareness should be raised. Are there any solutions out there, aside from using more double-blind evaluations of the quality of work and waiting for societal expectations to change?
posted by sindark at 5:04 AM on January 10, 2007


The really interesting question in all this is whether Ben's new dick has a foreskin or not.

\ducks and runs
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:08 AM on January 10, 2007


Perhaps Ben's presentation skills (like his map-reading, apparently) really are better, compared to when he was Barbara? That might shed light on some of the causes of the anti-female bias, if it were so.

Yes, because physicists are known for their outstanding presentation skills. Have you ever heard of Occam's Razor?

Aside from that, bias, to my understanding, is by definition causeless. If, for example, every single woman in the world was truly horrible at physics, underrepresentation would not be the result of bias, but be caused by that skill deficit. Without any evidence to support such a view, nothwithstanding our friend Larry's "theory", why not actually listen to, and believe, women who say they have experienced gender discrimination in the field?
posted by miss tea at 5:28 AM on January 10, 2007


Great post -- I love the flickr links. I'm finishing grad school in computer science, and I haven't experienced a lot of clear discrimination first-hand, but the Summers controversy made me realize how many people (not necessarily Summers but most of his defenders) simply do not see me as an equal.
posted by transona5 at 5:33 AM on January 10, 2007


Thanks for this post. I am in a different research field but I can completely relate to the situation as described in Physics. So many of these gender biases are unconscious and it is exactly this kind of discussion that brings those biases to the fore.
posted by bluesky43 at 5:33 AM on January 10, 2007


Still, there is little evidence that lack of testosterone or anything unique to male biology is the main factor keeping women from the top ranks of science and math, says Prof. Barres, a view that is widely held among scientists who study the issue. Although more men than women in the U.S. score in the stratosphere on math tests, there is no such difference in Japan, and in Iceland the situation is flipped, with more women than men scoring at the very top.
OK, if it's the opposite in Iceland, why? What's different? Do Icelandic boys and girls (or their teachers) see mathematics as a girly subject?
posted by pracowity at 5:54 AM on January 10, 2007


This is a good post. It is interesting. But I do buy Larry Summer's theory. Intelligence for men does have a higher standard deviation than intelligence for women. As a result you will have more male genuises than female genuises. And you will have more men who are very stupid than women who are very stupid.

Male and female cognitive profiles are different and it isn't just oppression that results in different outcomes. Many more men end up in prison and it isn't because of discrimination it is because more men behave such that it is useful for society to have them locked up.

Now it does get messy, because if you are in the upper levels of academia where your peers are all great intellects more of them will be men. So I'm sure there is some bias against those women who are as qualified as men, because they are a bit of an exception. Now this isn't fair or right, but it is at least reasonable.
posted by I Foody at 5:54 AM on January 10, 2007


I remember starting my career in academia (humanities)20 years ago. A tool that was used in evaluating someone for tenure was a division of the pages published by the age of the candidate! A female academic took a test case as she felt time out to have a family allowed discrimination. Luckily she won, but until she drew attention to this everyone thought this was a valid tool!
posted by Wilder at 5:56 AM on January 10, 2007


I can't say that at the graduate student level, I see or hear about a lot of my female peers getting discriminated against. Then again, I don't have a lot of female peers at my university.

Is that not a gender issue in itself? I'm in the middle of PhD in Biochemistry and I'm female. Our department has ONE female faculty member out of about 40 positions. I was also recently told by the HEAD OF MY DEPARTMENT that the reason I didn't want to stay in academia wasn't because it's horrible but because I WANTED TO STAY HOME AND RAISE A FAMILY (which is untrue, my partner wants to be the stay at home parent in the event we have kids).

In short, there is definitely a difference in science if you're a girl but in my experience it is only with the older faculty members and less so with the younger ones.

There are too many old, white men in science and they ruin it for everyone.
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:05 AM on January 10, 2007


Add me to the chorus of "great post". We definitely need more women scientists (and many other occupations as well), but if I may play devil's advocate, there is another (partial) explanation for Prof. Barres's treatment that should be addressed. The quality of one's work typically improves over time, and Ben Barres is unavoidably a more experienced scientist/researcher than Barbara. To some extent this is why less weight should be placed on personal anectdotes than on the larger statistical studies showing evidence of discrimination.

On the other hand, Barres does a very good job arguing against the "Summers Hypothesis" especially in the Nature article that was mentioned in the second link. (I assume it is subscription only; I am able to access it at work but I don't know if anyone else can. If you want to try, it is here.)
posted by TedW at 6:23 AM on January 10, 2007


I can't say that at the graduate student level, I see or hear about a lot of my female peers getting discriminated against.

Yeah, that's probably because they aren't. In my experience (post-doc level, transitioning to faculty) the discrimination often doesn't hit home until further on in one's career. Also, the drop off in female:male ratio between graduate school to post-doc to faculty (at least in my field) is amazing. Which is yet another issue.
posted by gaspode at 6:24 AM on January 10, 2007


The analysis of the European Young Investigator awards in the third link is really interesting. Is there any comparable study that could be done on US scientists? I wonder if relatively stronger anti-discrimination employment law in the US helps at all. I can't help but think that such a study of a US scholarship program would result in a plethora of lawsuits...

