‘Why science is sexist‘ was a very deliberate choice of title. I am not interested in the sexism of individual scientists, nor am I interested in spending much time debating whether science is sexist. This would be an impossible topic to discuss, if the only data you had was personal experience – luckily there is a lot more out there, which makes it possible to talk about the statistics on a quasi-impersonal level (we’ll come back to the quasi part later).
Nonetheless, it might be worth putting a bit of context around why I decided to talk/write about this in the first place. For starters, there is this:
This came to me via the HR team at work. It is an invitation to a workshop for women scientists working in research institutes in NZ. It is motivated by the fact that women are highly under-represented at senior career stages in these institutes; this is well known, and the ambition to address this issue is very laudable. However, such a workshop apparently includes an address from the Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand, followed by a two hour workshop on how to dress to influence. By a woman known for hosting a TV show “Does my bum look big?“.
At best, you could take this as an admission that the playing field is really tilted against women in science. At worst? Well I would prefer not to go there. There were good intentions all around, I am sure, but still!
The ability of serious, well-respected, and well-intentioned organizations to get it really wrong is also neatly exemplified by the science girl thing. There was a lot of outrage about the EU commission’s lipstick and heels version of why science should appeal to girls.
But do we have a problem with the branding of science as a girly activity, as opposed to an activity for girls? Is there anything that says wearing lipstick means you can’t be a scientist?
Ok, the ad was badly mis-aimed. But I think the response to it says more about the women-alienating malaise at the heart of scientific culture than may have been immediately evident. This may be why my immediate response to the workshop invitation was to harass male colleagues about the lack of effort they put into their wardrobe (sorry, you know who you are…)
So even before you get into some of the issues that exist around women in science, it seems pretty clear that it is going to be impossible to understand the poor representation of women in science without looking at some of the broader issues around gender equity. A lot of people are familiar with this stuff. But not as many as I would have thought, it turns out. So at the risk of boring a few of you, here are a few reminders.
Who remembers this guy? And his response to the question of why, on average, women are paid 12% less than men?
Very good. Yes, Alasdair Thompson types are out there, trying to explain away the inherent lack of justice in the gender pay gap as due to biology, in one way or another. The studies are remarkably clear that the
12% gap 14% gap is not explained simply by all those other factors that may spring to mind: the direct consequences of childbirth, the indirect consequences including a lack of accumulated seniority due to years out of the workforce. There is still a good part of the gap that cannot be explained away by those factors. There are also other sociological factors that may play into the gender pay gap. But that goes a bit beyond what I want to address here.
Another guy who had a go at explaining some of this gender inequity stuff away is Larry Summers:
“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.”
This, coming from the President of Harvard University, captured a fair amount of attention online. He did say, admittedly, that he had only agreed to speak on the basis that he was allowed to be provocative! But what he really got to in that speech, was to argue that the difference between the representation of women and men in ‘high-powered jobs’, such as academic or scientific jobs, could be put down to a few different factors:
“the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search”
He goes on to explain, in rough terms, that:
- High-powered job = “choices that people make”
- Aptitude = “variability of a male and a female population”
- Discrimination = “one sees relatively little evidence of that”
So then it comes down to aptitude, or ability, and choices. The concise dismissal of discrimination as a factor allows one to imagine that both aptitude and choice are important factors. For aptitude, I won’t belabour a point that has been made well elsewhere: Larry Summers was dead wrong. Choice? Free choice? Well, there can’t be anything wrong with that, can there?
Well, a recent study in the UK found a few interesting factors that affect choice. Specifically, the choice of girls at high school to study physics. Single-sex schools have 2.5 times as many girls go on to study A-level physics, as Co-educational schools. And why?
Apparently the environment you are in can make a difference to how you feel about an activity, regardless of your actual performance. Men, running on a treadmill, find that running feels easier when they have a female audience, compared to a male audience or none at all. How something makes you feel has a huge impact on the choices you make.
So I am not disagreeing with Larry Summers on the fact that the choices women make have a huge impact on their careers. Ironically, this may mean that the simplest, true-but-glib-and-useless answer to the question of Why Science is Sexist? is that women are sexist. But why do women make different choices than men?