Arcadian Functor

occasional meanderings in physics' brave new world

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Location: New Zealand

Marni D. Sheppeard

Thursday, March 25, 2010

So Few

Thanks to FSP for mentioning the Breaking Through Barriers website. Their new report on the problems faced by women in science contains basic suggestions on what science departments can do to improve the situation, including:

Teach professors about stereotype threat and the benefits of a growth mindset.
Take proactive steps to support women.
Ensure mentoring for all faculty.
Learn about your own implicit bias.
Take steps to correct for your biases.
Create clear criteria for success and transparency.
Raise awareness about bias against women.


Anonymous Tony Smith said...

The Breaking Through Barriers website said:
"... In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law and business, why are there so few women scientists and engineers? ...".

Having been in law school (getting a J.D. doctorate) and in physics grad school (flunked (at about age 50) the Ga Tech comprehensive 3-day closed book exam), I have seen both of those worlds.

The law and business world may not be perfect with respect to gender equality, but it is primarily about making money and building successful bureaucratic empires without regard to ANY ideology. If you have an idea for a shipping company based on airplanes flying out of Memphis, it does not matter that your business school professor is too dense to see its potential, you can just go and build FedEx and make money, and in doing so you don't much care about the gender of your allies/business partners/customers.

The science/engineering world, on the other hand, cares very much about ideology and authoritarian rule, in particular about having all its students learn to do exactly what their professors say they should do. This works OK for teaching a dead skill-set that has stopped evolving, but, sometimes when a new kind of suspension bridge is built it collapses because the new design had new characteristics not covered by the earlier-generation techniques. (That is why Planck said that quantum physics would not be accepted until the old-school classical guys were all dead.)

Having seen both worlds, I would say that the law/business world seems to be more nearly fair to women than science/engineering.

As to why, my guess is that, even if you leave aside the obvious temptation for male authoritarians of science/engineering to exploit their positions to satisfy sexual appetites,
women are generally less ideological and more pragmatic in their thinking than men,
and so are less likely to blindly follow authority and more likely to look outside the box to see what works (as did Lise Meitner in understanding fission), and that is threatening to the authoritarian ideologues.

Further, it means that women are more likely to see those differences between law/business and science/engineering, and are more likely to go to the friendlier field, which (at least until the recent financial collapses) offered not only a friendlier education but also a greater possibility of making a good living.

Tony Smith

PS - That having been said, I should also say that in my physics grad school experience I made friends with many Chinese students, and in my opinion the Chinese community in science/engineering is very mutually supportive pretty much without gender bias.

Now, with what the Germans regard as the Anglo-Saxon liberalized financial market seeming to be collapsing,
China seeming to be the only prosperous country on the planet,
maybe if you want a nice job you might consider moving to China?
A friend of mine is now living there happily teaching English,
it seems to me that with your strong math/science background, and native English ability, you might enjoy a position in a Chinese university.

March 25, 2010 5:05 PM  
Blogger Kea said...

Hi Tony. I have considered moving to Asia, where I feel enough at home, but I am put off by the pollution, which I know in most places would cause my chronic bronchitis to come back. And then there is the issue of having like minded researchers to talk to. I suspect that China would be similar to NZ in that regard ... namely hopeless. Anyway, no one in China has offered me a job.

March 25, 2010 6:09 PM  
Blogger Kea said...

P.S. You are right about the authority thing, although the research shows that the biggest problems come down to plain sexism in society. For example, there is a strong correlation between a woman's success in research and her dislikability, whereas successful men tend to be admired.

March 26, 2010 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Kelly Nobay, Darlow Smithson said...

Hi Marni,

Do you remember I contacted you in 2006 regarding a survival series we make for the Discovery Channel?

The series has recently been recomissioned and I'm keen to get back in touch with you and Sonja Rendell.

Please drop me a line at so I can explain in further detail.

All the best,
Kelly Nobay

March 26, 2010 11:37 AM  
Blogger Kea said...

Cool, Kelly. Perhaps I can concentrate on the film industry for a while.

March 26, 2010 1:02 PM  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

Men are raised with an awareness that they will have to mold their desires to conform enough to society's desires that they'll be able to hold down a job. That requires kowtowing to authority.

So it's not surprising that you find so many amateurs and women at the frontiers of physics. I think that as far as sexism itself goes, women who acted like men would do about as well in physics as men do.

March 26, 2010 5:23 PM  
Blogger Ulla said...

Well, Carl, women that act like men in science are more prone of suicide, for some reason.

In Finland today there are more women in university in general than men, exactly of the same reason as Tony talked of. Men do business.

I don't buy that women would be more pragmatic and men more ideological. More the opposite, as Carl said. Women are more holistic and don't buy narrow thinking, but they also have less power. To realize that is to accept a fact.

Women in science are often not satisfied because of the narrow world-wiev and the mens' clothes they have to wear. Women in science should still be women.

March 27, 2010 8:45 AM  
Blogger Ulla said...

Robert Becker, postscript in 'The Body Electric' (with G. Seldon) talks of 'political science'. Meaning it is not science per se, but money and power. Science is no ideology for most of scientists.

"I want the general public to know that science isn’t run the way they read about it in the newspapers and magazines.
I want lay people to understand that they cannot automatically accept scientists’ pronouncements at face value, for too often they’re self-serving and misleading. I want our citizens, nonscientists as well as investigators, to work to change the way research is administered. The way it's currently funded and evaluated, we're learning more and more about less and less, and science is becoming our enemy instead of our friend."

March 27, 2010 10:26 AM  
Blogger Kea said...

OK Kelly, I emailed you from my yahoo account. Hope you got it.

March 27, 2010 3:33 PM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Aloha! Your recommendation letters are being sent asap. Since Tony has mentioned Asia, the little China (Taiwan) is a great place to work. The island is clean, modern, very high-tech and a democracy. Little China has retained more Chinese culture than the big China. There are many jobs for native English speakers.

March 28, 2010 8:00 AM  
Blogger Kea said...

Yes, I know Taiwan would be great. I just applied for this job, but there are few theory jobs there.

March 28, 2010 11:25 AM  

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