I'm incredibly grateful that by the time I arrived in my profession (law), previous generations of women had already fought their way in. There's still a lot of disparity at the most elite levels, but these days gender's not much of an issue other than the standard "mommy track" problem.
posted by footnote at 6:25 AM on January 10, 2007


I do buy Larry Summer's theory. Intelligence for men does have a higher standard deviation than intelligence for women. As a result you will have more male genuises than female genuises. And you will have more men who are very stupid than women who are very stupid.

posted by I Foody at 8:54 AM EST on January 10


Foody - that's a red herring. This isn't about "geniuses" -- it's about people who work hard to get established in their professions. You do need a certain base level of intelligence to get in the door, but after that there are personal qualities much more important than "genius" to make yourself a success...and vice versa, there are impediments to success (like discrimination) that have nothing to do with relative intelligence.
posted by footnote at 6:31 AM on January 10, 2007


This is a great post, thanks. Prof. Barres experience is fascinating... I cringed when I read the anecdote surrounding "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you".
posted by crackingdes at 6:31 AM on January 10, 2007


As a women who is in the process of beginning a second career in science,

I can only assume you've gon into genetics, since you've apparently cloned yourself. [yuk-yuk-yuk]
posted by jonmc at 6:32 AM on January 10, 2007


I Foody, you have to be careful to look at how the study you are referring to (there is a study, right?) was set up. There can be a selection bias in the data or the framework of the study. This stuff is so pernicious because it is unconscious.

I wish I were surprised. When it comes to the workplace and to issues of power and prestige, feminism (or, equality if you can't get by the f word) hasn't had much of an impact.
posted by QIbHom at 6:46 AM on January 10, 2007


For those of you who would like to insist that the lack of representation of women in professional disciplines is due to some inherent property related to intelligence (distributional or otherwise), I call your attention to the book Why so slow?. This book documents in excrutiating detail how small, cumulative biases against women culminates in the patterns noted in the links above. Men have been benefitting for years by small, cumulative partiality. Why is it so difficult to accept that bias against another class/gender works in the same way?
posted by bluesky43 at 6:53 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


and Do babies matter?
posted by bluesky43 at 6:59 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's probably because they aren't. In my experience (post-doc level, transitioning to faculty) the discrimination often doesn't hit home until further on in one's career. Also, the drop off in female:male ratio between graduate school to post-doc to faculty (at least in my field) is amazing. Which is yet another issue.

While I do think that getting more diversity (of all sorts) into faculty positions is important, I also think that it must be pointed out that there is a strong counterbalancing bias these days in hiring, which comes from the highest levels. The Ivy league school where I was a postdoc recently published a summary of the highing process in the sciences over the last 5 years: around 1/3 of the applicants were female, around 1/2 of those interviewed were female, and just over 60% of those hired were female. That's a pretty strong bias for hiring women, I think.

I'm a faculty member at a different place now, and my dept is 5 people short of full due to a rash of retirements. We've been told that we will not get money to hire anyone unless at least our next two hires are women. So much for selecting the strongest candidate.

Also, I should say that I have heard quite a few ridiculously sexist statements spoken on and off the record in my time in academia, all spoken by men over 60 or women under 45. I think the pendulum swing has begun.
posted by overhauser at 7:00 AM on January 10, 2007


Great post!

To those commenting who quote studies and statistics to defend the idea that this kind of internal bias is minimal or nonexistent, be aware that the studies themselves may be, as others have pointed out, red herrings.

Additionally, the studies themselves, can, unless designed very carefully to avoid it, internalize our own (gender, for instance) biases so strongly that the bias affects the results. Simple studies of statistics are as vulnerable to this as thorough research efforts. It's widely known by scientists and researchers from every field that having a bias toward a certain result will often generate that result in our research, and not all of us remember that or care about it enough to be sure of our fundamental assumptions and research design.

So be very careful of these sorts of things - it's a very muddy area and it's hard to tell the good, solid study work from the bad, misleading, shaky study work.
posted by kalessin at 7:03 AM on January 10, 2007


Then again, I don't have a lot of female peers at my university.

Weel, there you go.
posted by caddis at 7:06 AM on January 10, 2007


*Crack - the sound of a Nun smacking caddis' knuckles with a ruler for failing to proof his last comment
posted by caddis at 7:08 AM on January 10, 2007


Awesome post. Kyrademon, you rock.
posted by carmen at 7:15 AM on January 10, 2007


In 1995, the School of Science at MIT did a study on the status of women in the School. It really is a fascinating read about subtle gender discrimination.

From the Abstract: (emphasis mine)
In 1995 the Dean of Science established a Committee to analyze the status of women faculty in the six departments in the School of Science. The Committee discovered that junior women faculty feel well supported within their departments and most do not believe that gender bias will impact their careers. Junior women faculty believe, however, that family-work conflicts may impact their careers differently from those of their male colleagues. In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT. Examination of data revealed that marginalization was often accompanied by differences in salary, space, awards, resources, and response to outside offers between men and women faculty with women receiving less despite professional accomplishments equal to those of their male colleagues.
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:25 AM on January 10, 2007


I remember reading this article when it came out, getting really annoyed, and forwarding it to a female post-doc geologist friend of mine who was working in another country at the time. She got a lot of guff for being female and very, very capable (which must have been especially galling given that she's drop-dead gorgeous, too). It annoyed the daylights out of her less-qualified male peers.

Sidenote: the public university I went to used to have a party school reputation, so they raised the admissions requirements... then promptly started to ignore them for male applicants as soon as a few 70%-female classes resulted.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:30 AM on January 10, 2007


The fact that males are more varible in intelligence than women is pretty uncontroversial. Here is a good study Sex differences in means and variability on the progressive matrices in university students: a meta-analysis. Now what is, and ought be controversial, is the extent to which this effects academic performance and hiring. And that I don't know. I think it is most likely a combination of biological apptitude effects, social and biological preference effects, and rational and irrational discrimination. Not necessarily in that order.

My main point and the point that I think is interesting is that a certain amount of discrimination is rational when real differences occur due to asymetrical information effects. This isn't an attempt to excuse this discrimination, but it does suggest different solutions than assuming that the discrimination is irrational.
posted by I Foody at 7:35 AM on January 10, 2007


What you failed to mention NOYK is the the tenured women began their careers believing the same thing. It seems that each generation of women start their careers believing that discrimination is solved only to learn, throughout their working lives, that it isn't.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:37 AM on January 10, 2007


around 1/3 of the applicants were female, around 1/2 of those interviewed were female, and just over 60% of those hired were female. That's a pretty strong bias for hiring women, I think.

