Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Just What IS the Bias Again Women in Science?

Recently CNN reported that women in science still face bias. Whenever a report like this comes up many of my male counterparts ask, exactly what is this bias? Have you ever felt this way?

A few years ago at an awards dinner where I was being honored, one of the members of the awards committee observed that far more women than men had received this award. He wondered whether the tables might be turning on the gender bias in science and engineering.

I did not feel any bias in my undergraduate education. My program had ~ 33% women. My first real experiences with bias occurred in graduate school, and these were modest at best. In my first experience, I won a prestigious fellowship. The response of the graduate coordinator was that he wished that we could do as well for our male students. I think that he meant its a shame that the fellowship agencies give preference to "underrepresented minorities" like women in science and engineering. However, this attitude underscores an important point. How many other people think that I won that award at least in part because of my gender? The impact of the award is overshadowed by that unspoken question.

My second experience occurred when I was interviewing for faculty positions. One of the interviewers informed me that one of my letters of recommendation suggested that I could have increased my publication record if I hadn't taken time out to have a baby. To be honest, this is probably true, my productivity was slowed after having children. However, the recommender made it sound like a took a year off or something. I was only gone for three months, most of them over a natural break in the year!

But these are trivial examples of spoken bias. Far more pervasive is the unspoken, ingrained bias that is hard to identify and harder to describe. I once walked into a seminar where the audience was only 1:10 women, and of the women I was possibly the only Caucasian one there! That is certainly enough to make one feel uncomfortable.

The best way to explain this unspoken bias is that the system for measuring success was created by men for men. If women were involved at the inception, a different system might have emerged. In theory tenure is evaluated based on a researcher's teaching, research, and service. However, in reality, research is the primary component by far. And research is measured based on number of publication, grants, and students. The implied goal is to start a large lab, pull in a lot of money, and start pushing out papers. Such a system misses one of the most rewarding goals of science: the joy of exploration, learning, and finding things out. Researchers are not encouraged to take risks, which after all may not result in a publication. Instead they are taught to stay the course, advancing only as far as will obviously be successful.

I argue that the mission of academic research should be neither to raise money for the university nor even to produce high quality science. Those should be by-products of the primary goal: education. Education does not simply mean lecturing to a class of 500 freshman, but rather teaching graduate students one at a time, to perform thoughtful research. The greatest service that we can do is to create future generations of talented, motivated scientists. A system with this goal as a core value would likely evaluate tenure based on evaluations from graduate students and undergrads, then on service to the community and university, and finally on the amount and quality of research. Such a system would value the whole and balanced person, as the Greeks did. For what kind of researcher cannot see beyond his own work to its impact in the wider world? Connections with community, family, and others in the university are vital for anticipating the problems that will have the greatest impact when solved and create the greatest sense of wonder for the world.

Until such a time, I will have to succumb to a hyper-competitive system that defines success based on the amount of money and papers that I can create. On top of all of that, people will always wonder whether I have accomplished all this because of my gender. I believe that progress is being made, but the truest test of equality is when I can walk into a room and it never occurs to anyone there that I am a woman.


At 5:36 PM , Blogger science_gal said...

I totally agree with you. I'm in a grad school program now just trying to come anywhere near finishing my PhD, and I'm beginning to realize this might be my only opportunity to do research for the sake of research, and really try to answer something. I see how the professors around me struggle with finding funding, getting papers out and on top of that teach. Getting a grant seems to be about selling a story as opposed to solid science and its really sad.

At 6:38 PM , Anonymous Zuska said...

Even in the system you describe, there would still be the question of how research is determined to be of high quality, and who gets to set those standards. And in being evaluated by graduate students and undergraduates - well, we would have to hope for a world in which there was no bias against women professors in the first place, because the strong prejudice of all students, male and female, against women professors in science and engineering, in evaluations, is well documented.

Still...I like thinking there is another way, and you've tugged at a lot of key threads.

I have a friend who says that the true measure of equality will be when women are allowed to be mediocre in science and engineering. There are plenty of mediocre men and no one thinks to comment on it. Some day, if a woman is allowed to be just as mediocre as the man next to her - that's equality.

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