Saturday, March 6, 2010

Women Professors

I read this article on the current state of female math and science professors at Harvard in light actions taken in response to Larry Summer's comments five years ago. It offers the usual explanations for discrepancies, some of which I find compelling, like the biological clock versus tenure track issue, and some that are less compelling, IMO.

This quote bothered me a bit:
“Different departments are at different points,” said Elena Kramer, a biology professor. “In biology, where women earn half the Ph.D.’s, it’s not so hard to hire women. You don’t need any hand-wringing; if you’re doing a good search, you’ll get women. In physics, we need to work on getting more young women into the field as undergraduates.”

So, it's not just about tenure track and biology. Generally speaking, women don't major in physics. And since most students, even science students I reckon, don't plan on getting PhDs, I seriously doubt the reason that women don't choose to major in physics has much to do with the life of female grad students and professors.

Why can't we entertain that perhaps women don't like physics? Why do we have to get more young women into the field? A variety of studies have shown that male brains are better at geo-spatial tasks, which I assume helps in physics. But even if we discount that possibility, why is the lack of women in the field something that has to be lamented and corrected?

There aren't that many dudes majoring in dance and drama. Yet, we aren't freaking out about it. Maybe chicks just don't like physics and encouraging them to choose it will make them more unhappy than they otherwise would have been.

I don't know. Maybe the nerdy Asian and Eastern Europeans that seem to dominate undergraduate physics create a culture of bias that keeps females away. Maybe the culture generally steers women away. I dunno. But let's not assume that every male dominated field has to have some quota of women or else there is prima facie evidence of bias somewhere.

And to be honest, in physics I'm not quite sure how the gender make up of the professoriate adversely impacts research or education. In humanities, where we are dealing with the interactions of people I can understand how female professors bring a new and important perspective to the interpretation, analysis, and teaching of material. But a quark is a quark and the laws of thermodynamics are the laws of thermodynamics whether a man or a woman tells me about them or researches them.

Lastly, do we really need to encourage more women to go into physics majors because of the lack of female tenured physics professors at Harvard? Even if they go 50-50, what's that? About 20 spots?

Again, I'm open to the possibility of bias. And maybe it is tremendously important that there are female tenure Harvard science professors for some reason. Or even to do so generally throughout the academy. I just hate how articles are written, and quotes given, under a set of assumptions that are highly questionable and largely unexamined.

Which I guess was my issue with the response to Summer's comments in the first place. His question could be examined empirically So fucking disprove it; don't cry about him attacking your assumptions.


Hilarius Bookbinder said...

Off the top of my head, I'd say the problem is something like the following: graduate training in the sciences is not for the weak of heart. Because PhDs compose such a small part of the overall body of all students who ever major in a field, you're already selecting from the right tail of the distribution, however it may differ between men and women. So the problem is not in grad school.

The problem, if there is one, comes in the 18 and 19 year olds who are choosing their majors. I grew up in a science-nerdy town, where it was very acceptable for women to have an interest in science, but not everyone's parents can work at the world headquarters of a major chemical company. I don't find it hard to believe that there are plenty of women avoiding majors for which they have the ability but not the interest for others that are 'easier' or conform to their ideas about gender.

But if that's the case, it's much easier to read your blockquote in a less objectionable light: not "we need more women" but "we need to do a good job of recruiting women who could do well at physics."

David said...

If women on the average have significant better EQ/social skills...which is often asserted...then one would expect to see proportionately more women choosing careers that depend heavily on such skills. An individual who is a 9 in social skills and also a 9 in conceptual intelligence has very different optimum career choices from an individual who is a 5 in social skills and a 9 in conceptual intelligence.

Anonymous said...

"[W]e need to do a good job of recruiting women who could do well at physics."

Why, exactly? As a matter of social justice? To make late nights at the lab more interesting? To get lawyers off the backs of the university administration?

I could add a dozen more before I got to, "Because there is every reason to believe it would advance our understanding of the physical world."

Andrew Stevens said...

The argument can be made though. It may well be the case that there are women in the world whose optimal placement is in the sciences, but for some reason they don't actually get there. Finding and removing that reason would indeed advance our understanding of the physical world, by increasing the quality of the best scientists.

Demonstrating the above would be difficult and finding a cure which isn't worse than the disease may even be impossible, but it's not an implausible argument.

FLG isn't going to think much of this argument, though, because he's not convinced by the "sciences uber alles" assumption that really has to underly the entire argument.

FLG said...

"FLG isn't going to think much of this argument, though, because he's not convinced by the "sciences uber alles" assumption that really has to underly the entire argument."


And it must be noted, or at least I like to note, that I was an engineering major at one point. So, it's not like I hate science.

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