On The Potential of Women Scientists and Engineers in Academia

Today, the National Academies released their long awaited report on the potential of women scientists and engineers in academia. The title is “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering”, and it can be obtained here. This is a hugely important topic, and they seem to have done quite an extensive amount of work on this. Here are some quotes from the press release, and then I’ll make some comments of my own at the end:

“Women are capable of contributing more to the nation’s science and engineering research enterprise, but bias and outmoded practices governing academic success impede their progress almost every step of the way,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Fundamental changes in the culture and opportunities at America’s research universities are urgently needed. The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population.”

Much the same can be said (and has been said in, e.g., my earlier blog posts on CV) about the largely untapped talent pool of minorities in general, of course. Quoting further:

The report offers a broad range of recommendations, including the following important steps. Trustees, university presidents, and provosts should provide clear leadership in changing the culture and structure of their institutions to recruit, retain, and promote more women — including minority women — into faculty and leadership positions. Specifically, university executives should require academic departments to show evidence of having conducted fair, broad, and aggressive talent searches before officials approve appointments. And departments should be held accountable for the equity of their search processes and outcomes, even if that means canceling a search or withholding a faculty position. The report also urges higher education organizations to consider forming a collaborative, self-monitoring body that would recommend standards for faculty recruitment, retention, and promotion; collect data; and track compliance across institutions.

University leaders, the report adds, should develop and implement hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that take into account the flexibility that faculty members may need as they pass through various life stages — and that do not sacrifice quality to meet rigid timelines. Administrators, for example, should visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty members who have children or other caregiving duties to maintain productive careers. At a minimum, the programs should include provisions for paid parental leave, facilities and subsidies for on-site and community-based child care, and more time to work on dissertations and obtain tenure.

In fact, the press release is really well written, so I’ll shut up and quote some more:

Forty years ago, women made up only 3 percent of America’s scientific and technical workers, but by 2003 they accounted for nearly one-fifth. In addition, women have earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000. However, their representation on university and college faculties fails to reflect these gains. Among science and engineering Ph.D.s, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions. And minority women with doctorates are less likely than white women or men of any racial or ethnic group to be in tenure positions. Previous studies of female faculty have shed light on common characteristics of their workplace environments. In one survey of 1,000 university faculty members, for example, women were more likely than men to feel that colleagues devalued their research, that they had fewer opportunities to participate in collaborative projects, and that they were constantly under a microscope. In another study, exit interviews of female faculty who “voluntarily” left a large university indicated that one of their main reasons for leaving was colleagues’ lack of respect for them.

Some of the key findings:

The following are some of the committee’s key findings that underscore its call to action:

> Studies have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and leadership positions in S&T fields.

> Compared with men, women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions. These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures, the report says.

> Measures of success underlying performance-evaluation systems are often arbitrary and frequently applied in ways that place women at a disadvantage. “Assertiveness,” for example, may be viewed as a socially unacceptable trait for women but suitable for men. Also, structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial support from their spouses. Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. Today about 90 percent of the spouses of women science and engineering faculty are employed full time. For the spouses of male faculty, it is nearly half.

There follows a summary of several of the recommendations to be found in the report, speaking directly to Universities on the one hand, e.g.:

University leaders should incorporate the goal of counteracting bias against women in hiring, promotion, and treatment into campus strategic plans, the report says. And leaders, working with the monitoring body proposed by the report, should review the composition of their student enrollments and faculty ranks each year — and publicize progress toward goals.

Universities also should examine evaluation practices, with the goal of focusing on the quality and impact of faculty contributions, the report says.

… and to Professional Societies and Higher Educaton Organizations on another, e.g.:

The report also recommends that scholarly journals examine their processes for reviewing papers submitted for publication. To minimize any bias, they should consider keeping authors’ identities hidden until reviews have been completed.

(which I’m sure is going to meet with some resistance), and to Government agencies and Congress on, er, a third hand, e.g:

Federal funding agencies and foundations, in collaboration with professional and scientific societies, should hold mandatory national meetings to educate university department chairs, agency program officers, and members of review panels on ways to minimize the effects of gender bias in performance evaluations, the report says.

and

[Federal enforcement agencies ]… should provide technical assistance to help universities achieve diversity in their programs and employment, and encourage them to meet such goals.

The full report can be obtained here.

Now let’s see what happens. This report says a lot of wise things that have been in similar reports before, both nationally and in probably every university’s diversity committees. Somehow, these reports have a habit of being written, and then everybody nods wisely, and then it gets shelved. Nobody every figures out how to implement things in a way that makse a difference. I like the emphasis on implementation that they’ve made considerable effort on in this case.

Let’s hope this ends up on the desk of every university Chair, Dean, Provost, etc., as a start. But it can’t stop there. Chatting -howevr seriously- about this in the central university administration will on its own do not good. The real difficulty in implementation, in my experience (sitting on such committees, as I do) is at the level of the day to day of a department. If it does not get down to that level, does not get past the stage where it is recognised as a vital part of the future of that department (rather than just a bean-counting device or other adminsitrative issue to be ignored because we all just want to get on with our teaching and research), then it will just collect dust on a shelf.

That’s the real challenge – in this area, and in the wider and much more difficult area of other minorities in science – to get it as part of the everyday culture at the departmental (or other units) level. Deans need to lean on chairs and other responsible menbers of departments (and other units) to figure out how to do this. Until your institution can do that, progress will remain marginal at best.

-cvj

Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to On The Potential of Women Scientists and Engineers in Academia

  1. Rob Knop says:

    I’m absoultely behind this. In particular, the bits about recognizing the things that we are assuming everybody is bringing to the table — the “wife” at home to provide tremendous support for you, the willingness to sacrifice family and children on the altar of overwork, etc. And, of course, also the unthinking bias that goes into it.

