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Are Stupid Blog Commenters Keeping Good Scientists Down?

11/22/2009

A few of us recently came across an article on a Newsweek blog titled Is Motherhood Keeping Good Scientists Down?  How to Fix Research’s “Mommy Gap”.  While the article itself is worth reading (I’ll also summarize below), what knocked us off our feet was the kind of comments that were left by readers.

First, the article.  The author talked about a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) which found that motherhood (not just being a woman) was largely responsible for the leaks in the pipeline:

But according to the CAP study, which compared not only women to men, but parents to those without children, married women with children were 35 percent less likely to secure a tenure-track position than married men with children, and 33 percent less likely to do so than single women without children.

There are a handful of suggestions to alleviate this problem (see the article), but the conclusion is:

No matter what institutions or individuals do, having both a career—any career—and children requires making choices, and then making sacrifices. The more demanding the career and the more ambitious the individual, the more difficult those choices will be. But women shouldn’t be the only ones who have to choose. [Emphasis mine.]

All in all, I liked the article.  But when I got to the comments – holy moly!  I was floored.  I’ll ignore the comments which are outlandishly inflammatory and sexist (but please do read those by Home412AD), and address instead the  top myths spouted out by these commenters.

  • Larry Summers didn’t say that women had biologically lower math/science aptitude.

Why don’t you read the full text of his speech for yourself?  Yes, Summers does offer up 3 hypotheses, and the one that people were upset about was the argument about variances in aptitude.  His claim was not that average men/women have different scientific aptitudes, but that men have a higher variance in their distribution and thus more of the upper, most highly performing people are male.  This is still a claim about the biological difference in aptitude of men and women, and he in fact felt that it was more important of a factor than socialization.  My surprise reading his speech was a high disregard for socialization, which seems unfounded… in fact, it is unfounded, because as I wrote about before, this variance difference  disappears in countries where girls and boys are treated equally.  Did Summers know the results of that study at the time?  No.  Could he have thought a little harder and not ruled out socialization so soon?  Yes.  (His main example is that he saw young girls, when given trucks, use them to play with dolls… as though giving a kid a toy will replace years of socialization.)

  • “I still dont understand why every occupation has to be neatly divided 50-50 between men and women.  Is it possible that some career paths appeal more to members of one gender or the other?”

Summer’s also mentions this at the beginning of his speech, by noting that many other groups lack diversity (“that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture”), which definitely a) ignores and b) belittles the problem.  The question is whether or not there are systematic obstacles for any particular people to participate in a career.  Is there anything about being a farmer that prevents a Jew from becoming one, in ways that it does not affect people of other faiths?  Clearly not, but this kind of tactic diverts the attention from the real problem and trivializes the efforts of those trying to change things for the better.

  • “Some women want to be treated “equally” when it benefits them to be treated “equally” and then treated “like a woman” when it benefits them to be treated “like a woman” – that is “unequally.””

Ah, the classic dilemma.  “Because of feminism, I don’t know if I’m supposed to hold the door open for a woman or not, and that makes for awkward situations, and I hate awkward situations, so I’m really mad at feminism!”  Yes, life would be so much simpler if we all just followed the scripts, but of course that would mean playing the part of a less-than-person, and I’d rather take my independence, awkwardness and all.  This also manages to completely miss the point – any advocacy for maternity leave ought to include advocacy for paternity leave (as the article does), so I’m not sure where the “treat me different” part comes in.  It sounds to me more like “let’s share the responsibilities equally.”

  • Women who want to be scientists should just not have children and/or women who want to have children should not work.

Obviously, this is the meat of most people’s arguments, and the most offensive, because nobody is asking it of men.  Why should only women be the ones to choose? With the exception of some technological advancements, most children were created by a man and a woman.  I cannot believe that people still do not consider the fact that a man would have to “make a sacrifice” or “choose between” being a parent or having a career.  There is a tradeoff to be made, because both are very demanding, but yet only women are actually told to choose.  Which is funny, because I feel as though these same arguments would be made by people who insist on the preservation of the “2-parent family” when apparently only one is actually doing any parenting.  And if you think that “this is the way it has been” for the entire history of humanity (which, according to one poster, seems to be 5500 years), please do some research before speaking.  Commenter “kissmeimkati” addressed this pretty well.

I appreciate that other supportive comments eventually came in, and it’s really the first half of the comments that are most offensive (although some of the later ones make no sense).  Until people see women as both parents and career-driven people, as men already are, the cause of advancing women in science will continue to be seen fruitless or misguided – and we all know it is not!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 11/30/2009 1:28 pm

    What bothers me most about the “women should be mothers or workers, not both” hypothesis is that men are actually more highly prized employees if they have kids at home (e.g., they have more mouths to feed, so they should be given more raises, vacation time, leeway for missing meetings, etc.), whereas women who have kids at home are seen as a burden to the organization, lazy, lacking dedication…

    I know we already discussed this, but the other thing that disturbed me about the comments were the people annoyed at coworkers who had families, and who felt as though they had to pick up the slack for these people. There might be some bitterness there, in that people who chose not to have families (or didn’t for whatever reason) feel as though they made sacrifices that everyone should have to make. But complaining about changing your work to accommodate others? Please. You may be in science, but that doesn’t preclude you from dealing with people. Parenthood is only one of many ways in which we accommodate each other, and it’s certainly not the most cumbersome. Please deal with it.

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