Athene Donald's Blog

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

Archive for the ‘Women in Science’ Category

Posts relating to gender issues

Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

Posted by Athene Donald on November 23, 2010

Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career.  I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life.  As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.

A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha  asking  Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form.  (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all  girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher.  Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.

So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says

‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’

I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models.  I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife.  This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.

So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.

Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career  – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male?  I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status).  So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.

But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male.  So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science,  or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important.  If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.


Posted in Communicating Science, Education, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »

Stereotype Threat, Underperformance and Diversity

Posted by Athene Donald on November 18, 2010

Some months ago I came across a review in the THE for a book with the strange title of Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele and it finally came to the top of my reading list recently. Far too late to write any kind of review, I will instead write a commentary on why it may be relevant to the vexed question of women in science, and any minority’s performance more generally, under certain exam conditions.

Steele’s research has identified a phenomenon he termed ‘stereotype threat’ which is defined as “a situational predicament felt in situations where one can be judged by, treated in terms of, or self-fulfill negative stereotypes about one’s group”. In other words, when taking a test, for instance, the candidate is not simply performing according to their innate ability: this ability is moderated by the impact of contingent and situational factors deriving from generally held beliefs that people have about the performance and abilities of the candidate’s grouping – as defined by race, sex, age or whatever.

This work grew out of a study Steele made of minority (in general black) students in top-ranked US universities where they seemed to underperform on the basis of their entering SAT scores. What he discovered, by carefully constructed laboratory studies, was that blacks perform significantly less well if they are reminded in some subtle way before the exam that blacks aren’t expected to be intellectually as strong as whites. If the test is introduced as one where intellectual strength is not being tested, though it may be an identical test, the blacks perform as well as the whites. Likewise, stress the fact that girls aren’t so good at maths before a test (using of course girls and boys thought to be equally strong) and lo and behold the girls perform less well than the boys. Tell them the test has nothing to do with maths ability but is exploring how a task is tackled, or some other neutral issue, and the differences go away. A whole host of different factors were studied under test conditions and in ‘real life’ and all the evidence points to this being an important factor. When a test really matters – and the effect doesn’t seem to come into play when the test is easy or people don’t care – then being reminded of a negative stereotyping can wreak havoc with your results. Even if this reminder of the stereotype is separated in time from the actual test there still seems to be damage done.  However, give the same test but without the same contingencies, so implying that the negative stereotype is irrelevant to the test, and the underperformance vanishes.

So, how does that play out in the world? If girls are consistently told by their peers, in the media or by their teachers that girls don’t and can’t do maths or science, the evidence is that this will lodge in their sub-conscious to the extent that it will cause anxiety during tests, so lowering their performance. This effect then becomes self-reinforcing; having done badly in one test they will ‘know’ that because they are a girl they will do badly in the next – and so they do, until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and they walk away from the subjects. This could be one factor that reduces the number of girls doing physics and maths at A Level. No one makes similar comments about biology so the girls’ numbers, on this argument, would hold up – as indeed they do.

Melinda commented on a previous post that she thought there was a difference in writing style between men and women. I am not sure how true that is in the standard style of science journals, but what about essays in arts subjects? If girls are told they write less well in boys, does that translate into weaker exam performance?  Unfortunately there are indications that sometimes students are told precisely this: ‘write more like men’ is the message  – what an unhelpful piece of advice! I have no idea what it means, and probably the students don’t either.   If a teacher wants to recommend a change in style, they need to be able to state precisely what it is they are looking for.  For years, within my university as I believe in many, the percentage of women getting firsts in subjects such as History and English is smaller than men. Is there any connection? It is something that is clearly worth pursuing, because these are subjects where there is not an initial shortage of bright women entering the university and yet they appear not to thrive.

