Friday, July 14, 2006

Gender and Science

The news this week has been particularly depressing. A two-front conflict for Israel in the Middle East. If you’re from Boston, you would be reading about how panels from engineering marvel” of the Big Dig collapsed, crushing a woman to death on her way to the airport to pick up family. You would also be reading about train bombings in India and more violence in Baghdad. There was a slice of good news: Stanford biologist Ben Barres, formerly Elizabeth Barres, wrote an essay published in the prestigious journal Nature, detailing how he has been treated differently as a male scientist than when he was female.
The article lends support to the idea that discrimination based upon sex still plays a large role in America’s leading academic institutions. Barres recalls hearing that “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's”. Of course, his “sister” was him as Elizabeth. Furthermore, a professor of his at M.I.T believed that Eizabeth’s “boyfriend” must have solved a difficult problem on the problem set for her.
Barres penned the article in order to add to the debate that former Harvard president, Larry Summers, ignited when he made his infamous comments that there is a dearth of top female scientists in academia because female scientists lack “innate ability” (as opposed to experience discrimination). I was a student at the time and was on campus for the firestorm that followed. I was horrified that the president of our university could make such ridiculous claims—but even more aghast that the undergraduate population was, for the most part, unmoved by his comments. In the dining hall or in class, there would invariably be students who would argue that there was some truth to his comments. At the end of the discussion, the controversy was around academic freedom of speech and not the gender inequity still deeply embedded into campus culture.
Harvard academics are still jumping at the bit to defend Summer’s statements. Stephen Pinker, wrote in response to Barres “polemic” that Barres was turning “Science into Oprah” and should learn “to take scientific hypotheses less personally.” Interestingly, Pinker also described himself as a feminist and believes that bias could play a role in the number of women at the highest levels of science. However, he doesn’t believe that bias is a large factor, and it is that women self-select out of these fields into fields in which they would be happier. He also believes that while the majority of women are not innately suited to be “hard scientists,” this “empirical evidence” should not be confused with the moral issue of fairness in how “individual women” are treated. However, how is it possible to believe that the woman in the board room or the laboratory is your equal when she is simply a surprising exception?
A colleague of Pinker’s, Proffessor Lawrence, was quoted as saying the “rat race” in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men. “We should try and look for the qualities we actually need,” he said. “I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive.”
Outside of the fact that it is dangerous to code “woman” as automatically “gentle” while the “gentle men” are exceptions to that rule, Pinker’s attitude is fundamentally more harmful to the chances of younger women in male-dominated fields. His willingness to discount discrimination as a cause and his desire to shut down the debate with Barres through personal invectives, means that the actual experience of women in the higher ranks—and those that are no longer pursuing careers in science, are swept neatly under the rug. Although Larry Summers is no longer president (for reasons outside of the women in science debacle), the debate on campus has similarly been silent about gender discrimination on campus.
For more information check out the American Association of University Women report on women and tenure here.

1 comment:

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