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Is there a problem?

07/01/2009

One gets the sense, from talking to real people who have left or will leave a career in science, that each case makes sense. They’re not just faceless statistics that mysteriously duck out of the system. It’s not so tragic for any specific individual to leave science; they generally seem happy in whatever life they choose, and isn’t that the point?

So why do people like me get so tangled up over the fact that so few scientists are women? Is it that we see positions in research as desirable objects and resent that men hold so many of them? Is it that we secretly fear that we will become one of the ones who leaves, inexplicably, and somehow against our will? Is it that we fear being in the minority for the rest of our lives, and we selfishly want more female companionship?

I have to say that, speaking only for myself, there’s truth in each of those answers. I love having female friends, and I’m afraid that the transition to academia will leave me without a female support group. Yes, we tend to support each other from afar, but with whom will I lament my unique problems over coffee?

I also find that I see the inequality as being inherently sexist. Why do so many men get to be scientists? This viewpoint assumes that women want to be scientists. Case-by-case, I know lots of women who do, but I also know many who would be as happy doing something else (and might make more money, have more time for families, etc.). I don’t think there’s a genetic difference that causes women to enjoy science less; rather, there may be subtle things about how women are raised that influences our interests. Regardless, the practical reality is that not every woman in grad school has the same drive (or confidence) as every man to secure a career in science. Maybe there are simply more men because men want it more, in which case, who is to blame? Is it really society’s fault?

I have arrived back at the central question: Is there a problem? (For one thing, getting more women to stay in science would cause more crowding in an already tight job market. The world doesn’t necessarily need more scientists, but it might need a larger fraction of new scientists to be female, which I suppose is the real question.)

Should we just treat each woman who leaves science as an individual, and rejoice in her independence and happiness, rather than look at the somewhat depressing (for personal reasons) bigger picture? I won’t pursue this in detail (for now), but I would like to suggest that the lack of women in science IS a problem – not because it’s causing unhappiness in women who “don’t make it,” but because diversity is a very, very important aspect of a successful scientific community.

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