Since I started writing this (it’s been long in gestation), Imran Khan has written a stimulating and provocative piece about the whiteness of science in the UK.  He says

‘Thousands of people are being deterred from careers they would excel in, which is a loss to those individuals. But it also means a loss to society, and the economy. We’re talking about thousands of people who could be making advances, and might be excelling in their field, if it wasn’t due to the discrimination which seems to be built-in to our science and engineering establishment.’

Given that much of the evidence Steele cites in his book deals with young blacks in high schools and colleges in the US, one must wonder if stereotype threat is contributing to the paucity of young blacks entering higher education, and science in particular here. A number small, this approach would suggest, not just because of familial expectations and socioeconomic factors, but because they feel additionally challenged by the perceived stereotypical labels such as ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. Again, it would be very interesting to see this issue pursued as people try to disentangle the multiple factors which contribute to the comparative under-performance – and consequent under-representation – of certain groups of people.  I am no psychologist or sociologist, so I do not know if much research is being done in the UK on these topics, but it seems to me it could be important to check how relevant this phenomenon is on this side of the Atlantic. The more so as the evidence from Steele and colleagues is that quite simple steps can drastically improve the situation.  It is intriguing because, both the original threat leading to the under-performance, and the counter steps which seem to work, seem so slight it is hard to see that their impact can be as great as the evidence presented suggests it is.

Posted in Education, Equality, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

What Women Think – First thoughts on the Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology 2010

Posted by Athene Donald on November 9, 2010

I have been glancing through the results from this year’s ASSET survey.  This is a web-based survey of academics at postdoctoral level and above, both men and women, asking them about their experiences and career progression. The results  make fascinating if rather depressing reading; depressing because all the way through – at this nationally aggregated level – we find there are still significant differences in the perceptions of men and women and almost invariably where this is the case it seems to be the women who feel disadvantaged or at the very least less optimistic. What follows is an entirely personal and somewhat preliminary take on the figures.  I have not attempted either to compare with earlier surveys (the Athena Forum produced a summary report on the two earlier surveys) or with the figures I have seen for my own university, so this is simply a first reaction to the bald percentages given. You should read the full report to get the actual numbers.  I believe there will be a more formal report released early in 2011 by the sponsors of the survey.

There were ~ 4500 respondents at the faculty level (of which just under one third were women) and another ~2500 at the postdoc level (of which 52% were women), so the numbers are large enough to believe that the differences reported really do reflect the current situation in universities. However, of course there will be differences between institutions and between disciplines and these totals mask all these subtleties. Universities will have access to their own figures broken down by department, so locally much more specific issues can be examined, although inevitably without the statistical certainties of large numbers.  I do hope institutions will carry out such local scrutiny, and readers may want to find out whether and where such scrutiny is going on: heads of participating departments should have received their own raw, disaggregated data some time ago.

If we start by considering issues relating to ‘progression and representation’, the first curiosity that stands out is that significantly more men than women seem to be aware of women in science initiatives in their own department, although more women believe they are personally benefitting from such initiatives. A second curiosity, given the general beliefs about ambition, is that amongst academic staff more women than men aspire to be a senior departmental or university manager. Perhaps the men want to stick closer to research, or that the women see this as the only route really to get recognition, but we can’t tell that from the questions posed.

However the bad news for women starts seriously with the questions around appointment and promotion. There are clearly far more women than men who appear to know little or nothing about promotion criteria and the process involved, particularly at the departmental level; women were also more likely to believe that women were actually disadvantaged ‘in respect of promotion and the provision of positive feedback’. Why should this be? Is it because men were significantly more likely to feel supported by their current line managers (in the case of postdocs) or senior colleagues (in the case of academic staff), according to the survey?  Male academic staff turn out to be also more likely to be appraised as a matter of course than women, which will also be relevant to promotion. This is a worrying indicator that things are not as equal as one would like to believe, even on such a process-driven aspect.  Male academic staff also believed their contributions were valued by their department more than women did for each heading in the survey: research, teaching, success in working life, external professional activities and administrative work, with the differences being most significant for research and external activities. This is of course only about perception, but it does imply that women feel undervalued, whether or not that is the message each department is in fact conveying or wanting to convey. For the postdocs, things looked much more even and female postdocs were actually more likely to believe that their successes in working life were valued than men.