    There is one argument I always seen in this that doesn’t convince me though: the lost opportunities and the need to prevent loss of the “untapped resources.” In light of all the bruhaha that is always out there about how post-docs can’t find permanent faculty positions, in light of how brutally competetive grants are already, in light of the fact that there isn’t enough grant money to fund poeple in the oversubscribed faculty positions we have already, it always seems odd to argue that we need to be increasing the pool of people from whom we select these faculty members.

    NOW LET ME BE PERFECTLY CLEAR, before I am subject to tremendous flamage : I am NOT advocating shutting out women in minorities in the name of keeping things from getting too competetive, even though I feel the competetive pressure (particularly as one currently on the failing end of a pre-tenure, tenure-track appointment) acutely myself. (See http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/?p=45 and http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/?p=27 .) What I am trying to say is that I don’t think that “needed pool of talent” is the strongest or best argument for what is unambiguously a good goal.

    In our mercenary, show-me-the-value oriented culture, it may seem that such arguments are more “valid”, but to me the absolutely strongest arguments in favor of recruiting women and minorities into the physical sciences are the arguments of individual fairness. The playing field is not level, even if the rules in place don’t explicitly favor one group over another. The standard practicies and culture do make it difficult for women and minorities, and in the interest of being the meritocracy we claim to be, and in the interest of fairness to all individuals involved, we need to level that playing field. These deeper arguments of fundamental justice resonante much more with me than the “lost talent” arguments . The “lost talent” argument seems to me one that tries to personalize the loss in quantifiable terms for non-minorities. I think, however, that simply having to live in a culture that does not allow for each individual to live and achieve what he or she would is already a loss, and economic-sounding arguments need not come into it to make it worthy to try to make things better.

    -Rob

  2. Clifford says:

    Rob,

    The strongest arguments based on the highest principles are not always the best ones to lead with. Fairness is all well and good, and right. But people do not care as much as they should when it is about doing the right thing for the sake of doing so… especially when it is perceived that it is not really going to affect them…. not really “their fight”. This is why these reports collect dust. If all your white maies are already overworked and under paid, how much time will they really invest -on average- in worrying about this? Not that much. Especially if there are no rewards for the extra work involved (i.e., more than jsut filling in the rigth forms and moving on… actually being proactive about the issue).

    If instead you convince everyone -correctly- that their institution (their country even) can benefit from tapping into this resource of talent that has been neglected…that it will result in helping securing their department’s future – (their institution’s future, even).. then you’ll get people thinking about it, and helping doing something about it. The culture changes for pragmatic reasons…. sadly, this is usually the way you get culture changes… not because of the “right-thinking” or “high-minded” reasons some of us would like it to change for.

    -cvj

  3. Katie says:

    Clifford, thanks for bringing this report to our attention. This is indeed an important topic, and the more information we have the better equiped we are to improve the situation of women and minorities in science. But the question remains, “what can we actually do about it?” You mention that you’d like to see the report “on the desk of every university Chair, Dean, Provost, etc.” but how many of them are actally going to read a 268 page report. As a female physicist I care a lot about the issue, but even I don’t want to take the time away from being a physicist to read 268 pages about the problems I face in my chosen profession.

    What I would really like to see is a short (less than 10 pages) list of specific things that each of us can do in our daily lives to help change the culture of science. As a start, here are a few things that I’ve decided are important for me to do:

    1. Stick with it. Don’t let myself become one of the women who are driven away from science by the many reasons listed in reports such as this (in spite of the fact that many of them are valid reasons for wanting to leave).

    2. Talk to other female scientists about their work. Having safe, supportive sounding boards for my research has been an incredible asset to me. It is important to provide that same support to others.

    3. Meet and mentor younger scientists. It can be something as quick and easy as saying hello to someone in the hall or maybe just asking how their classes or research are going.

    I’d appreciate other suggestions. Maybe we can come up with a nice list of things all of us can do to actually make a difference instead of just talking about the need for change.

  4. Jocelyn says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve gotten nervous lately about reading online about women in science – they usually end up making me feel so *tired*. It’s nice to come here and to Cosmic Variance and feel stronger, instead.

  5. I’m my graduating class there were 5 people, 3 male and 2 female. Not very relevant due to small numbers, but I get the impression that the trend is general, at least in Belgium.

    I’m not surprised about female scientists being promoted or hired less frequently. I think this in large part due to the “chummy” atmosphere between male faculty that ofter decides things in favour of certain people “Oh, he’s an alright chap…”. Not sure what to do about it though…

  6. Clifford says:

    Katie…. Well written reports have executive summaries at the beginning with a digest. That press release is well on its way to being an executive summary. Nobody ever reads the reports in one sitting (or even a few, or if at all)… you read the summary and then the summary is a guide to dipping into the bits you want to look at in more detail… Then… the work is divided up. Provosts and Deans appoint committees to work on implementation.. Later, so do chairs, if they take it seriously (the deans should see to that… with incentives and, yes, maybe ever penalties). The committees do the hard work of studying such reports, and tailoring them to the needs and culture of the organisation. If the organisation is serious, the committee -or at least the exectutors of the committee’s recommendations- has sharp teeth. Then stuff gets done. It is the “sharp teeth” aspect that is usually missing, which is why we are where we are, and not further. Our own Provost seems to actually care about this, and last year constituted a task force (glorified name for a committee) to look at the matter afresh and advise him. Our report and recommendations (very similar to the ones in this report… but straight to the point and tailored to the culture, needs, etc, of USC) sit on his desk. We shall see. Similar reports lie on the desks of many equivalent people all over the country. I think that the pragmatism is beginning to take hold, so things will begin to happen.

