Advice for girls in science & the meritocracy

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 5, 2008

Advice for a girl..

Girl studying

Girl studying

One of the students in my Adopt a Physicist class just asked me:

Hi! Lately I’ve had to think about what I want a career in and what I would like to study in college. The two choices that have always interested me most are either being a physician or an engineer. Women are a minority in these fields, as they are in the one you work in. Do you find yourself effected by the fact that you are a woman in a male-dominated field? Do you have any advice for girls who want to pursue a career in male-dominated fields?

Wow. There’s a tough question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Here’s my reply to her.

I was the only woman in my undergrad physics classes. I think this had something to do with me changing majors. Not because I felt discriminated against, but because the men in my classes just worked differently than I did. Maybe you know the type — self-confident, giving cursory answers to my questions, working alone on the homework and having this certain geek-in-crowd flavor to their interactions. I decided that I wasn’t very good at physics based on those social interactions and for that, and many other reasons, changed to psychology. I later found out that my shaky self-esteem in physics was unfounded, and that I was one of the best students in the class. If only my (male) professor had told me that earlier.

So, the way that being a woman in science has affected me is in subtle ways like that — the people around me are different from me — rather than that I’m obviously discriminated against. It is hard sometimes being one of few women in the room, because then you feel that whatever you do is going to be taken as indicative of “what women do” or “what women think”, like you’re representative of your entire gender.

There are definitely challenges to being a woman in a male dominated field, but not so much so you should reconsider. In fact, being a woman got me funding for graduate school, since I was on a minority fellowship. People think it’s really cool that I’m a woman in physics, I get a lot of street cred for it. *I* think it’s cool, and it’s fun to play up the “geek girl” kind of image.

It does help to learn something about how women and men communicate differently if you’re going to be in a male dominated field, so that you can work productively in a male environment. There are a lot of great books about this. There is also a great book called “Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie” that I’m reading right now, which is about women in science, and is very informative about how men and women differ in their approaches to math and science.

Was I wrong? There IS bias.

Interestingly, the very day that I wrote this to her, I went to a talk on gender and science. What I heard there made me wonder if my advice to the girl above was misguided and wrong.

The speaker (Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist and science educator at U. Wisconsin) pointed out that we still have fewer women in the sciences than you’d expect by the number of women getting undergraduate degrees in science. Academic hiring is, in theory, based on a meritocracy, and faculty claim that “we only hire the best.” But when pressed to ask for their criteria on what the “best” or “merit” is, they often claim that “I know it when I see it.” But that leaves lots of room for bias.

Since women are scarce in the sciences, she says, there are four main hypotheses that people put forward:

Hypothesis 1. Narrow pipeline. There are few women coming into the sciences. However, there are more women coming in thanever before. What they’ve found is that women are lost at each transition step — from High School to College,from College to Graduate School, and especially from the PhD to Tenure Track positions. She’s heard many tragic stories of how isolated women are once they get tenure.  Note too this recent post at Bad Astronomy about how lots of girls want to be scientists (yay!).

A female scientist samples of DNA

A female scientist samples DNA, from scottfeldstein on Flickr.

Hypothesis 2. Women aren’t as talented. However, women get as high grades as men, and there are no differences in math and verbal skillsbetween men and women. Women are well-qualified. The only difference that has been shown to exist between men and women is that of spatial skills, and this seems to be due to experience and training rather than genetic difference.

Hypothesis 3. Women choose not to advance. This hypothesis also doesn’t seem to hold water, especially if you consider the choice between “family” and “career” to be a false one which is imposed by the systemic constraints on women who want to have both.

Hypothesis 4. There is discrimination. This is the hypothesis she spent most of her time talking about. She claims that we intend to be fair and to uphold the meritocracy. But our unconscious prejudices affect our evaluation of people and their work. There is less outright discrimination as there used to be, where people believe that women shouldn’t have certain jobs, but that unconscious bias causes the unequal hiring of women in the sciences.

For example:

  • People will overestimate the height of men and underestimate that of women (based on previous experience that women are short and men and tall)
  • People rate the verbal skills apparent in a short text as lower when they think that a black person or woman wrote it.
  • Many studies have shown that when given a resume, people (men and women) are more likely to say that they would hire the person if there is a man’s name attached to the resume (rather than a woman’s name). The fact that both men and women do the same thing show sthis isn’t due to a group of advantaged people trying to keep women out of the in-club, but rather the product of enculturation. The same thing is observed with job evaluations.
  • And the prize for the weirdest study: People are more likely to hire an applicant when a masculine scent (I think it was testosterone or some other hormone/pheromone) is applied to the application

What to do…

There’s good news, though. Job performance evaluations are more equal when the evaluator is not distracted. This goes with the literature that more information leads to less bias. Similarly, the hiring bias in female vs. male names on a resume disappears when academics are asked who they would grant tenure to. That’s because there is more information available at that time.

Additionally, people show less bias when, amazingly, they’re instructed to avoid being prejudiced.

So, it seems that my post to the girl, above, was somewhat misguided. There is bias, and it’s likely that it affected me at some point in my career. I asked Dr. Handelsman, however, whether it’s better to not deny our personal disadvantage and recognize that there is bias? What is our role as discriminatees? She wasn’t sure, and said maybe ignorance is bliss, allowing us to go forward confidently and not be angry all the time. So, maybe my advice to the girl was good, not acknowledging this hidden bias?

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?*? October 5, 2008 at 4:30 pm

I think there’s something to be said for ignorance. Then again, my experience might not be typical–chemistry at my undergrad institution was split 50-50, and I experienced very little direct sexism. My research advisor in particular seems to work really well with women (perhaps this has something to do with the fact that his wife is a women’s studies prof?). I’m also very dense, not terribly girlie and not really conscious of gender most of the time.
There will probably be a more pronounced gender imbalance when I start grad school, but I guess I’d rather not be aware of any discrimination I’m facing. It would be a huge distraction from my science, and I’d probably end up embittered and much less likely to speak my mind.

Ben October 8, 2008 at 2:21 am

Well, thinking back on all the women I knew in grad school, I’d have to say the #1 reason they aren’t working in science is babies. It seems to me that the career killer is getting pregnant at some point in grad school or right after. If they wait until they’re a little established, it works a lot better. If you want to be a professor, regardless of gender, it’s exceedingly difficult unless you jump through the hoops in the proper sequence. 4 years UG, 4 to PhD, couple years post-doc, and then tenure track. Take a couple years off for kids or working or Peace Corps etc. and you’re not really perceived as being the academic type (and you don’t get the pubs you need). Having kids in grad school also seems to intensify the “why am I wasting my life doing this crap?” crisis that PhD students tend to go through.

sciencegeekgirl October 8, 2008 at 8:17 am

I’ve observed that as well. Handelsman’s response to this type of observation is that there are systemic barriers which make it more difficult for women to be parents and academics. She talked about the addition of a nursing room in one department that allowed women to pump their milk in privacy, and how important this was for at least some women in being able to remain in academia. Many people don’t realize how important this simple biological difference between men and women is.

After all, many men have children in that same region of time that you mention. Why does it not impact their academic careers to the same degree?

Ben October 15, 2008 at 1:56 am

It’s partly the disparity in the traditional division of labor child care, and I think it’s also the age at first birth disparity. Men tend to have their first children a couple years later on average. If you look at the whole distribution of age at first birth though, it’s radically different with sex, and I think that has a big influence on career trajectories in the aggregate.

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