< link rel="DCTERMS.isreplacedby" href="http://caltechgirlsworld.mu.nu/" /> Not Exactly Rocket Science: Academic Impolitic

Monday, January 17, 2005

Academic Impolitic

Or: Even the President of Harvard can put his foot in his mouth...

Two things you all should know about me before I begin. These are pretty obvious, but I want to make this clear at the outset. I'm a woman, and I work in the Ivory Tower. Specifically, I'm a woman who will shortly be pursuing an academic job in science. So excuse me if I seem a little offended, but I resemble that remark! (see below)

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers gave a talk last Friday with regard to gender diversity issues, specifically referring to the lack of female professors in science and engineering departments. According to the Boston Globe, Summers laid out a series of points which represented different theories as to why fewer women take these positions:
1. Women are less likely to want to work 80-hour weeks than men
2. Fewer women score well on science and math aptitude tests in high school and college, and behavioral genetics studies suggest that fewer women have scientific aptitude
3. gender discrimination

Then he said that none of these was the real reason, but that the pool of female applicants was small, and that the effects of any of the above on the size of the pool is not known.

I don't even know where to begin with this colossal prick. First of all, saying ANY of this is HIGHLY presumptuous, since he's a man and doesn't actually have any expertise in gender issues. He's an economist. So let's take this point by point, shall we?

1. Ok, it's true. Women do prefer to spend more time at home with a young family, in most cases. But this doesn't mean that women are unfit for these types of positions. It means that the system needs to be more flexible. For example, I can tell you from experience that an 80 hour work week in science need not all be in the office. If you have a decent laptop, you can cut that time down by about half. A creative mom can still work those hours, just not all in the lab like some of her counterparts. In many professional careers, sadly enough, the time that you are expected to devote the largest proportion of your time to honing your craft (residency, postdoctoral fellowships, assistant professorships, etc.) is the same time in your life when you are trying to start a family and build a successful marriage. That's not easy for either partner, but the real burden of it often falls more heavily on the female partner since society expects us to take care of our kids and husbands. Try juggling that and an 80 hour work week. Forget it. I mean, at some point you have to choose.

Look, for every hundred thousand kids who grow up to be scientists, maybe one of them will reach their dream of winning a Nobel Prize. Why? because most of us make choices that are incompatible with that kind of single-minded devotion to science. You can only be married to one thing, your spouse or your lab bench.

2. I'm so appalled by this I don't even know what to say. This was the part of the speech where a number of eminent female scientists got up and walked out. I probably would have been rude and made comments, but either way, I wouldn't have been staying for the end :) I can't tell you how many people I know who decided on science after starting out in another field. In some cases getting a degree in art or music before realizing where their interests lay, both males and females. Don't tell me that girls aren't as good at science as boys. That's patently false. And females routinely score higher on the SAT math and GRE Math, Quantatative, and Science tests in the past few years. Obviously men and women approach problems differently, but that doesn't disqualify either group from pursuing scientific questions.

3. Never seen gender discrimination. Never really experienced it. Never had to deal with it, so I suppose it's far from the point. Sexual harassment, yes, but actual gender discrimination, no. Let's put it this way, out of 30 students in my program, I think there are 6 guys. And we're a top-10 program in our field.

As far the smaller size of the pool of applicants, I suspect that's changing. More and more women are moving into research. My generation was the first to apply to graduate school in relatively equal numbers across the gender line, and we're beginning to apply for faculty positions now. I suspect that there will be more highly qualified female applicants in the years to come.

So to sum up, the real problem here is dicks like Summers. They create this publish or perish mentality that forces professors to devote minimum 80 hour weeks to overseeing their labs and writing grants and reviewing manuscripts. Not to mention writing them. They expect to see the younger faculty doing all of this as well as building a lab, establishing a reputation and a funding track-record, teaching classes, mentoring students, and serving on University committees. All this while they're trying to build and maintain a home and a family. Combined with the attitude that women are less interested in work and more intersted in their kids, and the opinion that girls are less likely to be good scientists, makes the whole thing a really difficult proposition.

But what may be worse to me is the way that some prominent female academics are handling the problem. These women are our role models, and the way that they deal with these issues sets the table for what will happen with us. When these women walk out of such an address, they aren't merely turning their backs on the speaker, they're turning their backs on us. That man deserved to be taken to task for his thoughtless and inappropriate comments there and then, rather than in a war of words in the Boston Globe. Real change won't come about through backbiting and cat fighting. Michele Malkin is right. Walking out was exactly the kind of silly emotional response that people who perpetuate these ideas expect from women. Malkin calls it a "collective emotional snit fit unbecoming of any self-respecting representative of the ivory tower", and it was. Having a hissy fit isn't going to solve any problems.