How would you distinguish "bias" from the women who've successfully made it through science PhDs being systematically better candidates than the men, which we might reasonably expect those who've been additionally filtered through some degree of sex discrimination to be? Were the women and men coming from the same schools, or were the women more likely to be coming from top-tier departments, or maybe the men more likely to be unrealistically applying from bottom-feeding departments?

We've been told that we will not get money to hire anyone unless at least our next two hires are women. So much for selecting the strongest candidate.

If so, then your university is deeply broken. A more normal procedure is that the diversity people want to see an applicant pool with women and minorities in it, and expect an articulable reason why the interview list was chosen. And to answer your next question, I've been on something approaching 10 search committees so far.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:37 AM on January 10, 2007


but if I may play devil's advocate, there is another (partial) explanation for Prof. Barres's treatment that should be addressed. The quality of one's work typically improves over time, and Ben Barres is unavoidably a more experienced scientist/researcher than Barbara

Read the article. The research he was presented had been done while he was Barbara; the presentation that he is using as an illustration of bias was ten years ago.
posted by jokeefe at 7:38 AM on January 10, 2007


er...that the, not the the... (been doing this a lot lately)
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:39 AM on January 10, 2007


In school, I studied both chemistry and geology, and while there were more male professors than female professors, the ratio of male to female students was pretty much equal. I never felt I was treated any differently because I am female. In the working world, I have only been treated poorly because I'm female by one coworker, who is from an older generation. ( and incidentally an asshole) I have definitely never encountered professional or academic sexism from any young teachers or coworkers. So, it looks like things might be getting better than they were for my Mom's generation.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:40 AM on January 10, 2007


One more thing in my defense; to those suggesting bias in studies of sexual dimorphism in regard to variability of intellegence, do you have any idea how difficult it would be to design a study that would produce not different averages but different measures of variability between the sexes.

The differences in average relative cognitive apptitudes between men and women (spatial vs. memory/verbal) are pretty small so even if you loaded the test with very easy and difficult spatial questions and fairly average difficulty verbal questions it wouldn't be enough to create these results. On purpose.

I frankly think it would be almost impossible to make a study that would bias the variability in any kind of predictable fashion even if that was the sole goal of the experiment.
posted by I Foody at 7:55 AM on January 10, 2007


I frankly think it would be almost impossible to make a study that would bias the variability in any kind of predictable fashion even if that was the sole goal of the experiment.
How about the fact that men are, for whatever reason, supposedly more likely to take risks? Could that make test results skew toward the extremes?
posted by transona5 at 7:58 AM on January 10, 2007


How would you distinguish "bias" from the women who've successfully made it through science PhDs being systematically better candidates than the men, which we might reasonably expect those who've been additionally filtered through some degree of sex discrimination to be? Were the women and men coming from the same schools, or were the women more likely to be coming from top-tier departments, or maybe the men more likely to be e assumption that the 300 or so applicants for any particular unrealistically applying from bottom-feeding departments?

Yes, my feeling of bias is based on the assumption that the same degree of variation in applicant strength exists for both women and men.

So if Larry Summers says that there aren't as many women Math professors it's because men are better at math, and that's terrible (I do think that was terrible, and he is sexist). But if vastly more women than men are hired in a cohort of 100 or so people 20-something departments over a 5 year period, especially in proportion to the applicant pool composition, it's because the women candidates are universally better than the men? It seems to me that there's a double standard in your thinking.

If so, then your university is deeply broken.

Actually, I agree with this statement, but not for this reason. However, having sat on a few hiring committees myself, and talking to colleagues at other universities across the country, I don't believe that commands from on high such as this are unusual.
posted by overhauser at 8:04 AM on January 10, 2007


Your a woman. You apply for a promotion that you think you've earned. You might've been able to apply a couple of years earlier, but you wanted to be sure that your co-workers and superiors know you're a hard worker, and that you're not just looking for a bigger paycheck, but really feel that you deserve it. And you get it. But the accounting hasn't been budgeted for any salary raise this year, so it will become effective at the beginning of 2008. All fine? No discrimination, right? But if you're to find out that men are more likely to apply earlier, and more likely to get the same promotion effective immediately without delay? What then?

Your a man. Your wife has just had a child. You are now set to advance in science faster than childless men, childless women, and certainly women with children. You have a family to support, and current society responds favourably to it. How about now? Any discrimination yet?

There are certain behavious/practices that women do that disavantage themselves (such as being more likely to sell themselves short), and some things with men do that advantage themselves (like over-selling themselves). And there's the inherent bias in society that, to this day, continues to favour men over women in the workplace.

It's not about the obvious. It's little things. Lots of little complicated things.
That add up.

And forget the intelligence argument. If any of you have ever worked in the field of science, you'd realise that intelligence is not a good corollary with success.
posted by kisch mokusch at 8:08 AM on January 10, 2007


Awesome post. Kyrademon, you rock.

Yes, and 2.5 times harder than men judged to be of equal you-rockness. (Or not. I have no idea what kind of fiddly bits you have. But it's a good post.)
posted by pracowity at 8:08 AM on January 10, 2007


I Foody, can you articulate how these studies that point to variability of intelligence impact on hiring and promotion in academia? For the sake of argument, I can see how perhaps the putative greater number of male super-geniuses would lead to imbalances at, say, Harvard, if and only if all hiring was based purely on IQ/intelligence, but given the fact that most academic scientists are of normal above-average intelligence, how could this affect the balance of the universities?

Moreover, has anyone ever done a comparative study of how IQ affects scientific excellence? It would, of course, be difficult to define "excellence" without bias. However, I suspect you would find that those who excel in a traditional academic scientific discipline are in fact not at the extremes of the bell curve, but, again, of normal above-average intelligence.