Looking at factors contributing to career success, more women than men expressed the view that an absence of role models and an absence of mentoring had been detrimental to their career. These worries might have been anticipated, but it is useful to have the hard numbers backing up the anecdotal evidence. In terms of factors that had been beneficial there was almost universal agreement that hard work was a major factor in career success, but male academic staff were also more likely than women to identify luck as a contributing factor (there was no difference between the genders at the postdoc level) and they were also more likely to feel that their ability to attract PhD students had played a part. Do female academics attract fewer students? We can’t tell from this study, so it is not clear if men attributed success in part to this but the actual ability to attract students was or was not actually different.

And how did the men and women regard their working environment? It is disheartening to see that faculty women were significantly less likely to feel socially integrated (male and female postdocs were equally likely to feel OK about this), or that they had an opportunity to serve on important committees; and two thirds of the women felt the workload was unfairly allocated – as did more than half the men.  These last figures were almost exactly the same for the postdocs.

So, we still have a situation in academia where women feel disadvantaged and the suspicion must be that there is some basis for their belief, as manifest by the inequality in appraisal provision for instance. At the postdoc level the differences are less marked, and that must be a cause for hope.  Nevertheless, this large scale survey demonstrates a continuing imbalance both in the external atmosphere and the internal feelings around professional life in the SET subjects for men and women.  A comprehensive study such as this cannot simply be dismissed as soft, anecdotal moans by whingeing women; this is what it feels like for them at the coalface.

Posted in Equality, Research, Science Culture, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Breakfast with Evelyn Fox Keller (Science and Gender Part II)

Posted by Athene Donald on October 31, 2010

The second half of the meeting in Austria on Science and Gender gave me a very different impression, both of the topic and the situation in Austria, than I had garnered from the first 24 hours described in my previous post.  Several points came out that were not initially evident, which could be summed up as

  • What is meant by science/ Wissenschaft?
  • What is meant by gender in this context?
  • What is the status quo for female academics in Austria, and what is the way ahead?

Clearly these are big, sweeping questions which I can only touch on here, and which it would be presumptuous of me to claim any sort of particular prescience about, but I will put down my impressions while they are fresh in my mind.

The first evening was taken up, as my previous post discussed, with a discussion specifically about women in science by two people from outside the Austrian system, indeed outside the Germanic tradition, namely Londa Shiebinger from Stanford and myself.  In retrospect it is interesting and significant that women from outside the Austrian (or even central European) umbrella were asked to speak and I will come back to this point.  The bulk of the second day was occupied with a selection of talks from within Austria covering psychology; the legal framework; neuroscience and biological differences; and stereotyping. All these talks were in German. I followed enough of the neuroscience talk to know that the lecturer was being very ambivalent about the biological differences obtained, verging on the ‘these are tasks women can’t do’, though stepping back from explicitly saying women’s brains made them unfit for science.  (To be fair to him, although his slides gave this impression, his answers in the ensuing discussion were much less disquieting.)  I cannot discuss the other talks because they were beyond me; various attendees have remarked how much they disliked the fact that non-German speakers were invited to present and then excluded from all the subsequent debates by virtue of language. Indeed I have been encouraged to write to the organisers spelling out the inappropriateness of this behaviour. I am not sure I am comfortable in doing this, as my inability to speak German adequately is my own failing and it smacks of cultural imperialism to object to a national society holding its meeting in its own tongue. Nevertheless, this is one manifestation of the anger felt by some attendees about the orchestration of this meeting.

The very last talk of the meeting, by Heidi Digglemann was given in English, in large part at her request so as to be able to be inclusive of Fox Keller and myself (Schiebinger had departed) as she gave an account of her personal life story and the crucial influences and staging posts in this.  Apparently this act of using English required what was described as a ‘palace revolution’ to allow this to be permitted. Very strange goings-on.

