Sunday, February 19, 2006

Women (and men) in science

... I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different. Yet even we scientists deny this, allowing us to identify the “best” candidates for jobs and promotions by subjecting men and women to the same tests. But since these tests favour predominantly male characteristics, such as self-confidence and aggression, we choose more men and we discourage women. Science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes. And if we did, more women would be selected, more would choose to stay in science, and more would get to the top.

Some interesting quotes from the paper about sex differences:

"...[Newborn] infants (less than 24 hours old) have been shown a real human face and a mobile of the same size and similar colour. On average, boys looked longer at the mobile and girls looked longer at the face. "

"The chance that a woman will mug you tonight on the way home is somewhere around nil. That is a quirk specific to my gender." —Michael Moore

From the abstract of this paper by Peter A. Lawrence. Here's another quote:

At present, in the competition for academic posts, we expect our candidates to go through a gruelling process of interview that demands self-confidence. We are impressed by bombast and self-advertising, especially if we don't know the field, and we may not notice annexation of credit from others, all of which on average are the preferred province of men. But we should also seek out able scientists who would care well for their groups, those who would mentor a distressed student and help her or him back into productive research. And if we did, we would choose more feminine women as well as more feminine men.

A while ago, Nature published a piece by Ad Lagendijk on Pushing for Power, devoted largely to behaviour of physicists:

When I participate in a scientific conference I see a gathering of aggressive men (and yes, I mean men) fighting for their scientific claims to, at best, minuscule advancements. ... Successful scientists incessantly travel around the world performing their routines like circus clowns — forcefully backing up assertions over what are their contributions to the latest scientific priorities. ... It is not just at conferences that predatory scientists participate in the power game. Other forums include harsh reports written by anonymous referees reviewing papers for high-impact journals; damning assessments of a lecturer's teaching skills; or dismissive reviews of applications to granting organizations. ... In the battle for tax-payers' money, criticizing other branches of natural science, or indeed neighbouring disciplines in physics, is already a popular activity. "My discipline is more fundamental than yours," is a frequently heard claim. Note that it is not size that matters, but fundamentality.

For a (far less brazen) version of the principle of 'the primacy of fundamentality', see this piece by Steven Strogatz (to be fair, it doesn't have anything to do with gender issues in science) that appeared as his contribution to Edge's question to various scientists: What's your dangerous idea:

In ... complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.