Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Biology versus Bigotry

Posted by Athene Donald on September 30, 2010

This week’s THE  features several articles associated with women in academia, including a further review of Delusions of Gender to add to those I mentioned earlier here .  This review, unlike some of the others I mentioned previously, seems well-argued and scholarly. However, this is not where the weight of the discussion of gender is to be found this week in the THE. The leader links in to an article about research into the productivity of women in academia (across all disciplines; this isn’t specifically about women in science) and leads into advice that might be given to young women setting out on their careers.

The first sentence of the leader reads

That women fail to reach the top in numbers is not a consequence of biology but of bigotry, which all in the academy must fight.

This is a call to arms for everyone if they are to heed it! Later on we see the following statement

The unpleasant truth is that higher education, and science in particular, remains too much of an old boys’ club.

I have no idea what influence the THE has on opinion within the HE sector, but it would be nice if a few more people (men?) would wake up to what is being thrown at them in this leader, and help to move their institutions forward. It will, no doubt, continue to be a slow process.

However, what particularly struck me in the main article was the wonderful experiment that inadvertently Ben Barres carried out personally.  Having undergone a sex change experiment (female-to-male) at the age of 40 he could give a first hand account of how differently people reacted to his male sense from his apparent sister:

Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say: ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’

This really is the ideal control experiment that we so sadly usually lack when trying to counter arguments about the existence of prejudice. Barres’ thoughts on gender discrimination in the sciences were written up in an excellent article in Nature .  Contained within this was a strong plea for institutions to act to remove discrimination, which I fear must frequently have fallen on deaf ears.

To return to this week’s THE article, there are many interesting insights into why women appear to be less productive – in terms of scholarly articles- than men.  Leaving aside the time that may be lost around child bearing, which has the potential to slow productivity at a crucial point on the promotion ladder, one view put forward is that women are more likely to pursue rather broad research topics, whereas men are more likely to specialize. The evidence for this is based in sociology and linguistics rather than science in an article by Leahy et al in Social Forces in 2008. Leahy is quoted as saying

While attempting to demonstrate expertise, men specialize because they think a diversified research program indicates a failure to excel in any one area, whereas women diversify because they think it indicates scholarly breadth.

In other words, women may think that diversification will broaden their professional identity, whereas men may fear it will sully theirs.

I don’t know if it is equally true in the sciences. I do know that personally I have always valued breadth in my own research, but I have never thought of that as anything to do with either my professional identity or the benefit it might give me for progression. It is simply that that is what I enjoy: I would much prefer to know something about a lot of topics rather than everything about something narrow.

Other issues are identified in the THE article, including women’s alleged reluctance to self-promote, and a correlation between the amount of money each country invests in its pre-primary childcare system and women’s scientific output. Apparently this shows that the higher the investment in childcare, the greater the number of women’s publications.  This article focuses simply on research productivity as an indicator of the gender gap. It is thought provoking even if it doesn’t even begin to produce answers. The advice that Leahy gives

So, for at least the initial stage of their career, women should focus on constructing a succinct intellectual identity through their publications.

may not always be attractive to an individual’s research style, but it is something to consider.  Nevertheless, our systems will need to change substantially to provide that proverbial level playing field.


2 Responses to “Biology versus Bigotry”

  1. Let’s hope that these articles do contribute to progress, however glacial (if that is still an appropriate metaphor).

    While the phrase ‘not a consequence of biology but of bigotry’ has a good ring to it, I wonder how helpful it is? In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Elizabeth Bennet comments to Jane: ‘…but without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery. Thoughtlessness, want of attention to other people’s feelings, and want of resolution, will do the business.’ To me that seems a better description of the situation in universities than active prejudice and discrimination. We need everyone, even the well-intentioned, to examine their underlying assumptions, not just about gender schemas, but what an academic career should look like. Characterizing the problem as bigotry allows the well-intentioned to see it as somebody else’s problem. Another difficulty in universities is that few people, including, or especially, women, have time to engage with these issues properly.

    A possible explanation of the association between specialization and productivity is that productivity leads to specialization. It is easier to get funding if you have a track record: it easier to be productive if you have funding. Of course, it may be that what is characteristic of sociology and linguistics is not characteristic of other subjects.

    The THE leader highlights the suggestion from Amanda Goodall’s article ‘Speak out when things are not right’. To whom? Who is listening? Even if an issue does get raised is its impact dissipated in a morass of committees, each of which can claim that another should be doing something about it?

    • I agree that much (though not, I fear all) of what goes wrong is entirely unintentional. However that doesn’t make it right, and the Barres example I think is really telling of how thoughtless and baseless people’s actions sometimes are. Occasionally I think it is helpful if some perfectly respectable body/individual makes a headline remark that just might cause management to sit up and think. (You could argue that the furore prompted by Summers served exactly this purpose too.) I do not think it is useful for women/women’s groups constantly to be harping on in an unconstructive and unproductive way. But, I thought, just for once, I would go for the screaming headline since they weren’t my own words. It is not how I pursue any opportunities for progression within my own institution!

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