    But yes, we all need to have a day-to-day “to do list” – this is the part of the culture I was talking about. I like yours. Mine includes just looking for opportunities to make significant positive changes- and when they arise, staring our colleagues in the eye at departmental level, dean’s level, and other levels, and challenging them to either help me make stuff happen -for the good of the physics at the very least- or to get out of my way.

    -cvj

  7. Clifford says:

    Jocelyn:- hang in there. I think there is a change coming. Also, have a look at the Women in Physics site at USC. Note the conference. Whatever level you’re at… join in. Do something similar at your own institution. Email Katie and Amy (who got the ball rolling on this group) (women [dot] in [dot] physics [at] usc [dot] edu) and share ideas.

    -cvj

  8. Katie says:

    Thank goodness for people like Clifford who are willing to serve on such committees and take them seriously! I look forward to seeing the recommendations implemented at USC. Clifford, are the USC task force report and recommendations available for public viewing?

    Jocelyn, I know what you mean about getting *tired* when reading about women in science. It’s uplifting to talk to others about it and, like Clifford said, “do something.” We’d love to have you get involved with our conference or to talk to you about starting something of your own.

  9. Clifford says:

    Oh, stop it, you’re too kind …

    [ blushes …]

    [ Then gets back to snippet of computation before next committee meeting starts….]

    😉

    -cvj

  10. Pyracantha says:

    Clifford:

    I still read “Asymptotia” every day though I try not to comment. But there are some unsolved technical problems on this blog at least for me. The edges of your text blocks are cut off so I don’t see all the words. Interestingly as I scroll down the page the text seems to get “wider” so that more words are cut off than they were at the top of the text. Any way to fix this?

    Pyracantha

  11. Clifford says:

    Oh! Please comment. They are welcome!

    Sometimes this happens with netscape I noticed. I do not know the source of the problem, but it looks to be browser specific…. those are grey patches that go away on “reload” or scrolling down. I don’t know why. But doing those things seems to render everything readable in seconds.

    Sorry I can’t help further. Happens to me sometimes too.

    Email me with the browser model and version you are using for future reference.

    Thanks.

    And…. comment!

    -cvj

  12. candace says:

    I wanted to add my thanks for posting this. Like the others mentioned, I too get so exhausted and depressed when I read the back-and-forth online about women in science. I also sincerely hope that the findings in this report will be taken on board, not just for the benefit of women, but for the benefit of everyone. I fear, though, there isn’t a big enough stick to beat the existing Old Boys’ Club with to get them to change right now. I’m just not sure they’ll see what’s in it for them…but I’ll keep hoping.

  13. Rob Knop says:

    Clifford–

    Here’s a thought. When I read about the impersonal “pool of untapped talent”, I see it as unconvincing given what I said above : there are not enough jobs as it is.

    Perhaps what might make it more convincing on an emotional level is anecdotal evidence. Yeah, not a good scientific case necessarily, but it might help sell the cause. What I’m thinking is examples. Consider an advertisement, just to make it concrete. For instance, in astronomy, put forward Gibor Basri, Wendy Freedman, Andrea Ghez, and some other well-chosen women and minorities. State their accomplisments. State that these people were able to make their contributions despite the challenges that minorities and women face in the physical scientists. And ask, who did we lose? What accomplishments didn’t happen?

    That kind of concrete thing would, I suspect, be better marketing than the impersonal pool of untapped talent.

    -Rob

  14. Clifford says:

    Hi Rob,

    I’m not following. I just don’t seee why that is neccessary. Furthermore, the number of jobs available is totally irrelevant. Simply put, when you have a job opening, you want to cast the net as wide as possible to get the best person for the job. If you only look in a restricted subset of the pool of applicants, you’re just not doing the best efforts to find that best person. Why does that simple fact become hard to swallow unless I attach names and examples? And names and examples will never be any good, since you can never know for sure in a particular job search whether you got the best candidate, but you can know for sure that over time that the workforce at large is definitely enriched by a broader pool. “At large” here can mean your department, your institution, your country, or your species.

    -cvj

  15. Nicole says:

    To Clifford and Rob,

    I agree with much of what Rob has said, the “pool of untapped talent” also doesn’t resonate with me for the same reason, there are not enough jobs, period. I think what’s underlying this feeling that both Rob and I have must be the conviction that most people are replaceable. Someone else would have done pretty much as well in that position, not identically, but close enough. Picking out specific superstars in the field, where their contributions are not replaceable, is more compelling. Not everyone would do what Gibor, Wendy, and Andrea have done. This works for me, but this is because I know the field in more depth than someone in another scientific field. Just saying that we should widen the applicant pool to be fair also doesn’t work for me, life is so unfair anyway this seems like a joke. We all work with what we have and make the best of it. I’m really cynical, so while I’m glad we have people trying to make a difference in keeping women and minorities in science, it seems futile. I think there are better jobs out there for them than in science, better for their overall quality of life. The playing field is not even anywhere, but on some fields (i.e. not the endless post-doc or pre-tenure field) you have a fairly bright future.

  16. Clifford says:

    I think there are better jobs out there for them than in science, better for their overall quality of life.

    But what if they actually want to do science? Why should they not have an equal chance to do so? Why do you get to decide what is a better job for them? I’m very puzzled by this. Please help me on these points.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  17. Nicole says:

    I think that, of course, they *should* have an equal chance to do them. But they don’t. And of course I don’t get to decide what a better job for someone is, the individual does, but I do have an opinion about it. I’m glad some people are trying to make things fair, but I have mixed feelings about trying to convince more women and minorities to consider science as a career. It hurt me to complete that sentence. But I don’t feel right about that. I don’t feel right about convincing anyone to consider pure research science as a career, but particularly women and minorities, because I believe they are disadvantaged.