The human brain is such a complex mechanism, it seems so simplistic to say "well, there are more male geniuses than female, so that answers that question!" It's so reductio ad absurdum.
posted by miss tea at 8:12 AM on January 10, 2007


How about the fact that men are, for whatever reason, supposedly more likely to take risks? Could that make test results skew toward the extremes?

I never considered this, and it is a very interesting explanation. I think it is insufficient to be a total explanation, particularly for the expression of increased variability on the low end of the intelligence spectrum, but it may have something to do with the variability and would be very interesting (and difficult) to test for.

Just to be clear Larry Summers never said that women aren't as good at math as men.
posted by I Foody at 8:15 AM on January 10, 2007


I Foody, can you articulate how these studies that point to variability of intelligence impact on hiring and promotion in academia? For the sake of argument, I can see how perhaps the putative greater number of male super-geniuses would lead to imbalances at, say, Harvard, if and only if all hiring was based purely on IQ/intelligence, but given the fact that most academic scientists are of normal above-average intelligence, how could this affect the balance of the universities?
I'll quote myself from earilier to (not) answer your question.

"Now what is, and ought be controversial, is the extent to which this effects academic performance and hiring. And that I don't know. I think it is most likely a combination of biological apptitude effects, social and biological preference effects, and rational and irrational discrimination. Not necessarily in that order."
posted by I Foody at 8:21 AM on January 10, 2007


biological apptitude effects, social and biological preference effects, and rational and irrational discrimination.

Sorry, that doesn't clear up your point for me at all. How are you distinguishing between the intelligence tests you cited earlier and "biological aptitude" and the rest of it?
posted by miss tea at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2007


What I am saying is that IQ effects almost certainly explain some of the disparity in hiring and almost certainly not all of the disparity in hiring. How much I don't know. I use biological apptitude to describe both variability differences between sexes (which are pretty big) and relative apptitude differences (which are probably real, but small).

I don't want it to seem like I'm handwaving the issue. At least some discrimination exists, on the other hand at least some of the reason women are less represented in the upper levels of academia (if not academia in general) is biological.
posted by I Foody at 8:36 AM on January 10, 2007


Just to be clear Larry Summers never said that women aren't as good at math as men.

True, I oversimplified. But that doesn't take away from the overt sexism of ROU's statement.

About the risk-taking thing, I don't know if it's risk-taking, but I do think that there's a sometimes a difference in combativeness which might have an effect. A female colleague of mine recently had a paper rejected in a completely unfair manner (it was obvious that one of the 2 reviewers had a problem with the existence of that entire field, not with her methodology or conclusions.) I had to work pretty hard to convince her to appeal the decision and not just re-submit to a lower level journal. When I asked her why she didn't want to, her reply was telling: 'I guess it's just societal. Woman don't argue and disagree like that.' As soon as she made that statement, she realized that she should appeal after all. But her first response was to go with the flow, not battle. And she's actually a pretty intimidating personality. I was very surprised.
posted by overhauser at 8:43 AM on January 10, 2007


I received my Ph.D. in Biology (marine biology, in fact), a field that has a reputation for being a bit friendlier to women than the physical sciences. My lab, at its peak, had 13 students - 12 women, and 1 man.
The program right now (looking at the website) has 17 students, 4 of whom are men. It also has 7 male full-time faculty, one male adjunct faculty member, and two female adjunct faculty members.
After my Ph.D. I decided to explore the "education and outreach" aspect of biology, and I work for a non-profit with four female staff. I am also one of four regional coordinators for a state-wide program, and 3 out of the 4 are women.
As gaspode said, there's a big drop-off between graduate school and the post-doc/faculty level. Some of this could be due to bias, but I think some of it is due to women choosing to work outside of academia. That said, I will probably try to get myself back into academia within a few years.
posted by nekton at 8:46 AM on January 10, 2007


I am in academia also in applied physics (or applied math, whatever) and as gaspode above I have come to realize that one of the major issues regarding equality in science is the degree of retention. Retention of female science students who will go for PhD's and retention of female science PhD's who will go further to academia or R&D.

I could not easily find similar studies from the U.S. (if someone has please post!) but in Europe we see that about 50% of science students are women and in the end about 20% will hold a faculty position (relative to the mixed numbers respectively). So where do all the women go? And why? In this comprehensive study by an EU foundation 50.4% of people working in science and technology are women whereas only 44.1% of the total employment are women (pdf). In fact women dominate the number of men who work in knowledge intensive services. So, women in general go to science and stay in it. Which to me means that there is no physiological or societal gender selection. Fair enough?

But, as the study goes on to show that women will be involved in leading-edge technology in physical, mathematical and engineering occupations and life science and health occupations (see table 3) at a whooping 29%. And that is the case throughout Europe (so I assume the rest of the western world). The regional breakdown is also revealing. I for example expected Scandinavian countries to hold strong, but it is really ex-soviet states and ...Portugal. The lowest percentages are in central Europe (Switzerland and mid-south Germany). Note also the division between northern and southern Italy, with higher percentages in southern Italy (woot!)

Finally, from the same study, it is interesting to note that unemployment gap among women and men in science and technology is much, much less than in non-science and technology (figure 5).

My point is, I guess, that attribution of the causes of the very well defined and real problem (that women to not reach the highest levels in leading edge technology and science) is not so easy, as say women are stupid, or men are oppressive or women have babies. Are men more oppressive in northern Italy? Don't they have kids in Bulgaria?
posted by carmina at 8:49 AM on January 10, 2007


Don't they have kids in Bulgaria?
Not all that often.

posted by I Foody at 8:58 AM on January 10, 2007


I for example expected Scandinavian countries to hold strong, but it is really ex-soviet states and ...Portugal. The lowest percentages are in central Europe (Switzerland and mid-south Germany). Note also the division between northern and southern Italy, with higher percentages in southern Italy (woot!)

