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The ugly truth


Yeah. Discrimination happens. It surely doesn’t explain the shocking lack of women in science (the fact that 17% of astronomy faculty are female and that this is relatively high says it all), but it certainly doesn’t help, and is worth discussion regardless.

Men with families get more promotions than women with families; men without families get more promotions than women without families. According to that NSF study I mentioned earlier (here), “Female doctoral S&E [science & engineering] faculty are less likely than their male colleagues (67% vs. 84%) to be married. They are also less likely to have children living with them (42% vs. 50%).” So having attachments makes women less likely to get jobs and be promoted; the effect might also apply to men, but not as much.

Why the difference? Why are women still payed about 78% as much as men for the same work? These are not just problems in science, but since this forum is about women in science, I’ll restrict the discussion there.

Dr. Meg Urry of Yale wrote a report that summarized: “There is plenty of evidence that the playing field is not level for women and men. In 1997 Wenneras and Wold published a study in Nature about applications for a prestigious Swedish postdoctoral fellowship in medicine. They showed that although 46% of the applications were from women, only 20% of the fellowships were awarded to women. Reviewers of the proposals consistently gave women lower scores for the same level of productivity, and women applicants had to be 2.5 times better than men to succeed… Studies of prizes or honors show that men receive a disproportionate number, even when one corrects for pipeline issues.”

Urry argues that discrepancy in performance cannot be explained by physiological differences. Related to my earlier post exploring whether women are more adversely affected by negative feedback than men are, she says that “gender gaps can be explained by culture…. A class is told they will be given a difficult math test. Men do poorly, scoring 25 of a possible 100, and women do worse, with an average grade of 10…. However, another class is told the same story about a difficult math test, with the added information that the test has been designed to be ‘gender neutral.’ Now the women’s score doubles, to 20. Interestingly, the men’s score decreases, to 20.”

So women are as capable as men overall, but they don’t get the same opportunities, even taking the pipeline problem into account. What’s going on? Are we selling ourselves short, or is someone else? I wouldn’t guess most people I know have such strong biases, but statistically, they do. By the way, it’s not just men; women also sell other women short. Try some of the online tests at Project Implicit if you’re curious about your unconscious biases. I was both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised.

A person could rant about this for hours (but I hope my sources show I’m at least somewhat objective about my research), but to what end? What can be done? Perhaps that’s a topic for a later post… right now, I need to take some deep breaths.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 05/18/2009 7:21 am

    Hi, great blog. You really pose some important questions. I cant help but wonder if perhaps the problem is not purely in the science field but in society in general. I mean woman are still expected to cook and clean are they not? Why, in a world of gender equality, are woman expected to do these things? Congrats on sticking it to the man, so to speak, and getting a degree in Physics. Where to from here? PHD? surely…

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