  18. Rob Knop says:

    I’m not following. I just don’t seee why that is neccessary. Furthermore, the number of jobs available is totally irrelevant. Simply put, when you have a job opening, you want to cast the net as wide as possible to get the best person for the job. If you only look in a restricted subset of the pool of applicants, you’re just not doing the best efforts to find that best person. Why does that simple fact become hard to swallow unless I attach names and examples?

    Well, a couple of things. First, realistically, many of the people reading that are going to have a part of the thought, “urp, more competition.”

    But, more reasonably, I’m extremely dubious about this notion of “the” best person. I know that we always talk about that when we do faculty searches. And, indeed, I know that faculty searches often oversell their first candidate to their department and to their Dean, so that having to fall back to a second candidate seems like “settling.” But people are people; they’re individuals, they’re diverse. There are lots of people who will do very well in any given job, and I think the notion that there is a “best” person is ultimately a fictional notion. There are lots of second-place candidates who end up not getting hired for jobs who would have made excellent contributions to the place where they were hired.

    To really make the argument convincing, I think you’d need to make the argument that the people that we have filling the academic positions right now are lacking. Now, yes, in one sense they are lacking serioulsy — in providing a broad mentoring base for the female and minority scientists of the future who are in our student body. That’s a strong and obvious argument. But if you’re talking about “talent” in more abstract terms, it’s not so obvious that the current set of people in science is lacking. Yes, it might be better with a wider net, but given that we train way too many scientists already, it’s not immediately obvious that it would be a lot better in terms of raw “talent”. In terms of diversity of viewpoints, yes, but that’s not the argument I’m trying to say is weak.

    Here’s another way to say it: the “size of talent pool” sounds like an attempt to reduce statistical errors, whereas the real need is to reduce systematic errors. In supernova cosmology, for example, of course more statistics are good, but how good? We’re already at the point where the statistical errors are as good as they need to be given the size of the systematic errors. As such, an argument to get more data in order to beat down statistical error bars isn’t convincing; what’s needed is beating down the systematic errors.

    Given the oversupply of scientists as it is, our problems in female and minority representation are systematic problems, not statistical problems. “A place to find more great scientists” isn’t what we need — what we need are the viewpoints of women and minorities to help solve of the sociological problems that exist in science.

    -Rob

  19. Nicole says:

    My attitude is one of defeat and acceptance, and should not be present in discussions of how to increase the proportion of women and minorities on science faculties. I fully realize that. But for the individual deciding what to do with their life, who is curious and intelligent but not completely committed to a single subject, they may want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different careers. They generally hear only one side from their advisors and mentors.

  20. Clifford says:

    Rob, Nicole,

    Let me put it another way. You’re essentially saying the equivalent of (say, several years ago) “Why give women the vote? There’s enough people voting already, and women have better things to do with their time than voting, and anyway, there’s nothing lacking in the current pool of people (all men) voting… they’re clearly good at it… and having more people voting will just confuse things and make it harder for the men to get their way… so why bother?”

    And on the “more competition” issue. Are you really so insecure in your ability to do your job that you don’t want more women and minorities in the pool because they may reduce your chances of getting a job? I hope not.

    And you said

    the notion that there is a best person is ultimately a fictional notion

    Really? Then how come you don’t just give the next job that arises in your department to the next random person who walks into the building? With all due respect, that’s just plain nonsense. Looking for a good candidate to fill a job is a worthwhile exercise. To carry it out well, you need to have the idea that there are some people who will be less well suited to do it than others, and your search committee’s job is to locate and attract the more well suited people to the job. Those are the “best” you can get, for that search, by any reasonable definition of the word. Ultimately, yes, there will be several equally acceptable possibilities that can result from choosing one or other of a shorter list of people that you could have selected, but if you don’t strive to find the best candidate, you’ll never succeed in constructing that short list of good people.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  21. Katie says:

    I understand what Nicole is saying. Pursuing a career in science is not easy. There are many other careers that would be much better for quality of life in every aspect except satisfying a passion for science. Honestly, I wouldn’t wish a science career on anyone. Unless they love their field at least as much as I love mine. I too have reservations about convincing more people to pursue careers in science if it’s not what they really want out of life. However, there are many people out there (particularly women and minorities) who have never been exposed to the field that would be their life’s passion. Or who have found their love of science, but lost hope along the way and settled for a life without the joy they found in science. It’s important to provide underrepresented groups with opportunities to discover if they have a passion for science and, if they do, to provide them with information and support for turning it into a career that they can enjoy.

  22. Nicole says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Normally I’m a lurker and not a poster, but you lured me in today. I read your blog a couple times a week.

    I think you’re grossly misrepresenting what Rob and I are saying with the voting analogy. It stings doubly because this is the standard technique I employ in verbal arguments, and my eyes have been opened to how wrong it can be.

    More absolute numbers of women and minorities in the pool will reduce everyone’s chances of getting a job, which is I think what Rob was refering to. You can’t argue with that, provided the number of permanent positions doesn’t rise commensurately, which it won’t. But anyway, now I’m off track, because no one is suggesting we should not encourage underrepresented groups among the faculty because it would increase competition. That is stupid.

    Also, to defend the concept of “no best person”, it should be qualified that this was probably meant to apply to pools of 100-200 candidates for 1 position, which is the current situation. Although now we are getting into really qualitative waters, and I’m not comfortable here. Giving a job to anyone in the the top 10% of this pool (don’t even ask this would be determined, or should we make it 9%? 11.7%?) is very different than giving a job to a random person who walks in the door. The concept of “best person” for the job, combined with our skill in underestimating the accomplishments of women and minorities, is one of the reasons there are so few women and minorities on the faculty.

