The Larry Summers debate

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female mentors

Postby Ellen » Mon Feb 28, 2005 1:13 pm

"It's more than just a lack of women, it's also a lack of women whose lives one would want to emulate."

Hear Hear!

developmental bio

Postby jen » Mon Feb 28, 2005 1:28 pm

Out of all the fields of study in the life sciences, is there a reason why there are more women in the field of developmental bio? Or at least it seems that way.

Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Andy » Mon Feb 28, 2005 2:50 pm

I have never read any studies detailing the extent to which women have succeeded in science. So I plead ignorance on overall trends. My personal experience, however, is quite different than the "no women in science" dogma that I have heard constantly since I was in college. Below are my personal observatiosn, what are others'?

My wife is a physician. Over half her med school colleages were women. Over 70% of her residency colleages were women. 100% (out of 7) of her fellowship colleagues are women in a department dominated by tenured women faculty members at at top 5 life sciences university.

My mother-in-law is chair of a life sciences department at a top 50 research university. At that University, the president is a woman.

My Ph.D. committe consisted of 2 women (1 asst. prof.; 1 prof) and 2 men (1 asst. prof.; 1 prof).

My grad student colleages in my grad lab consisted of 3 women and 1 man.

The field I worked in as a postdoc had over 10 women who were bona fide stars in the field. At least 4 of them are Howard Hughes Investigators.

From my postdoc lab, 4 friends of mine have received tenure track faculty positions. Two are women; two are men.

The floor I worked on at a top 10 research Univ. as a postdoc had 5 labs. Three of them were run by women. One of these women was an assistant professor. Another was a professor and National Academy member. My boss (a woman) was a Professor and MacArthur "genius" award winner and a great scientist. The floor below us had three women as well, one of whom was a Howard Hughes Investigator.

When I hear that women don't go into science, I think to myself . . . . HUH? WHAT? Ehhhhh . . . really? Like I said, I'm life science only and these are my personal observations. I would be interested in hearing others'.


Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Erica » Mon Feb 28, 2005 3:21 pm

There has been a long forum about this area at Mentornet that I would encourage you all to look at. It requires registration, but it is free.

My understanding is that Summers was speaking at the end of a conference in which people had presented a lot of evidence that there were NOT significant gender differences in innate mathematical ability. That's one reason people got so mad.

One interesting thing that came up in the mentornet discussion board was that a lot of us who are women in science now had at some point encountered some kind of social pressure to play dumb. Usually in high school or college. That would have a huge impact on how well your education goes.

Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Patrick » Mon Feb 28, 2005 4:18 pm

I'd have to agree with Andy. Where I have worked I would say men outnumber women only at the level of full professor or higher. The number of women assistant professors, post-docs, gradute students are equal or higher than men. Perhaps this reflects a change in the last generation which makes it more acceptable for a woman to have a profesional career. I suspect in 10 more years the number of women in top positions will exceed men since we are clearly training more women in science now.

female mentors

Postby Patrick » Mon Feb 28, 2005 4:39 pm

"I don't intend to imply that women scientists must be married with children to be happy (not at all!), but many of our younger women students _do_ want to end up married with children, and I think they don't always see anyone actually doing so successfully"

This is very true Emma. I would just want to add that the current atmosphere of academic research makes it difficult for anyone who values anything in their life outside of science, although I concede that in most cases this hits women harder than men. My first post-doc resulted in a very unhappy parting of the ways due to the fact that even as a man, my wife and family matter to me. The guy I was working with was the typical researcher who has no kids, a wife that he never sees other than when she serves him dinner, and is in the lab 7 days a week without fail. He was absolutely furious that I lacked the "motivation" to come in on a saturday afternoon after already having put in a 50+ hour week. There are very few women who are foolish enough to sacrifice their marriage or family over such unreasonable demands. Its too bad that men who value these things are punished too. Its the whole system that is out of whack and the people in it that make success difficult for those who have any sense of balance in thier life.

Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Kim » Mon Feb 28, 2005 4:56 pm

I have heard that many top schools actually have affirmative action now for boys in undergraduate admissions. Understandably, most of them do not want to admit publicly that they practice affirmative action in favor of boys and against girls. Women are already the majority in college student population in the US.

"...a lot of us who are women in science now had at some point encountered some kind of social pressure to play dumb. Usually in high school or college. That would have a huge impact on how well your education goes."

I do not think that it is a fair statement. In high schools, smart kids are not always popular. It applies to both boys and girls. It is probably even more so to boys than to girls. The role model for average teenage boys is the macho steroid pumping football player/jock type. I believe that it is more "acceptable" for girls to be smart than for boys in the current US high school culture.