This data could be construed as supporting the baby hypothesis. The ex-soviet countries have undergone a well-documented decrease in birthrate since the fall of the Berlin wall and Italy's population is actually shrinking because their birthrate is below replacement level. Though I don't know the north/south Italian birthrates.
posted by overhauser at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2007


I Foody, thanks for the link. In there in fact you see that Switzerland, Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria share the same birthrates but from my link very different rates in women in top science jobs.

yes, overhauser, but low birthrates are pretty much the case everywhere in Europe. In fact, given the amazing social support towards parents in Scandinavia I would assume it is better there...
posted by carmina at 9:10 AM on January 10, 2007


overhauser, clever readers of my last post will note that I did not say that the hiring statistics you noted were due to women being better.

What I said was that you don't have the slightest idea why that happened, and your conclusion that it was due to "bias" is unwarranted. Absent a rigorous and objective analysis that disconfirms alternative hypotheses, all you have is the noting of a simple statistical artifact that could be from any number of sources.

Maybe there was intentional bias towards hiring women even at the expense of faculty quality and qualifications.

Maybe there was more hiring over the past few years in, say, psychology or other fields that traditionally draw more women, and less in fields where women are rarer, skewing both the applicant pool and the pool of people making hiring decisions.

Maybe the women really were systematically better candidates than the men for one reason or another. Having to pass through an additional filtering process might be one reason. Something as simple as random fluctuations in the applicant pool for graduate schools might be another.

Maybe the usual networking effects happened to work out that the relevant schools were drawing from schools that had more women PhD candidates because they happen to randomly have more women to work with.

Maybe the usual follow-the-herd pattern ended up with the relatively few people who end up with 8 offers being more likely to be women.

I don't have the slightest fucking idea which of these, or any number of other possibilities, actually took place. And neither do you, to reiterate my point.

Even if we agree that there is some bias towards hiring women, at least all else equal, what you noted does not give the slightest hint how large that bias is relative to the various other reasons why we might observe a difference in the probability of being hired. Nor does what you noted indicate whether or to what extent there is a bias in hiring, a bias in admissions to top-flight graduate programs, a bias in working with top faculty, or whatever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 AM on January 10, 2007


After looking at the website I Foody (great name, BTW) linked to, I take it back. Germany is just as low as everyone else, and below Bulgaria's.
posted by overhauser at 9:13 AM on January 10, 2007


Just to be clear my pointing out the very low birthrate in Bulgaria was a joke about specifically calling citing Bulgaria's birthrate and not me saying "Dudes, it is all about birthrates!"
posted by I Foody at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2007


I was a chemistry major at an all-women's college, graduating about 20 years ago. I then went onto graduate school in chemistry, and was one of only 2 female graduate students in the very large department. I was, to put it bluntly, shocked at the difference in the way my male student counterparts were treated by the (all male) professors. My fellow female graduate student and I banded together for support - thank goodness we had each other.

Once we were all doing research in one of the labs, and I kept noticing the very strong smell in the room - when I mentioned it to the professor (who, by the way, insisted that we females call him "Dr. Fullofhimself" instead of John like the male students), he casually threw out that the hoods were not working that day. I was horrified, knowing that the solvent that we were using was teratogenic and thus absolutely needed to be vented properly. When I expressed my discomfort, he sneered at me and told me to leave the room and let the "real graduate students" do the work.

He was probably the most blatant at discriminating against women, but there was plenty of subtle discrimination from others in school, and then out of school in my first job.

I moved into consulting pretty quickly.
posted by Flakypastry at 9:22 AM on January 10, 2007


I Foody, it's pretty well-accepted that bias plays a role in the hiring disparity between genders. There's a good paper that I can't seem to find right now, wherein identical apps were sent to psychology depts. under male or female names, for tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. Applications submitted under female names were judged far more harshly [by both men and women.] Similar studies tend to confirm the existence of bias, although the amount of bias observed varies. [I'll see if I can dig up the actual studies later, when I have a little more time.]

The danger in Larry Summer's words - and in your emphasis on variability in male intelligence - is not that [horrors!] men and women may not be identical. Rather, the danger lies in the fact that emphasis on male variability tends to come at the expense of emphasis on the existence of discrimination. This is a problem, because so many studies have proven that discrimination exists: equally qualified women are hired at a lower rate, face all kinds of other difficulties, etc. We know that discrimination exists. Once we've dealt with discrimination, we'll be better able to tell how much male variability in intelligence actually affects gender composition of academic departments. For too many people, however, the greater-variability-in-men thing leads to complacence: since there's not much public or official discrimination against women anymore, any remaining differences in gender composition of academic departments are due to the larger number of male geniuses, so we might as well stop trying.
posted by ubersturm at 9:23 AM on January 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


Actually, Ben Barres says there may be something to the stereotype that men are better map readers. The testosterone he received to become male improved his spatial abilities, he writes in Nature, though "I still get lost every time I drive."

They throw this aside into this fascinating article, but it really doesn't make sense. Testosterone improved the abilities of one person. Doesn't mean that the entire male population is ahead of the entire female population in map reading, even if (and I do say if) they are higher in testosterone. I know this because I'm better than most males with maps and spatial tasks, but I have no reason to think I have more testosterone than them. It's a silly aside -- but then some people take it seriously that maybe all men have better map skills because they're men. I think it's mostly nurture rather than nature. I've been to other cultures where no one seems able to use a map. Clearly spending the time with the tasks/functions in question makes the main difference.
posted by Listener at 9:24 AM on January 10, 2007


overhauser, clever readers of my last post will note that I did not say that the hiring statistics you noted were due to women being better.