  23. Supernova says:

    “A place to find more great scientists” isn’t what we need — what we need are the viewpoints of women and minorities to help solve of the sociological problems that exist in science.

    Uh oh, Rob, I agree with you on most things, but I’ve got a big problem with this statement. Unless perhaps I’m misinterpreting you? It sounds like you’re implying that it’s the job of women and minorities to address the sociological problems that exist in science. Now certainly we have a chicken-and-egg situation here, in that the presence of some women and minorities in the field is likely to improve the chances of others following them. That’s good and we should encourage more of it. But we shouldn’t place the burden of changing the scientific culture entirely on the shoulders of its women and minority members. Not only are their numbers still too small to make much difference on their own (though of course exceptional people like Clifford are having an impact), but to say this is effectively to absolve the community at large from any responsibility to assess and change its own institutionalized behaviors.

    Besides, if the fairness argument won’t convince members of the “old boys’ club” that we need more women and minorities in the sciences, how can you possibly think the argument that “they will help us solve our sociological problems” will have any traction? The old boys’ club doesn’t believe there are any sociological problems with science. It doesn’t even accept that science is a sociological enterprise. You might say that on principle we shouldn’t validate this paradigm by accepting it even for the sake of argument, but I think we’ll never reach the necessary audience if we don’t. The science will benefit — that’s the only argument the old boys are likely to hear. Luckily, it’s true. 🙂

  24. Rob Knop says:

    the notion that there is a best person is ultimately a fictional notion

    Really? Then how come you don’t just give the next job that arises in your department to the next random person who walks into the building?

    Er, there’s a lot of ground between believing that there is no single best person who is the only one for the job, and believing that every single random person is right for the job.

    Obviously.

    Let me put it another way. You’re essentially saying the equivalent of (say, several years ago) “Why give women the vote? There’s enough people voting already, and women have better things to do with their time than voting, and anyway, there’s nothing lacking in the current pool of people (all men) voting… they’re clearly good at it… and having more people voting will just confuse things and make it harder for the men to get their way… so why bother?

    That’s not what we’re saying at all! What we’re saying is that the opposite argument — we need more voters — would have not sold anybody on the idea of women’s suffrage.

    If your goal is to have enough people voting — then, sure, you can make the argument that you need women’s suffrage to bulk out the voter rolls. But I don’t think arguments for women’s sufferage were based on the need to have more voters… they were based on it being the right thing to do. Just as “we need more voters” wouldn’t have been a real argument for women’s suffrage, I think that “we need a bigger pool of scientists” isn’t the most convincing argument for improving female and minority representation.

    And on the “more competition” issue. Are you really so insecure in your ability to do your job that you don’t want more women and minorities in the pool because they may reduce your chances of getting a job? I hope not.

    Not if you put it that way.

    And I’m not insecure in my ability to do my job, and to do very well at it.

    But you bet I am tremendously insecure in my abaility to keep my job and to get a job that I think would be better suited for me! (See, for example, this post and this post on my blog. There are so many talented people out there that it’s a real crap shoot for me to get a better job! This is a personal thing: I don’t think this is at all an argument that we shouldn’t have more women and minorities. However, we should recognize the reality that it’s not just me: a lot of people feel very insecure about obtaining long-term employment in science academia, and as such any sign of increased competition is going to make them feel nervous. That may not be a valid reaction, and it’s certainly not a moral or reasonable argument for holding down women and minorities, but if the goal is to figure out the best marketing strategy, it’s worth taking into account.

    Again, because you seem to be responding to arguments I’m not making — I am not, absolutely not, arguing that it shouldn’t be a top priority for us to improve the representation of women and minorities in physics. Your suffrage analogy suggests that you seem to think I am making the argument that we don’t need women and minorities, and I want to be very clear that that is not what I’m saying. All I’m saying is that the “we need a bigger pool” argument isn’t as compelling as the real reasons, and if it is going to be used, it should be used well.

  25. Rob Knop says:

    To carry it out well, you need to have the idea that there are some people who will be less well suited to do it than others, and your search committee’s job is to locate and attract the more well suited people to the job. Those are the “best” you can get, for that search, by any reasonable definition of the word. Ultimately, yes, there will be several equally acceptable possibilities that can result from choosing one or other of a shorter list of people that you could have selected, but if you don’t strive to find the best candidate, you’ll never succeed in constructing that short list of good people.

    I agree with all of this — and none of it is in contradiction with my belief that the notion that there is one “best” is a fictional notion.

  26. spyder says:

    (declaration of bias: i am retired, thus i don’t have any stress about job competition or pressure to justify performance or quality of my life).

    Something in the comments that i find disturbing is the notion that availability of jobs in science is a major determining factor in encouraging greater participation parity in the sciences. I look not from the top down, or from the middle out, but from the bottom up. If it is publicized that science is not a good career choice from women and minorities (for whatever valid and invalid reasons) then young children and students are exposed to pessimistic ideation much earlier than is beneficial for their own well being, and for that of the society as a whole. We need the best minds and the best creative visions to develop across this nation (the whole planet really), particularly from the coming generations. The problems are huge, and the solutions are far from being advanced. Without participational parity being clearly available to our young people, we cutoff the capacity of the society to open itself to discoveries and ideas as yet unknown. This problem of parity (particularly the pressure of the validated glass ceiling) ripples down to repress and enclose the minds of children. We do a major disservice to the next seven generations by suggesting that their leaders aren’t really welcome, because there aren’t enough jobs, or that there are too many out there already, or that we really don’t need the very best minds.

