There may well be a lack of women at the top in science, but few are willing to sacrifice their family to break the glass ceiling when they can get better-paid jobs elsewhere, writes Dr Brooke Magnanti.
MEN ONLY Sex and science Of 441 Nobel prizes only 11 have gone to women. The only two women prize-winners in physics were Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. The American Barbara McClintock, who made the vital discovery that chromosomes shape identity, had to wait till she was 82 before receiving the Nobel prize. Few people remember the importance of the German Emmy Noether to modern algebra, or of Sonia Kovalevskaia, the first woman university professor of mathematics (at Stockholm University). Europe’s resistance (bar the Nordic countries) to women in politics may seem astonishing, as is their near absence in certain fields (science, engineering and new technology) . It has always been fashionable for the media to discuss how the different hemispheres of the brain work. But they have produced no conclusive evidence. So what keeps women away from the "hard" sciences? Why do they not opt for these key fields when they leave school? by Ingrid Carlander "Is science a question of sex? This is a vital question if we want to find out about science, about the balance of forces in our society", maintains Dhavernas-Lévy, philosopher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. In his study of the cultural aspects of science (1), Pierre Thuillier notes that "the clichés about men being better at science have been widely disseminated by university libraries, text books and the popular press".
In France, 24% of physicists and 20% of mathematicians are women. And very few women in this select band hold positions of responsibility. There are more women physicists in Italy, but hardly any in top jobs. In Germany the situation is even worse. And in the United States, where doctors and lawyers have more power than scientists, there are only 5% of women scientists.
This shortage of women in science is a real social problem that goes far beyond questions of principle. In fact it is a major social and economic issue, in a world where technological change is advancing apace. Too many people have no say in the major decisions on the objectives of the future. Women first and foremost.
In France, this year opened with a disturbing finding. Two organisations, Demain la parité (Equality Tomorrow) and Les femmes diplômées des universités (Women Graduates) published a warning report (2). They pointed out that the exclusion of women from such a vital professional field as science risked creating a total imbalance in the exercise of citizenship and power in our country.
The cliché about "innate differences" between the sexes still goes down well with the general public (some women even use this argument as a pretext) and in certain popular scientific journals. "Yet there is no proof of any innate differences between the male and female brain", according to Catherine Vidal, neuro-biologist and head of laboratory at the Institut Pasteur. "Some tests show up differences, for instance that boys are better at solving spatial problems, but these differences could be acquired. Perhaps they are acquired through outdoor games. Then there is the question of hormones: but it has never been proved that hormones make girls nicer and boys naughtier." And the fairly respectable quota of women scientists working in the CNRS (32%) contradicts the argument that men are better at scientific research than women.
Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong. This data shows they are wrong. And if you encounter them, you can now use this study to inform them they’re wrong. You can say that a study found that absolutely all other factors held equal, females are discriminated against in science. Sexism exists. It’s real. Certainly, you cannot and should not argue it’s everything. But no longer can you argue it’s nothing.
We are not talking about equality of outcomes here; this result shows bias thwarts equality of opportunity.
Here are three additional reasons why this study is such a big deal.
1) Both male and female scientists were equally guilty of committing the gender bias. Yes – women can behave in ways that are sexist, too. Women need to examine their attitudes and actions toward women just as much as men do. What this suggests is that the biases likely did not arise from overt misogyny but were rather a manifestation of subtler prejudices internalized from societal stereotypes. As the authors put it,
“If faculty express gender biases, we are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent…”
2) When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.
Practically, this fact makes it all the more easy for women to internalize unfair criticisms as valid. If your work is rejected for an obviously bad reason, such as “it’s because you’re a woman,” you can simply dismiss the one who rejected you as biased and therefore not worth taking seriously. But if someone tells you that you are less competent, it’s easy to accept as true. And why shouldn’t you? Who wants to go through life constantly trying to sort through which critiques from superiors are based on the content of your work, and which are unduly influenced by the incidental characteristics of who you happen to be? Unfortunately, too, many women are not attuned to subtle gender biases. Making those calls is bound to be a complex and imperfect endeavor. But not recognizing it when it’s happening means accepting: “I am not competent.” It means believing: “I do not deserve this job.”
3) As troubling as these results are, they are also critical toward solutions. That biases against women are often subconscious means people need extra prodding to realize and combat them. I’m willing to bet that many in the study, just like people who take Implicit Association Tests, would be upset to learn they subconsciously discriminate against women, and they would want to fix it. Implicit biases cannot be overcome until they are realized, and this study accomplishes that key first step: awareness.
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