No, you suggested it:

How would you distinguish "bias" from the women who've successfully made it through science PhDs being systematically better candidates than the men


Also, you said

Absent a rigorous and objective analysis that disconfirms alternative hypotheses, all you have is the noting of a simple statistical artifact that could be from any number of sources.e

I believe that there could be statistical 'noise' effect in a small applicant pool, this is too large of a sample size for it to be true, IMO. Over 100 people hired, almost 20,000 applicants, every single department that was scientifically oriented, 5 years. Not noise.

In one case that I was close to, I know that the chair of the hiring committee was told that they could give significantly more start-up funding to a woman or minority candidate using a special university fund. That would make the Uni's offer more competitive if 'herd behavior' were true, making it more likely to capture sought-after woman candidates. It is an example of institutional bias in the opposite direction from normal. I have no idea or information if that was the case in any of the >100 other hiring decisions.

I hope you realize that you're using exactly the same arguments ('small sample size, not normal behavior!') and then fall-back positions ('mitigating factors, need more analysis!') that the 'old-boy' network used to defend their pro-male biased hiring decisions back in the 70s and 80s.

Also, I'm not arguing against these biases. I think, especially in the physical sciences, we need to take action to hire more women faculty. I just think that if we're going to have this discussion all the information should be presented.
posted by overhauser at 9:54 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Excellent post kyrademon! What came to mind was LobsterMitten's brilliant comment on the Ask MetaFilter thread re Why the dearth of female philosophers? And also the story of Candace Pert (aside: I do not agree with the concept in this article that God is a neuropeptide) (another article about Candace Pert).
posted by nickyskye at 10:19 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


oh yes, nickyskye's comment reminded me of something which also relates to LobsterMitten's comment: the reason that today there is a "bottleneck" in how women choose/get promoted to top science jobs might (or might not) have nothing to do with the reasons historically there have been not many women scientists.
Case in point: medieval women scientists came from central Europe really not eastern Europe.
posted by carmina at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can you honestly not parse simple phrases like "How would you distinguish"?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 AM on January 10, 2007



Can you honestly not parse simple phrases like "How would you distinguish"?

So, Larry Summers statements would have been perfectly fine if presented as a question?

"In response to that, I would ask how you would distinguish between institutional bias and male mathematicians being superior at the highest levels."

That wouldn't be offensive at all, would it?
posted by overhauser at 10:39 AM on January 10, 2007


Thanks for this post.
posted by serazin at 10:49 AM on January 10, 2007


Wow, LobsterMitten's comment is brilliant.
posted by overhauser at 11:00 AM on January 10, 2007


Testosterone improved the abilities of one person. Doesn't mean that the entire male population is ahead of the entire female population in map reading, even if (and I do say if) they are higher in testosterone. I know this because I'm better than most males with maps and spatial tasks, but I have no reason to think I have more testosterone than them.

More anecdotal stuff: when all that testosterone left my system, to be replaced by oestrogen, my spatial skills suffered appreciably. I find it harder to visualise objects in 3D space, I confuse East and West (which I never did before), and my ability to read maps fell into a deep dark hole, out from which it has never crawled.

Not suggesting that my experience is representative, of course; just mentioning that it happens to match his, except in reverse.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:09 AM on January 10, 2007


Sure, ArmyOfKittens, maybe testosterone does affect spatial skils within any given person. Notwithstanding, it doesn't apply to populations, though. That's interesting that you experienced that, though.
posted by Listener at 11:13 AM on January 10, 2007


Notice not one of the departments or university science labs have hired ONE black comedy writer!







Ok. Ok. I'm leaving. This thread is too smart for me anyways. Sorry about that.
posted by tkchrist at 11:22 AM on January 10, 2007


"In response to that, I would ask how you would distinguish between institutional bias and male mathematicians being superior at the highest levels."

There is a wee bit of difference between people talking on a web page and the president of a university announcing things that seem to be relevant to his decision-making.

But if said outside that environment, I don't think it would be offensive. If anything, it would be an important part of assessing the degree to which the university's decisions are wrongfully biased, versus the university making unbiased decisions while being inescapably enmeshed in a larger system that is biased and creates a biased applicant pool.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:28 AM on January 10, 2007


There is a wee bit of difference between people talking on a web page and the president of a university announcing things that seem to be relevant to his decision-making.

True enough, which is why I'm pointing out the hypocrisy of your statement as opposed to organizing a faculty revolt :)
However, as you said, you've sat on ~10 hiring committees, so perhaps you are announcing something that is relevant to your decision making, and which has a little more impact than a civil discussion on a web page.

I can't help but think that your immediate response that external (societal) bias could result in woman applicants being universally superior to male applicants sounds suspiciously similar to biased arguments made (and debunked) in the past supporting overwhelmingly male faculty compositions.

We should probably stop here, and please feel free to email me so we can talk without subjecting everyone else to our discussion. Or take the last word publicly and then email me. I'll let you have it.
posted by overhauser at 12:03 PM on January 10, 2007


I took issue with what I saw as the implication that of course the only way that women would be more likely to be hired from the applicant pool was because of discrimination in their favor in the hiring process itself. If you did not intend to make that implication, I apologize for misreading you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:40 PM on January 10, 2007


There's a neuroscience researcher who is a female-to-male transsexual and he jokes to his friends who are shy about oral presentations that they should get a shot of testosterone...

In my class of graduate students (neurosci), the split is about 50/50. Same was true in my MSc Laboratory Medicine class. The neurosci faculty here is pretty close to 50/50 male/female, too.

I have to admit that the raising children thing is a burden; there's a postdoc in my lab who had a child during her MSc, and another one during her PhD. Fortunately she had a CIHR grant that allowed her paid maternity (and paternity) leave, but she had to get a full time job for a couple of months in order to get unemployment insurance to supplement the leave salary. She's said that she wanted children and deliberately had them early in her career so it wouldn't interfere as much (young children require a lot more 'taking care of' than, say, kids in highschool) with her tenure-track career.
posted by porpoise at 12:48 PM on January 10, 2007


As usual, the Pinker vs. Spelke debate scooped you. :)

Its known that women and minorities preform better when more objective measures are used; hence why minorities preform so well in sports. Academia just needs more objective standards.

