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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Discrimination Against Women in Science (Redux)

I have spoken several times about the discrimination against women in science, but recently several reports have come out which prompted comment on my part again (AAAS, and a members only story in PRISM COVER STORY: Why Won’t She Listen? JUST WHEN WOMEN START TO MAKE THEIR MARK AS ENGINEERING EDUCATORS, YOUNG FEMALE STUDENTS ARE TUNING THEM OUT. - BY MARGARET LOFTUS).

So once again we are asked what is the bias against women in STEM, and why don't women want to study in STEM areas?

From my personal experience I can offer these insights.
  • My guidance counselor didn't want me to take two science classes my senior year because it was considered too "hard."
  • She also didn't want me to apply to MIT, because my chances of getting in were low.
  • About 75% of the time I win a research award, at least one person congratulating me mentions that it is because I am a woman.
  • As a caucasian woman, I am always a minority at a conference, seminar, etc.
  • Colleagues/peers have commented on my attractiveness and intelligence in the same sentence more than once. (Does this happen to men?)
  • I could make at least 1.5 times as much money in industry for shorter, more regular hours with less travel.
So the bias is subtle, but there. What are your thoughts about women in STEM? Bias/no bias? Why don't more women want to pursue STEM careers? Is it bias? or inability to adequately balance work and life?


At 2:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about being a minority. I was at one point in grad school the only caucasian female PhD student in my entire department.

At 3:19 PM , Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

I've been meaning to write about this for a while and my viewpoint (I think it's a very bad decision to push women into STEM) since I am certainly in the minority with my thinking.
That said, it really frustrates me when people tell girls to go into science because it's just a myth that science is hard. I'm sorry, but I really think that it IS difficult. Troubleshooting everything that goes wrong with my research and coming up with new experiments is not easy. My graduate school courses were extremely difficult. When people tell girls that science isn't hard, it makes me feel like I'm unintelligent because I think it's difficult. I have friends pursuing Ph.D.'s in other fields, and I assure you that for the vast majority, the Ph.D. process is much easier. They take only 3 hours of class per day and have the rest of the time free as they please -- sure, once they start a thesis project it takes more time, but for the first 2 years, they are all working full-time jobs in retail because they are so bored. I had 3 hours of classes per day, and was required to work 40 hours/week in a lab, and had to study about another 20 hours/week outside of the lab just to pass (nevermind doing well in) my classes.
I don't buy the science is easy theory. I'm not the brightest bulb in the box, but I'm not the dimmest either, and I think what I do is pretty darn difficult.

At 4:44 PM , Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

I think there is lots of bias out there and that it is not evenly distributed among fields. Personally, I have never felt any bias at all, but I have worked only in female dominated labs (it's no small point that there are enough female dominated labs that I have been able to work in more than one). Thus, my qualms about pursuing a research career come from work/life balance issues, which I think generally affect women more than men.

I went to a smallish undergrad university so I had little exposure to research before I got a job as a tech after graduation. Maybe I would have been turned off by a career as a scientist if I had had an image of what it's like...No matter. I'm in it now.

At 9:55 PM , Blogger Jane said...

Oh, I think there's definitely bias. But in computer science, I think culture plays a very big role as well. I mean, what woman wants to go into a field where (a) she's so outnumbered, (b) the work is portrayed as very solitary and esoteric (though the reality is much, much different), (c) she has to worry about being hit on by her peers (and sometimes, by people in positions of power over her---ick), and (d) is made to feel like a weirdo or a moron because the vocal minority of her peers has no social skills/is focused singlemindedly on all things technical. The vast majority of computer scientists are not like that, but the image still exists, and unfortunately CS seems to really bring out the wackos, too, who do fit the image. It's an uphill battle to change perceptions.

At 8:45 PM , Blogger ScienceGirl said...

I've been told many many times that girls can't do math/science, to which my response has always been "watch me;" I based my decisions on an observation that none of these things were any harder for me than the boys around me, and that science fascinated me. Jane did a great job describing my undergrad years - being the only girl in class is not for the lighthearted. By the time I became a grad student all this superficial stuff bothered me less, but now that I am considering having children, I am quite worried that all my efforts might be undermined by the fact that I am not willing to give up my life for my work. I have gone from thinking that I can do anything I like to realizing: it might really not be the case if I don't find a job that leaves me time to take care of my family. Had I realized the work requirements of being a scientist earlier, I am not sure I would have made the same decisions.

At 2:59 AM , Blogger Jennie said...

I also had a guidance counselor who was concerned I was taking calculus and chemistry at the same time. Before that I had another counselor tell me that people don't double major in Environmental Studies and Chemistry (they do biology or political science), so I switched to an Earth Science major. Two years later I found a male undergrad doing the double major I wanted. Both of these counselors were female. I'm not sure if this was biased or not. But it lated pissed me off.
I don't think people are generally saying science isn't hard but just trying to say hey anyone can do it if they have the desire to, male or female.
I can't speak for all women but the only reason why I wouldn't purse a career in STEM is due to the high demands of it. Although I can't see myself doing anything but science. I feel there are many options in a science career in my field.

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At 7:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely see lots of bias, but the majority of it is subtle in that it is "institutional" bias - i.e. this is the way things have always been done, and this is the way we do them, and if you don't conform to this working for you, there's something wrong with you or you're not good enough, etc. I have also seen my share of male professors who make too many sexual comments and jokes for me to be comfortable around them, particularly since they are in the positions of power. In general I'm fine with sexual humor, but I don't think it belongs in a professional environment, where power and status play a role.

I'm currently reading a book, Who's Afraid of Marie Curie?: The Challenges Facing Women in Science and Technology, that was published this year, and it does a great job so far of explaining the subtle discrimination/bias or just general difficulties that affect women more than men in the sciences. The chapter on competing clocks was great, and I was surprised by how much the chapter on undergrad years spoke to my own experiences as an undergrad in a large elite research university.

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