Who’s afraid of Marie Curie?

by Stephanie Chasteen on December 27, 2008


That’s the title of a very well-done  book that I just finished (Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie by Linley Erin Hall) which outlines a lot of the challenges facing women in science, technology, and medicine, from grade-school to college, graduate school, post-doc, and faculty and professional positions, plus concrete recommendations based on the research on how to improve the numbers of women in science.

For example, a gender-fair classroom, she says, would offer boys and girls similar amounts of criticism and praise, since girls tend to get non-specific feedback like “that’s good,” or “OK,” which doesn’t actually help them improve.  Teachers need to push girls to work on problems that challenge them, instead of “rescuing” them.  They’re smart enough to figure it out (whatever problem “it” might be), and it’s important that they develop that confidence in their own skills and abilities.

There is also a very good summary chapter on the research on gender differences in scientific ability.  As you might have guessed, males and females are more similar than they are different on most (but not all) aspects of mind.  She reviews the questionable ability of standardized tests (like the SAT) to demonstrate gender differences that are real (boys tend to score higher on the SAT than girls, but girls’ SAT scores tend to underpredict their grades in college math classes).  She talks about stereotype threat, which I’ve written about before.

Most of the book focuses on career choices facing women, however.  If you’re a woman considering a career in science or tech, I’d suggest giving this book a gander.  Some interesting factoids:

  1. Female scientists and engineers tend to marry other scientists, or at least other professionals.  68% of female physicists are married to other scientists, but only 17% of male physicists are.  Women seem to enjoy having this compatibility and understanding in their partner, plus men outside of science can be intimidated by women scientists.  However, this can result in the “two-body problem” where both members of the couple try to find similar positions in the same town.  It can also penalize the woman because she ends up being more responsible for domestic duties, but both members of the couples have demanding careers.
  2. Unconscious bias can play a large role in discrimination against women in science.  I’ve written about this before (Advice for Girls in Science and the Meritocracy).  It can be very hard for women to know they’re being treated differently.  In one study (looking at evaluations of postdoctoral fellowship applications) women had to be 2 1/2 times as productive as a man to get a similar rating of competency.  Another study looking at letters of recommendation for medical school applicants found that letters written for women tended to be shorter, and tended to include phrases that raised doubts about her competence.  <sigh>
  3. Women tend to under-estimate their ability, whereas men over-estimate theirs.  I’ve seen this to be true, and a friend of mine who leads outdoor activities has also remarked upon it.  When a man says that he’s sure he’s in good enough shape to do a long trek, he’s more doubtful.  And when a woman isn’t sure if she can do it, he usually encourages her, because experience has shown him that they’re usually selling themselves short.  In undergraduate life, this can mean that women are more likely to leave the sciences than men, because they’re more likely to doubt their ability when challenged.  This can be particularly prevalent in “weed-out” courses.  One study found that while women regained some of the confidence they lost in weed-out courses, they never fully recovered.  Those courses did permanent damage to their sense of their ability to succeed.
  4. Men spend more time trying to figure things out on their own. Women ask for help sooner.  But women might clam up, she says, when surrounded by men who aren’t asking any questions.  I’ve had this experience myself, many times.  It’s part of the reason I left the physics major.  I wanted to work on homework with a couple of the guys from class (there were no other women), but they just sat and worked on their own, and blew off my questions and attempts to talk about what we were learning.  I concluded that they knew this stuff better than I did and if I was cut out for this, it should be easier for me.  (Years later, my instructor told me I was one of the best students in the class.  Why didn’t he say so earlier?)
  5. Men tend to have an instrinsic sense of self-worth whereas women are socialized to rely more on the approval of others.  This ties in to the self-confidence problem, and helps explain why women tend to leave the sciences.  When we’re used to feeling good about what we can do when others give us praise, then when things get tougher in college and grad school, it’s easy to get demoralized.  It seems that while both men and women find the later stages of scientific training demoralizing, it’s tougher for women.  Men will tend to stick with it.  I know that this was true for me, and still is.  I feel good in response to what others say about me and my abilities.  I know that other studies have shown that it’s not good to believe that failure reflects poorly on your self-worth.  If you fail a math test and think that means you’re stupid, then you’ll just avoid math.  If you fail a math test and think that you should have studied harder, then that gives you ammunition to improve in the future.  I wonder if that has any bearing on the intrinsic/extrinsic sense of self-worth stuff.
  6. Some women go into science because they can. That is, there’s this sense that if you’re smart enough to do science, then you should.  Social science or other fields are not as high of a calling.  Plus, we need women in science as role models.  So some women feel guilty if they leave science.  Again, I know this was true for me to some degree.  Physics was the hardest science could get, and so I wanted it….
  7. Fathers’ involvement with their daughters is important. Women who were only children or didn’t have any brothers reported (in the author’s small sample) having more mentorship from their fathers in tech and science.  As an only child, and the daughter of a chemist, I found this observation very interesting.  One female graduate student observed, “I wonder if part of the reason I’m comfortable with science is that my father didn’t have a son to help him.”  Myself, I always wished my dad had brought me down into his woodshop and taught me to hammer things together.  But he did take me fishing.  I’m a bit of a tomboy, in some ways, perhaps because of that relationship I had with my dad.  And I wonder if I got more mentorship in science from him than I think.
  8. Women often have lower salaries than men because they don’t ask for more money. This is the primary message of a book called “Women don’t ask” by Babcock and Laschever.

The book had a wealth of websites and resources for encouraging girls in science, and for professional women in science to connect.  I’m not sure how much of that I’ll put in here, but if there is interest let me know and I’ll be sure to do so.

{ 3 comments }

Carolyn December 30, 2008 at 10:25 am

Thanks so much for this post! While I was very lucky in undergrad (Computer Science) to have a study group full of guys who wanted to work together and were not competitive. Listening to others’ stories made me realize that was a rare situation, indeed.

I was also struck by the men-overestimating and women-underestimating concept. Yesterday, a friend of mine who’s in sales talked to a potential client about my work. He told me what he said about me, and I felt so embarrassed. His response? “Did I lie? Not once. I told this person about your background and exactly what you do.” I definitely need to be more conscious of how I underestimate my own abilities!

Stephanie December 30, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Glad you found the post useful, Carolyn… You can see my other posts on women in science, notably Flirt Harder I’m a Physicist, for more of my thoughts on the matter.

I think we often feel that we’ve “escaped” sexism and are lucky, but don’t realize the ways in which we are disadvantaged. They’re hard to see, and much discrimination has become unconscious bias or slight differences in gender communication rather than out-and-out discrimination.

Patricia November 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

Hi, my name is Paty
I think it’s great, today for the new generations, no longer feel the difficulties of born women.
But unfortunately in Latin American countries the things you’ve written,
continue like a difficult even greater than writing.

I think we should feel more sure of ourselves, we can starting from the smallest things we can do, we need more sure ourselves, because every woman is a wonderful world and the physical world we are a completely undiscovered.

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