But young academics are subjectively evaluated upon future promiss. And people are simply hard wired to see more potential in males, likely because successful males can have more children.

So being explicit about when candidates can be evaluated based upon future potential and when they must be evaluated based upon past preformance will help women enormously.

Single sex eduation will also help women enormously since apperently being in school with boys really screws them over somehow.

Finally simply increasing the total number of people working in the sciences, while expencive, does help solve this problem because: most discrimnation is at the level of ordinary scientists (super geniuses are usually recognized regardless) so increasing the number of people will naturally reduce the need to evaluate based upon future preformance.

All that having been said, there are diffrences in variance between men & women, i.e. more retard & most geniouses will be male. So quite yelling at top notch schools who employ the very best & start yelling at the ordinary state universities who employ the vast majority of scientists, this is where most real discrimination occurs.

As for the child raising issue, the African-American community has already solved this for us: you should plan to raise your grand children, and let them work while they are still young.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:38 PM on January 10, 2007


"All that having been said, there are differences in variance between men & women ..."

This statistic (essentially, that studies have shown that men have more outliers on both sides of the IQ scale) has been referenced a number of times in this thread. A couple of times, it has been used to support what we might call the Harvard Hypothesis - that while in most situations, men are hired in excess of women because of discrimination, at elite institutions that hire the best of the best of the best, such as Harvard, there may be a valid reason for the imbalance because more high-side outliers will be men.

Frankly, I don't buy it.

The idea makes a number of assumptions I strongly suspect are more "truthy" than actually true, such as that extremely high IQ will correlate very closely what such elite institutions will look for when they hire faculty. Sounds plausible on the face of it ... unless you've worked in academia.

I am not at all sure that scientific productivity, choice of subfield or specialization, and academic social networking are at all closely correlated with extremely high IQ. The only study I've actually seen relating to the matter is Weinberger's data (linked in Evalyn Gates response at the end of the "level playing field" link) which seems to hint that this isn't the case at all.

This is not to say, of course, that intelligence has no connection to success in academia. But frankly, beyond a certain level of intelligence which men and women seem to achieve in roughly equal numbers, I think other factors matter more. Being a high outlier in intelligence is no guarantee that you will collaborate well with others, that you will choose a "hot" field or helpful advisor in your grad school years, or even that you are good at writing grant proposals.

In other words, I don't think Harvard is hiring "geniuses" ... or rather, I don't think that "genius" is really determined by having an outlier IQ. Interest, effort, luck, and even political savvy all are just as critical, if not more so, once you hit a certain basic level of pretty darn smart.

Yes, having astonishing insight or an ability to make new and previously unthought-of connections matters a great deal (although I also wonder how much *those* are correlated to extremely high IQ.) But scientists, even at "best of the best of the best" institutions, are not really solitary geniuses coming up with brilliant insights three for a penny, in nearly all cases. They are people who get a couple of good or interesting ideas and then plug away at them through hundreds of hours of rather tedious scutwork with a team of similar people.

That doesn't take a 200 IQ. It takes a good intellect and a lot of perspiration.

Remember that Larry Summers was originally called out because women hires dropped precipitously on his watch (eventually leading to his famous or infamous speech, depending on your point of view), *not* because he changed the requirements for achievement or IQ, but because he CHANGED THE AGE RANGE for preferred hires to one that is generally thought to make it more difficult to hire women in current American society. Not intelligence. Age range. Something to think about.
posted by kyrademon at 4:38 PM on January 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


Circumcision.

Just kidding. Thanks for the interesting post.
posted by koeselitz at 5:05 PM on January 10, 2007


and while there were more male professors than female professors, the ratio of male to female students was pretty much equal.

But it's been like this for the last fifteen years at the biology departments of Universities I've been aware of/involved in (female students have been slowly increasing but were already well represented, faculty doesn't reflect this at either a senior or junior level). When exactly are the extra female PhDs going to be let into the faculty? Why doesn't the gender spread of scientists, and to a lesser extent post docs, reflect the types of students getting PhDs? I've also worked at several biological research facilities and the majority of technicians are generally female. The overall number of each gender involved in the science industry in NZ is similar, but the seniority of jobs for each gender to them is skewed (I can't remember where I saw these numbers but they're from some government report I read last year).

There are lots of reasons for this. Many females chose to remain technicians because it's easier to bring up a family. I know some women who gave up plans to do a PhD to instead bring up children. This isn't bias necessarily, but personal lifestyle choice. The Nature articles and debate spawned around them did a good job of looking at these reasons, and this is a good FPP summarising it all.

But there sure as hell is discrimination. Not really at a graduate level, I've found being a female science PhD student is actually looked upon favourably and there is a lot of support available, but definitely at both lower and higher levels. The snark I've heard about female scientists is terrible and would never be aimed at the males, including male scientists purposefully taking resources from female ones that they feel threatened by. (it is also incredibly common to gossip about the more successful and outgoing females as being slutty, I've seen this in several different groups). The attitude I used to cop when I was a technician could also be crappy, albeit in a different way. I literally had a boss pat my arm and say "don't worry your pretty little head about it", and mean it. Female technicians are often put into a subservient child-like role by the patriarchal scientists, who justify it by assuming if the technician deserves better why didn't they do a PhD? And on the whole I've worked in friendly, supportive workplaces. I hate to see what it's like in more male dominated fields.

Pretending it's about intelligence spread or different working styles is disingenuous. Females in science get put in their place, and anyone who hasn't had it happen yet, will. I'm not going to let it stop me being successful, I'm very ambitious, but it's better to acknowledge the way things are and work with it than pretend it's all been fixed or that it was justified in the first place.
posted by shelleycat at 5:06 PM on January 10, 2007


Single sex eduation will also help women enormously since apperently being in school with boys really screws them over somehow.