I'm not sure how this is going to change unless prominent women begin demanding that it changes. There is some reluctance to do this, I think in part because of the same attitude that imposed draconian schedules on medical residents, the whole "I went through it so why shouldn't you" attitude. As for myself, I've already learned this lesson. In looking for a new position, I refuse to accept one in a lab that won't allow me to be flexible to my needs. And I know I'm not alone. I just hope it makes a difference.


At Tuesday, January 18, 2005 6:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost perhaps as frightening as Mr. Summers' comments is the fact that a big chunk of America just doesn't care. As an example, from my very own Red State:


A TV station in Albuquerque reports the story about the Harvard president's remarks, then takes a viewer poll asking the question: "Do you think Summers' comments about women were offensive?"

Yes 40% (7939 votes)
No 56% (11023 votes)
Not sure 4% (869 votes)

Mind you, an unscientific poll. Even if you generously assume:

1) No one voted more than once (the website doesn't offer information about whether it does IP tracking or anything like that to prevent people from voting more than once),

2) every single man who participated in the poll voted "no", and

3) the poll sample demographics match the population at large fairly well,

some nontrivial number of women said they apparently DIDN'T have a problem with Summers' comments! Because, as we all know, the role of the good christian, Red State woman is to be an obedient and subservient wife to her husband, and her first job is not in the classroom/boardrooom/laboratory but in the home, raising god's children.

You'd think someone with the smarts to become president of Harvard would know when to keep his trap shut. Today's word of the day, kids, is "voluble". go look it up.


At Tuesday, January 18, 2005 9:33:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

In my field, manufacturing (and now engineering) we were working 24 hours a day, for up to 6 days a week. While my hourly employees were regularly doing 8 to 9 hours a day( and sometimes 12 based on vacation schedules), the management and supervisors were doing 11 to 13 hours a day, and even worse if you were on night shift. So far, I have only seen one woman in the manufacturing or engineering sides of the business on salary. Lots of them in the hourly positions, but only one in manufacturing. She's the new plant manager at our place in North Carolina too. Even in school, my major had 2 women, and 60 men total in the program.

For us in the production environment, I think it comes down to diminishing returns. We can no longer expect to see very well paying jobs (in relation to the rest of the population) for outstanding performance. The change from 20 years ago has been dramatic I think, at least from what I have gathered from those who were around then. You can blame this on corporate greed, competition from China(or Japan or wherever), but the simple fact is that the same pay can be had in less demanding environments.

So why do it? Because we like making things, knowing that what we do is used by everyone (particularly when my company has 85% market share in Lowe's and Home Depot in their product line). And I've found that it is a very rare woman who wants to do that.

At Tuesday, January 18, 2005 3:10:00 PM, Blogger the Pirate said...

I took a different take on the comments, I still think he put his foot in his mouth and you'd think the Preisdent of Harvard could present his ideas better. What keyed it off to me was a comment he made about trying to raise his daughter in a gender-nuetral environment, where he gave her two trucks which she named 'daddy truck' and 'baby truck' and treated them like dolls.

As far as the points:
1)People don't take positions for reasons of work load. I think there is a difference between (a)not offering someone (specifically female) because you don't think they can handle the work load (even as you stated it is possible with flexibility) and (b)not taking a person not taking the position because of the work load. I think he meant option (b).

2)Idiotic point completely, for just about every person you can find someone better or worse. Mr. Harvard was wrong. A valif point would of been intrest.

It appeared to be more of an interest than ability in terms of the maths and sciences. Generally men are more likely to gravitate to the math and science. When I did my undergrad for Civil we started with about 30 people split about 50/50 by the time we graduated we had 15 that were split 10/5 in favor of male. (It wasone of a handful of majors that had a majorty of male students) The main reason for transfer wasn't inability to handle the material it was lack of intrest or willinginess to put in the effort required. In the engineering you were far more likely to find men interested. Even after graduation two of the ladies I graduated lost intrest in working in engineering and went back to school for a different major or found a more 'people' oriented job.

Now that I am back at the Master program (its a night school program for full-time employeees) its kind of a different beast. Its right about a 50/50 split on Civil Master enrollment, tending to show that women (who are a minority in the field) are far more interested in the post grad than men. It is hard to make generalizations on the program because it contains many natural science majors who see more job opportunities in Civil/Environmental, plus it is impacted by market forces, when buisness is good enrollment drops.

My opinion is that its an issue of intrest not aptitude.

3)I had to deal with gender/racial dicrimination claims. Durring ABET certification when two of the students complained about not having any black female civil engineering professors. Being all the professors were tenured and had atleat 20 years of experience wortking and teaching in the field, I gave it no thought because I'd rather have good professors than worry about what they look like. They went out of their way to cater to women and minorties in the major to help them out with scholarships, internships, and jobs to keep the intrest in the field.

I agree with the response ot the reactions, acting like a stereotypical 'emotional woman' solves nothing. Be an adult and disscuss the problem and solutions.

Its a shame that the President of Harvard can express a theory a little better.


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