However, the evening debate on the second evening was in English involving Evelyn Fox Keller,   Christoph Kratky, since 2005 President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Hans Sünkel Rector of TU Graz, and Barbara Alving Director of the NIH’s National Center for Research and Resources.  Continuing with the linguistic theme, it was pointed out that although the English title for this meeting, and therefore the premise on which I for one constructed my own talk, was ‘Science and Gender’, in German the title was Wissenschaft und Gender. In this context, Wissenschaft should not be translated simply as Science, but much more broadly as Knowledge.  Now this has been drawn to my attention, I recollect a long discussion on this very point, coincidentally in In Defence of History coincidentally because this is the book I juxtaposed with Fox Keller’s Developmental Biology book a short while ago here . Indeed I now understand that the organising body, the Öesterreichische Forschungsgemeinschaft, is simply the Austrian Research Foundation and not itself tied to science. None of this was made plain to me in my letter of invitation, nor to the other external speakers I would surmise, based on the way they interpreted their brief.  It does explain why the audience contained philosophers, sociologists, economists etc.  I don’t think in some senses this disconnect mattered, and the material that was presented by the English speakers specifically around science seemed both well-received and to stimulate much debate, but nevertheless it was a disconnect – intended or otherwise.

So what did the Gender in the title mean?  I think many of us, myself included, had taken ‘gender’ to mean ‘women’, but of course that is formally quite incorrect, as the gender studies people pointed out. The evening debate was formally entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’ and was interpreted by the 4 speakers in rather different ways, in part because of different interpretations of ‘feminine’ and ‘gender’ in this context.  Fox Keller kicked things off by saying feminizing science should mean bringing more women in, not making it ‘touchy-feely’.  She pointed out that school education sometimes served the role of a technology ‘transforming boys and girls into “masculine” and “feminine”’.  And she particularly objected to remarks that had been made to her throughout her life along the lines of ‘you think like a man’, implying thought is gendered; telling women ‘how’ to think is, in her words, ‘offensive’.  Her desire was to

‘Free science from the shackles of gender.’

Next up was Dr Kratky who appeared to say essentially everything was fine, it was all a question of demographics and time since academic posts turned over slowly in the Austrian system and the number of women was creeping up so – nothing to worry about. Furthermore, he had heard various speakers say (and clearly I was included in this category) that some women lacked self-confidence, but he had seen no sign of it in the speakers so he wasn’t convinced that this was a problem. Indeed some men suffered from lack of self-confidence too. Yes, OK, I’ve said before I’m not usually taken as a shrinking violet, but his mode of expressing this was, to my mind, verging on the just plain rude.

Barbara Avling was by comparison very mild and factual, talking about steps the NIH had taken to support women, the need to take the long view and support people when they needed to step back for a period for personal reasons, and the importance of team science and training people to work (and lead) teams. She argued that the economics meant it was not sensible to invest substantially in training people and then not work to prevent attrition. Hans Sünkel was also rather mild, merely talking about the (rather minor) structures that TU Graz was introducing to try to increase the number of women full professors, and recognizing that numbers were slowly increasing, but that science was not necessarily seen as an attractive career choice – for men or women.

The chair, whose name I don’t recall but who was a woman from the Humanities, kept trying to bring the discussion back to ‘feminising’ science, but wasn’t making much headway with any of the panel. Fox Keller insisted that women will not change science, but that it will evolve, and that there isn’t simply a female way of doing things. The contributions from the floor all tended to go the same way, but also begin to hint at the feelings of frustration many of the women present felt. There was no doubt that many interpreted Kratky’s remarks – and recall that this is the guy at the top of the food chain controlling funding – as implying he believed that since there is no fundamental problem, nothing substantial needed to be done or would be done, and the message did not go down well.