I read a really interesting news article about this last year. It was comment by a senior teacher at a school somewhere in NZ that had both single sex and mixed sex classes. So it took out all the other variables, teachers, clessrooms and resources were the same and only the gender mix of the class varied. Both classes did equally well on standardised testing and had similar academic spreads. Obviously it was only one datapoint (and I'm unsure how many single sex classes there were in the generally-co-oed school), but it did give an interesting insight into the phenomena.

In practise it doesn't mean single sex schools arn't better or you shouldn't send your children to one. But it's likely that they are better more because they are better schools (e.g. better resourced of better teachers) rather than anything magical about only having boys or girls in the classroom.
posted by shelleycat at 5:26 PM on January 10, 2007


Thanks for the post. More on the largely unacknowledged social inputs of science:

Creative Couples in the Sciences examines the effect of married status and spousal joint collaboration on the careers of historical women scientists including Marie Curie. Among the many issues discussed are differential access to opportunities and resources, and prevalence of a default perception (on the part of, eg, academic peers and superiors) attributing scientific credit and credibility to husband, when both spouses, in fact, contributed equally. (Some wives complicit in this, though, for understandable reasons.)

Kim Tolley's The Science Education of American Girls shows that American schools from early to mid-1800s taught science and math to girls because, until the late 19th century in the US, Classics (ie Latin and Greek literature) were THE mark of intellect and class, the true sign of a cultured gentleman. Classics were thus considered appropriate learning for boys only, while girls got the - at the time - less-prestigious and perceived as easier sciences. (Please note I'm talking about the equivalent of high school curricula here, not perceptions of adult men and women making original contributions to science). The reversal in status of sciences and classics began to be obvious through the last decades of the 1800s, as (among other factors) more and more sciences successfully professionalized. Boys abandoned classics in droves, in favour of science education that would lead to the newly multiplying and lucrative science jobs opening up. Subsequently it became "common sense" that schoolboys were better at science than Latin, and schoolgirls were better at Latin and bad at science/math. (Similar trend in England during the same period, documented by Patricia Phillips, The Scientific Lady.)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:36 PM on January 10, 2007


kyrademon, I agree that "intelligence" isn't the most important trait if your talking about most sciences, but mathematics & theoretical physics are not most sciences, and this is where people actually talk about variance in intelligence. Now obviously most mathematicians have merely this "certain level of intelligence which men and women seem to achieve in roughly equal numbers". But more *is* extremely useful in such fields.

Here the question shouldn't be "Is more intelligence very useful?" but "Is there some collection of traits whose benifits continue to increase at one extreme?" It seems odd to imagine that you won't find such situations. But, as I said above, it also seems odd to imagine that they are the norm or are not discipline specific, and that was Larry Summers mistake.

But my suggestion about changing the focus from Harvard & such to the wider majority of universities is also based upon other indications that this is where most discrimination occurs, as well as the idea that more objective measures can more easily be used here.

For example, my other suggestion, that academia needs rules about when subjective estimates of future results can be used in the highering process, is also targeted at the average institution where estimating future potential seems more subjective than at say Harvard.

shelleycat, Single sex schools might also correlate with parents pushing their kids more. So sure maybe its all other factors. However, the positive effects of single sex eduaction on women are quite pronounced, while having no effect on males. So there is a sex linked factor here, even if its parenal. And women might even benifit more from better teachers. But it seems your partially mixed school failed to capture the positive gender based effect as usually witnessed, which is interesting in an of itself.

Nice links cybercoitus interruptus!
posted by jeffburdges at 3:29 AM on January 13, 2007


This thing I find most interesting about the single sex school aspect of this discussion is that in NZ the press is all about benefits to males, as they are the ones underperforming in school. It's generally considered that female students don't necessarily need the advantage as they tend to dominate the upper end of grades given regardless (my time in high shool certain bears this out although it was 14 years ago) and the research and discussion is looking at how varying teaching styles and single sex classrooms can be used to help boys achieve better.

The school I mentioned had both types of classes as far as I recall (all boy, all girl and mixed) and still showed no difference. It may be that if they used different teachers for each and matched teaching style to supposed learning style of each gender then they would have seen greater improvements. Although again that would have been about the teacher and not so much about only having one gender in the classroom.

I don't know if these numbers are the same in other countries, maybe elsewhere females are doing worse educationally. But the government numbers I've seen here show higher grades in high school for females (we have national standardised testing) and a larger proportion of female undergrad students than males. In my biology department, and most others in NZ I believe, more than 50% of PhD students are female and has been for some time. Yet this isn't translating into greater numbers at a senior level, which to me indicates that something is turning these women away from active science careers. It might not be a bad thing, it may be that they are choosing other, equally valid career paths, but it's certainly worth investigating.
posted by shelleycat at 2:17 PM on January 13, 2007


I don't think anyone knows why single sex schools changes are different. My personal has three components:

PC part: Teachers learn to teach to males if they teach males, but teachers learn to teach to girls if the don't teach males, i.e. an extremely subtle geneticalluy programmed prejudice.

non-PC part: Girls behaive differently in the presence of boys, i.e. the standard gender based differences in play cause harm to girls. Similarly women may be wired to compete more with women than men; hence girls learn to compete more effectively in all girls schools, applying it to men latter.

I've never heard people talk about advantages to boys, its not impossible, but I don't quite trust it without seeing some evidence that these advantages exist.

As I said above, the solution to the particular problem about females not using their PhDs in later life is: grand parents should raise their children's children. And universities need free daycare for faculty too.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:25 AM on January 15, 2007


Here's an uncomfortable question: How many of you who attribute this to gender discrimination also believe that any changes to the way people treat you after plastic surgery are solely due to new-found confidence?
posted by adipocere at 11:51 AM on January 22, 2007


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