  27. Clifford says:

    Nicole,

    Sorry if what I said upset you, but I’m just trying to understand. (I’m sorry, but I don’t think all of the analogy was a misrepresentation, actually.)

    All I am saying is that we need to give as many people as possible the chance to pursue science as a career if they want to, and if they have the ability. Katie put it rather well:

    It’s important to provide underrepresented groups with opportunities to discover if they have a passion for science and, if they do, to provide them with information and support for turning it into a career that they can enjoy.

    Nobody is talking about forcing people into science if they don’t want to do it, to acheive the ends of some social engineering program.

    For me, one the biggest reasons for having more representation in science is the following. Science affects the day to day lives of everyone on the planet… more and more each day. These effects are hugely significant, and life changing. I am not comfortable with the decisions about such things -and yes, the scientists do make a lot of these decisions- being in the hands of a small and unrepresentative subset of the people they affect. For example, I’d be much happier knowing that scientific research on the health issues of women from the inner city actually have some women from the inner city taking part in the research. I could go on with several examples like this… but you get the point.

    It is just overwhelmingly inappropriate -and severly limiting to the scope of the science (in myriad ways, most of which we probably cannot even see right now)- to have white males dominating the scientific future of our speicies. I just don’t see why this is hard to appreciate.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  28. Rob Knop says:

    Uh oh, Rob, I agree with you on most things, but I’ve got a big problem with this statement. Unless perhaps I’m misinterpreting you? It sounds like you’re implying that it’s the job of women and minorities to address the sociological problems that exist in science.

    You’re sort of misrepresenting me, but it’s not your fault — I wasn’t clear. I don’t think it’s the job of women and minorities to address the sociological problems that exist in science — it’s everybody’s job.

    But I also think that no matter how hard we try, and how well-meaning we are, it will be impossible for white males to succesfully address those issues without having better representation on faculties from women and minorities. Just by being there they help. If nothing else, it immediately puts the lie to Lubos Motl-style arguments that “women usually aren’t good physicists.” If you’ve got (say) a third of your faculty (or even half, if one really wants to dream) that are women, that makes the Lubos argument a lot harder to make.

    Plus, it helps give hope to the students who are women and minorities that, hey, I don’t have to look like a white guy in order to have a chance of going all the way in this career.

    Additionally, I suspect that part of the overly aggressive, overly competetive, overly attack-ful nature of the fights we see in science come from the “dick measuring” culture that exists among men in Western civilization. The fact that men are never supposed to show weakness, and are supposed to vanquish their opposition at all costs. I use hyperbole, of course, but the dog-eat-dog nature of the stereotypical business world also exists in science. Now, I’m not saying that men must be that way, and women must be nice and friendly and nurturing– but when you live in a testosterone-dominated field, it’s no surprise that the downsides of the cultural attachments to testosterone rear their ugly heads. This may not really happen, but I’m hoping that as more and more women get into Physics, it will help us guys see how stupid and unnecessary some of these behaviors are.

    -Rob

  29. Rob Knop says:

    The science will benefit — that’s the only argument the old boys are likely to hear. Luckily, it’s true

    To the extent that the problem attitudes come from the older white males — this is probably all true. And, of course, they won’t have any personal worries about competition, because they already have tenure.

    I suspect, though, that it would be naive to assume that attitudinal problems don’t also exist among the younger white male faculty as well. Again, Lubos Motl is a good poster boy for this, but that’s anecdotal evidence. I know that five years ago I had blinders on about some things, which leads me to suspect that right now I still have blinders on about things that I’m completely unaware of.

    As such, we need arguments that play with the young boys as well as ones that play with the old boys. To me, the “duh, it’s the right thing to do” argument trumps all, but others have argued that that doesn’t really sell the case.

    -Rob

  30. Rob Knop says:

    I am not comfortable with the decisions about such things -and yes, the scientists do make a lot of these decisions- being in the hands of a small and unrepresentative subset of the people they affect.

    I think this is a great argument.

    Indeed, it’s also an argument that first world countries should be contributing to create first-rate science academies and universities around the world.

    I also think this is a different argument from “we need a bigger pool of scientists to choose from.” You’re talking the systematics here, not the statistics.

    -Rob

  31. Clifford says:

    Rob, Both arguments are strongly connected.

    -cvj

  32. Supernova says:

    it will be impossible for white males to succesfully address those issues without having better representation on faculties from women and minorities. Just by being there they help.

    Agreed… But I’m afraid we need to address the issues in a more substantial way before we can get better representation of women and minorities on science faculties. It’s a vicious circle if there ever was one.

    And by the way, I’m with you on the whole “best person” thing: it’s problematic because the criteria for determining who’s “best” are usually left unspecified, implying that they are obvious to all concerned. This leaves lots of room for inherent bias to play its part (cf. the debates about whether women have the inherent ability to be Good Scientists — as if the specific skills necessary for being a Good Scientist are well known and agreed upon). I’d much rather see a committee acknowledge that the search is for a “best fit” person for the department, and spell out their criteria explicitly, making it clear that factors beyond the number of publications on someone’s resume are at work in the decision making. (And in my opinion, if a department is concerned about the gender and racial makeup of its faculty and/or students, one of those factors could very reasonably be the ability of a candidate to attract a variety of diverse and talented students to the program.)

  33. Clifford says:

    Yes, in everything I said above, I intended it to be clear (I’m sorry if it was not) that “best” = “best fit for the job in question”.

    -cvj

  34. Rob Knop says:

    Yes, in everything I said above, I intended it to be clear (I’m sorry if it was not) that “best” = “best fit for the job in question”.