Over the subsequent dinner I began to get a better appreciation of some of the underlying tensions, of which the argument over the language of the meeting was one.  The women I sat with clearly felt that Austria was intensely conservative, with hang-ups left over from Freud and the guilt implied if a mother did not devote herself to her children.  Furthermore, that the senior management of universities and funding agencies were doing no more than paying lip service to the problems many women felt they faced. I was told stories of university managers who would look the other way and do nothing when presented with explicit, written evidence of harassment of female staff; of a so-called law about gender equality that went no further than aspiration with no enforcement; of women who were not enabled/ actively hindered from getting full professorships but left in the limbo of lower level posts without clout. Of course these are things that the UK would have recognized ~20 years ago, but our community has moved whilst Austria  remains a rather hostile environment for women academics. Indeed one of the men I had spoken to earlier in the day said Austria was the most conservative of all the European countries on this front.

But let me return to Fox Keller, whom I had breakfast with on the last day. I had read her book ‘Reflections on Gender and Science’ several years ago, and had reacted very badly to it, interpreting it as hardcore Feminism with a capital F. I have read it again in the run-up to this meeting and wondered what it was that I disliked so much. Possibly it’s that my position has changed, but I actually think it is because I understand the book much better. Far from talking about a feminine way of doing science – which was how I interpreted it originally and which she indicated was a common misinterpretation – she wants a gender-free science. Although she believes she was the one who introduced the word gender into the context of science, it is exactly what she doesn’t want but fears is there. Unfortunately by introducing the word, she seems also to have introduced a hostage to fortune leading to many (my previous self included) to interpret her words as wanting there to be a female way of doing things.  She clearly believes the culture needs to change, to make it less what I would term macho (she called it masculine-esque) but absolutely not to go for simple PC-ness. Nor does she believe there is a female way of doing science, or that having more women will lead to a different type of science.  So, the example of Bernardine Healey cited by Barbara Avling, because she had overseen the introduction of an NIH policy requiring both men and women to be involved in clinical trials for conditions which might affect both, was seen by Fox Keller as an idea whose time had come rather than due to the explicit fact that Healy was a woman.

I have come away from this meeting rather perplexed. I came to give an overview of pragmatic actions I am associated with and familiar with from the UK. I am sure Londa Schiebinger likewise came simply to talk about her ongoing work. Instead I find we were pitched into a political arena where we were being used as external pawns, in the nicest possible way, in an ongoing situation – possibly akin to a war – between conservatives and more progressive academics. A situation where everything including our style, our language and our science was potentially ammunition for one side or the other; we had been given no hint of this backdrop when invited. I am perhaps wiser as a result, but not necessarily happier.

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Discussing Science and Gender

Posted by Athene Donald on October 29, 2010

I am currently at a meeting in a very attractive location (including snow) in Austria on Science and Gender, organised by the Österreichischen Forschungsgemeinschaft.  The meeting overall intends to discuss the topic in a very broad sense, with the participants coming from across the academic spectrum.  This obviously includes the full range of sciences as well as gender studies, but also less obvious disciplines including economics, languages and linguistics. I don’t think I had anticipated this when preparing my own talk.  Unfortunately my language skills are not advanced enough to appreciate some of the talks and topics – 40 year old O Level German just isn’t enough to appreciate the nuances of this field – but the first talk was rather easier: Londa Schiebinger from Stanford, giving an international perspective on the issues.  Her talk immediately preceded mine, and we covered some of the same topics, though with a rather different emphasis.