I also notice that in the field of ontology, about 9 out of every 10 database curators or knowledge base editors I have met are female. This particular field seems to attract women, who usually pay more attentions to details than men.

Women are still underrepresented in engineering and physical sciences, but not in life sciences.
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Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Erica » Tue Mar 01, 2005 1:22 am

I think that is a fair statement. I personally did encounter social pressure to play dumb when I was in high school. I found that my blonde hair, high voice and other physical characteristics led to academic expectations that were very low. Then someone came right out and told me that boys didn't like girls who were smarter than them. When recounting this experience on the Mentornet discussion board, several other women reported similar personal experiences. I understand that there have been some studies showing that girls do better on math tests if there aren't boys in the room.

That said, "encountering" social pressure does not equal "succumbing" to social pressure to play dumb. I wasn't suggesting that all girls do play dumb (although I'm ashamed to admit now that I was one of the girls that did). I was in high school 20 years ago, so I'd like to think that everybody is more enlightened now. I suppose that if boys trying to live up to "the role model for average teenage boys...the macho steroid pumping football player/jock type" would want to go out with a girl who could trounce them in physics, times really have changed.

Interestingly, another anecdote that relates: My Asian American husband who hated math in high school and was horrible at it was always asked to help people with their math homework.

Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Emil Chuck » Tue Mar 01, 2005 9:49 am

Just to let everyone know, the Chronicle for Higher Education has an online discussion scheduled for tomorrow about issues regarding the "innate differences" between men and women in succeeding in academia. The website is if you are interested. Advanced questions are welcome.

Up to Andy's point: there are frequent surveys done on post-secondary faculty. Biological science generally has more women as a discipline compared to physical sciences when you look at faculty demographics, there still appear to be some difficulties to getting to tenure.

It is true that we will experience changes in the system as more women move up the ranks. But it is remarkable that there are still particular trends that exist that discourage women (or men with families) from getting tenure. Indeed the American Council of Education noted recently a study from the University of California faculty survey that women on tenure-track positions are 20% less likely than their male counterparts to receive tenure. Furthermore, women with children under the age of 6 are less likely (50% less) to get a tenure-track position than men with children under the age of 6.

Sure we are not so male-heavy as math, chemistry, physics, geology, or astronomy. Maybe the actual chances for biomedical and biological faculty are that much better because the pool is bigger. However, Duke Med only two years ago promoted its first basic science department chair who was a woman, and recently the Health System chancellor has begun appointing more diverse yet qualified people into senior administration (including 3 women). Medicine itself is notorious for an anti-family climate, except for areas where one cannot be anti-family such as pediatrics (and perhaps by association, developmental biology).

I'll be the first to tell you I've been lucky to experience a contrary perspective to these trends. My thesis committee included a department chair who was a woman (who succeeded another woman), half of my graduate class was female, and I know of many successful women administrators (including my graduate dean/provost at the time). The argument to me though is that there are many qualified women to take chair and dean and provost positions, but somehow we are not doing anything to promote or retain them.
Emil Chuck
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Women in Science; Dogma?

Postby Emil Chuck » Tue Mar 01, 2005 10:04 am

I don't know how much sociology we should delve into. I will say though that high school and undergraduate formative experiences are telling of the pressures and gender expectations are on women. Duke University had recently published its "Women's Initiative" report focusing on the experience of Duke women throughout the community (undergrads, grads, faculty, staff, alumnae, trustees). The "newspaper phrase" that came out was the concept of "effortless perfection" where women were expected to be essentially perfect in the classroom and in the social scene. To be accepted in the social scene, women conform to the society pressure to act in a way that they think men want them to act. Playing "dumb" is one of those things, even though at Duke the definition of "dumb" is still "very smart" in other communities.

It should be noted that men also recognize that we probably have to "dumb down" to not sound so egotistical when it comes to women. I know the mistakes I make/made when I talk about my work too much on a date.

Warning: this is just my opinion from my own observations and failings in dating, so don't beat me up because I can be totally wrong:
I don't personally think it's a question that men don't like women who are smarter than them, but I suggest most men are more intimidated. Men like to think we have a "strategy" to court women, and when we realize that a particular woman knows more than we do, it makes us afraid because we're not in control. Being with someone who likes to "have fun" more likely involves "brainless" activities like going to the movies or a concert or out for dinner, not full-fledged debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Heck, if you get married, there are enough situations where you get into arguments of that magnitude. :) ) Granted, I'm generalizing, but it appears that way to me.

So back to point, yes, the idea that the head cheerleader can't win a Fields medal is there. That's our loss.
Emil Chuck
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