    Even that isn’t obvious though. Usually there will be a number of potential candidates who will do an excellent job with a given position — and, it may not turn out that whoever ended up at the top of the list is as “good” as one of the others.

    It’s very hard to figure out who is best. It’s not like running a chi-square on various models. Never mind the fact that it’s hard to predict just how well somebody will do; different people will bring different things.

  35. Clifford says:

    It’s very hard to figure out who is best.

    Yes of course it is! But you’ll never get anyone good if you assume that there is no best! That’s the point. You’ve got to try to sift through a candidate pool and find the best candidates for the job. Assuming that the concept of “best candidate for the job” is fundamentally flawed is a self-defeating approach. That is like confusing the following two things: (1) The fact that an equation is hard to solve… (2) The non-existence of solutions.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  36. candace says:

    Sorry to veer back to older comments, but…

    As someone who is really just starting out on what I hope will be a long-term vocational path, one of the most depressing things for me to hear right now is other women saying that they aren’t sure that they would recommend a life in physics to other women (or men, for that matter). It’s not something I just became aware of recently, but it’s been there as an undercurrent even before I decided to try and study physics.

    I do wonder if men in physics hear the same thing from their mentors. Do they hear the message of hopelessness and futility that I pick on with frightening regularity? ‘No, really, you won’t like it here, go try something else.’

    It depresses me because this is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and now I’m coming into the game quite late and against all odds (I have a full-time professional career and go to school in the evenings), and yet the broadcast message is, ‘eh, why bother?’

    I bother because it’s a dream of mine to do this, and because I want to do this, but now I live in fear of what lurks behind every metaphorical door. On the one hand, I know feel like a moderately insane person tilting at windmills, and on the other I just want to cover my ears and say ‘LA LA LA I can’t hear you!’

    Anyway, I’m not sure what my point is or how to tie it into the overarching discussion except to say that: when you have a climate such that potentially talented people are scared off despite the fact that they are desperate to learn more and excited by the tantalising bits that they see…I can’t help but think that there is some sense of moral obligation to re-dress that problem.

    I also get scared off by the tendency to over-focus on academia. Academia is the most obvious problem, but when people say ‘jobs’ and mean only academic jobs to the exclusion of other possibly rewarding jobs in industry, that’s a bit frightening to me. But what the hell do I know as a confused little undergradling?

  37. Clifford says:

    But what the hell do I know as a confused little undergradling

    A lot. You are the future. Keep up the fight.

    BTW, it is *never* an issue commenting on older comments..

    -cvj

  38. Rob Knop says:

    I do wonder if men in physics hear the same thing from their mentors. Do they hear the message of hopelessness and futility that I pick on with frightening regularity?

    Regardless of the student, I try to give them a realistic message. Of course, fi they read my whining blog posts, they get a very bleak picture. What I say to them directly isn’t so bleak, but I do point out that there are a lot of physicists trying to get a smaller number of jobs; that funding is mercurial and not at all guaranteed; that they will have a lot of competition from a lot of hot-shots; etc.

    What I tell my students is that if they go to grad school in Physics, they should do so because they want to study physics, not just because they want a faculty job in Physics. Of course, if you want the latter, you have to go to grad school; but if you view grad school as the sacrifice you make to get a faculty job in physics, then it’s not worth it.

    On the other hand, if you want to give it a shot, and you think it would be really cool to study physics and do research for six years even if you are underpaid, then by all means go to grad school. Maybe you will end up one of the faculty members! As as you’ll still think that it was worth it to have spent the years doing what you did, it’s worth going on and doing it.

    I suspect that the people who view grad school as simply a means to an employment end are less likely to be the ones who will be most competetive for faculty jobs anyway, so…. The important thing is to go in with your eyes open. Whereas completeing medical school close to guarantees you a job as a doctor somewhere (even if not a sexy, high-paying job), competing a PhD in Physics does not guarantee you a job that requires a PhD in Physics. Of course, your PhD can still help you in other jobs — for instance, I’d love it if more of the best teachers who have PhD’s were happily teaching high school science.

    -Rob

  39. Katie says:

    Candace, I just want to clarify that I wouldn’t recommend a life in physics to anyone who isn’t passionate about physics. For someone like you who is really into it, I say go for it! Play with it. Fight with it. Enjoy it. A life in physics is incredibly rewarding, satisfying and fun. Yes, there are challenges, but it’s worth every minute if you truly love the physics. I don’t regret choosing a career in physics. I’ve enjoyed (almost) every minute of it so far, and I look forward to being a physicist for the rest of my life. However, not everyone shares that love of science. I wouldn’t want to talk someone without that love into a science career; they’d be miserable.

    I truly believe that we should all have jobs that make us happy. If we aren’t happy with our current jobs, we have the responsibility to switch. I admire you for going after your dream “against all odds,” and I wish you the best of luck and happiness in your career.

  40. Yvette says:

    As of yesterday, I became the last woman studying for a B.S. Physics degree in my year, so I figured I’d throw in my two cents. Candace raised a worthy point after reading through these comments- while I understand how difficult it is to become a physics professor and the like, doesn’t it seem a bit premature to tell undergrads these woes before you tell them why you’re in love with it yourself? I’ve seen things like that happen, and know one or two girls who were scared off the physics major because they were worried they would be unable to do simple things like have a home life or start a family if they someday became physicists. Now arguably this is silly, no eighteen-year-old is committing herself to tenure by signing the major declaration form, but what I’m trying to point out is there’s a line between giving perspective and scaring someone off.