Londa’s background is in English and History, but for many years she has looked at both the historical and the current situation of women in science. Her talk identified three levels of analysis:

1.       Participation: ‘fix the (number of) women’;

2.       Gender in the Culture: ‘fix the institution’;

3.       Gender in Knowledge: ‘fix the knowledge’.

She discussed point 1 by discussing what happens when you, for instance, teach women how to negotiate for better salaries – a particular issue in the US where it seems all salaries are done by negotiation. When such training was carried out at her own institution, it transpired the administrators with whom the negotiations were done simply didn’t respond to the women in the same way as they would to men coming into their offices asking for a pay rise. Consequently the effect was less than had been hoped, and probably just added to a sense of alienation for the women faculty concerned.  My own thoughts on ‘fixing the women’ were discussed here.  The implied deficit model assumes it is the woman who are lacking something, rather than that it is the culture that is at fault. In the case of the salary negotiations, therefore, giving the women the confidence and skills to negotiate failed because the culture – in this case within the management – was not adapted to deal with this change.

Her discussion of ‘fixing the institution’ was where there was the greatest overlap with my own talk, and I’ll discuss this further below. But it was the third topic I found most interesting, because I was least familiar with it. Her point here was that much of knowledge –most, though not all of her examples derived from the field of biomedical research – is done in a gendered way, producing results which may not be equally applicable to both sexes. (Perhaps I should try to spell out the differences between sex and gender as I understood it from the discussion: sex is about biology, whereas gender relates to sociocultural attributes.)

To take a specific example, in fact from engineering practice, that of crash dummies i.e. those objects used to test the consequences of crash impacts on the body. The first such dummies used were in studies in the US (ca 1949) by the military to study the effect of ejection from ejector seats from planes on the human body. The model built was that of a rather tall male.  These studies were subsequently adapted to study the optimisation of seat belts in high speed car crashes. There have been modifications to the dummies, but it is only very recently that Volvo, if I recall correctly (in other words, in Scandinavia, which I think is telling in itself) have started to study the effect of seatbelt design on pregnant women, using computer simulations.  This despite the fact that foetuses are known to be damaged by the pressure induced by the standard 3 point seatbelt.  This is a clear example of a case where the standard ‘male’ model is assumed to cover all situations (although I presume there have been separate studies on children of different ages and sizes; this wasn’t mentioned), and that simply isn’t adequate.  Despite the obvious shortcomings, US law isn’t requiring any changes until 2011 to ensure the safety of pregnant women is factored in to safety design.  Another obvious example, that is probably more familiar to readers, is the case of symptoms associated with incipient heart attacks in men and women. These present differently. Since doctors are not always trained to recognize these differences, and alert to the variety in symptoms and the location of where pain is felt, many people are not given the appropriate treatment in time.  Response to drugs may also be different, which has significant implications for drug trial design.  All these sorts of effects Londa referred to as requiring ‘gendered innovation’ and this has become a major theme of her team at Stanford,

For my own talk I was originally given a title of  ‘Science and Gender in Academia – a Reflection of Society’, but I felt completely ill-qualified to discuss this and chose to concentrate not on the social or sociological but on the practical and pragmatic steps I am familiar with both locally, through WiSETI, and nationally through the Athena Forum.  However I began with setting this work in the context of the so-called leaky pipeline, and this was where there was most overlap with Londa’s talk.  Issues such as unconscious bias and stereotyping – as manifest in how people (male and female) evaluate CV’s, write reference letters, or judge people at interview –  are so prevalent within our culture we are going to have to work incredibly hard to overcome this. I said that I would like to see senior managers to take some of Project Implicit’s tests – I have mentioned this Project before here – so that they are at least aware of the baggage they, and all of us, carry into the selection of candidates for instance.  We also need to consider the obstacles female scientists may face due to their low numbers, such as isolation, lack of mentors and lack of role models.  However, rather than rehearse the whole of my talk I attach as a separate page a first draft of the paper that will be submitted to the proceedings of this meeting (and the accompanying powerpoint presentation).  This manuscript will be updated in the light of the discussions over the next 24 hours, so should not be considered as the finished article.

I am particularly looking forward to the panel discussion tonight, which will feature Evelyn Fox Keller in (I presume) her role as author of Reflections on Gender and Science, rather than as the mathematical biologist and author of Making Sense of Life I discussed in my last post.  The Discussion is entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’. Should be interesting!

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