    I’m involved with our Physics and Astronomy Club here on campus, and one of the most fun things I get to do is convince freshman to join the physics fold at our events- something I’m pretty good at, I suppose, as the astronomy kids keep accusing me of stealing their majors. And I’ve noticed that for every comment I make about hard work and impossible homework sets, I have to counter it with at least one description on why I think physics is the utterly coolest thing I can be doing with my life (preferably before the hard work comment and involving either quantum mechanics or a really sweet laser). It’s a lot easier to be scared off of something than to be drawn in, and when I listen to professors talk I don’t think they always quite realize that.

    Ok, this is a little off of what the original topic was about, but I think it’s worth noting that no one ever went into science because they were intent on being miserable (or at least no one I willingly hang out with). So while perspective is an important thing to have, it should never cause the wonder or excitement of the field to be compromised!

  41. Clifford says:

    Candace, Katie, Yvette: –

    YES! Thanks for reminding us that there are young people out there who entertain the idea of doing something for the love of it!!

    From Yvette….

    I think physics is the utterly coolest thing I can be doing with my life”

    Ok! Let’s print the T-shirt with that on it right now!

    Real choice is one of the things I was trying to emphasize in my above comments… the idea of clearing open access for all to make their own decision about whether they want to pursue that career if they are able. Not to have the doors closed because they have the wrong gender or skin colour. Equal opportunity. One of those administrative phrases that is actually rather good.

    -cvj

  42. Rob Knop says:

    I’m trying to point out is there’s a line between giving perspective and scaring someone off.

    I generally try to give the perspective when it comes to the stage of applying to graudate school. That’s the point when you’re committing several years of your life being underpaid and overworked; as an undergrad, yeah, there’s a chance you’ll work a bit harder as a Physics major than in many other majors, but the undergrad experience isn’t *that* different for physics majors and everybody else. When it comes to recruiting at the undergrad level — you’re right, you’re hardly committing anything at that point, and Physics *is* a really cool major regardless of whether you go on in it or not.

    An undergraduate degree in Physics can open an infinite number of doors, and I think more and more people should be majoring in Physics. I also think that probably there are too many Physics departments out there that only celebrate their go-on-to-grad-school students as the top successes of their departments. The world needs more Physics majors teaching high school, in congress, etc.

    -Rob

  43. Metalwoman says:

    I come from a country where a large percentage of women, still do traditional housework. However, in this country I never encountered any academic who doubted the ability of women to succeed at the highest level of math, science or engineering, or who dissuaded women from picking up these areas for a career.
    Sadly, I had to come to the most “advanced” country in the world, to hear about such things.
    While before I was not even aware of my gender – vis-a-vis physics… and was indifferent about promoting other women to take up science careers, I am now resolved to do all I can to make physics accessible to everyone, so that everybody has a fair chance to choose to work on it, regardless of sex, race and background. Always assuming of course that I survive in physics long enough.
    Thank you for your article, which gave rise to very different feelings than the ones usually on the web about women and science.

  44. Katie says:

    I grew up in the US. Like Metalwoman, most of my life I wasn’t aware that it was abnormal for a woman to be a physicist. For this I thank my family and teachers for encouraging me to work hard in and enjoy every subject matter (including science and math), and especially my grandpa, an engineer, who greeted my with a science experiment every time I saw him. No one ever treated me differently or discouraged me from enjoying science because of my gender. Even as an undergrad, my graduating class of physicists included 3 women and just 1 man, which didn’t seem odd to me at the time. In fact, I didn’t realize how scarce female physicists were until I started grad school (as the only woman in a class of about ten). Wouldn’t it be great if more people grew up not thinking it was wierd for women and minorities to go into science? Perhaps it’s not just academia and industry that need a change of culture, but society at large.

  45. Re women being discouraged by faculty, including women faculty (when there are women faculty teaching you!)…not everyone who wants to do a degree in science is doing so as a route into a career. They might want to do it because they love it and then go on and do something other than academia (which may still be science-related) as Rob said. The reason I’m dwelling on this is out is that my experience has sometimes been that women are discouraged from these subjects completely, sometimes by people claiming to be advising prospective students about careers. 18 year olds don’t need to be told that they’ll be miserable, unable to have families, unable to have a life, etc if they’re trying to decide whether they should do a degree in science. That kind of “advice” just isn’t relevant, isn’t the kind of advice that the prospective students was asking for, and it does turn people off science completely. the same applies to women considering PhDs.

    As regards the “untapped pool of talent” issue…I don’t think it’s the best argument, but not for the reasons that Rob and Nicole gave above. The reason we should make sure that men and women are being treated equally isn’t because of the “points” we might score on some Progress of Science Meter (seems too far in the direction of “What’s in it for me?” from those who are comfortably privileged within science), but because it’s the decent thing to do. (I know you didn’t mean “What’s in it for me?”, Clifford, but so many of the people who use or respond to this argument do think in terms of “What’s in it for me?”).

    Thanks for posting this. I’m on my way to a computer science lecture now where women students make up less than 10% of the class and non-white students make up about half that. It’s really important to me and other students to hear from faculty who really support equal opps, so keep posting on this!

    –IP

  46. Clifford says:

    IP:- Of course it is the decent thing to do. We’ve acknowledged that. But that and $2.00 will get you a cup of coffee in a busy, competitive, and complacent academic environment. See my very first post in this thread. If you want more participation by the currently under-represented in this world -if you want to change the status quo- you have to appeal to more than people’s basic decency. You have to help them realise why it is a good thing for them. To help their bottom line. Sad, but true. Look around you and you’ll see examples everywhere.

    -cvj

  47. Cliff:

    I know that. I was only highlighting the “sad but true” element.

    Again, thanks for posting this.

    –IP

  48. Pingback: Women in Science - What to Do Next? - Asymptotia