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What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Illogical dimensions to being a woman scientist.

By Kristy Dyer

Kristy Dyer is in her last year of Ph.D. research at North Carolina State University and will be starting
an NSF Fellowship in Fall 2001 at National Radio Astronomy Observatory. She is an alumna of Mt.
Holyoke. She studies thermal and non-thermal X-ray emission in supernova remnants. This article
originated in a talk given to the 2001 Invitational Conference on K-12 Outreach from University
Science Departments sponsored by the NCSU Science House and the Burroughs Welcome Fund.

June 2001

FOR THE NEXT FEW MINUTES I want to you regard me as an escapee from the
hard-science zoo. I’ll report on the conditions, hopefully finishing before the zookeepers
note my absence and come after me with nets. The following is my own experience and it
should not be assumed that I speak for all zoo animals.

Certain people (men and women) are drawn to the hard sciences (by which I mean math, physics,
chemistry and engineering). The scientific ideals we picked up as we struggled through our classes were worthy and principled. We are detached, we are skeptical, we offer our results up for peer review, our truths can be replicated.

There is a long and noble history of science — we trace our roots back to Aristotle (the use of
logical deduction) and Galileo (experiments under controlled conditions). Newton decreed
nature could be described by mathematics (although he had to invent the mathematics to do
it). Descartes gave us Cartesian reductionism, which among other things specifies that causes
can be unambiguously separated from effects. Bacon laid the ground rules for the scientific
method, recording observations in an impartial and totally objective way without prior prejudice.

I want to point out that none of the above actually prohibits women or minorities from
succeeding in science. This is a noble and highminded set of rules for making sense of the
universe. This is why I fell in love with science. This is unfortunately not the way science is done.
It turns out that science has a culture. Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, found that in
fact it is not possible to be totally objective: decisions about what is a relevant observation are
influence by background assumptions — in fact, context matters!

“Paradigms Lost” by John Casti gives the following simple example. A series of numbers is
given {1, 2, 4, 8} where the “correct” continuation of the series depends on the context: 16, 32,
128 (doubling), or 9, 11, 15 (differences in original sequence), or “Who Do We Appreciate!”
which is certainly correct if the context is high school sports.

A second example comes from a former professor of mine. In an effort to bring everyday
science examples to a “physics for poets” class, he gave the following test question: “Why are
stop signs red?” To which a liberal art student answered, “So they can be easily seen.” He felt
that this showed up the impossibility of trying to teach non-science majors. (What he wanted was
an answer that discussed wavelength and reflected and absorbed light). It seemed to me
that the student had answered the question perfectly correctly in a different context.

Thomas Kuhn unearthed further evidence of this unexamined scientific culture. Most scientists have
heard of (and some have actually read) “The Structure of Scientific Revolution,”
which delineates the ways in which scientific progress is made, not according to or
within the accepted scientific method, but in a wider scientific culture where scientific paradigms are
broken, and then reformed.

In order to understand where these majestic rules break down, I’ve plotted the perceived “Progress of
women in science” (Figure 1). This figure has several interesting characteristics. It begins in the 1800’s (ancient history) with zero women in science. It then shows the situation improving as rapidly as possible (sounds like exponential growth to me) with equity either having been obtained in the last decade (independent of whatever decade we are in) or equity about to be obtained (before I reached graduate
school at the very latest).

One thing becomes immediately clear — if you think the progress has been an exponential
growth curve, clearly an overshoot (indicated by the dotted line) is likely — which explains why so
many men in science think we have overshot equity and women are now clearly being
preferred for jobs. A second possible curve (the lower dotted line) is the “S” curve beloved of
population studies — we are asymptotically approaching equity. If you believe this curve, any
complaints about current problems are picking nits, since the problems are so much smaller than
in the past and clearly progress is being made as fast as (scientifically) possible.

Unfortunately the real progress of women in science is much more like Figure 2 and there are
consequences for mistaking it for Figure 1. To start, the figures disagree over whether inequities have
been fixed. Figure 1 also shows monotonic progress, implying that women in science never lose ground once gained. It’s a daunting reality, not only that we at times have lost ground, but that the number of women working in science is less affected by education and public policy than by an outbreak of war (Sputnik was mentioned as major motivating factors in the careers of the first three speakers: Marye Ann Fox, Jane Butler Kahle and Jack Rhoton!). I don’t know where to put the equity line in Figure 2. If you taught at the university during WWII, and were laid off when the men returned from the front, had you (momentarily) achieved equity?

The perceived graph has no historical women scientists, where as the actual graph shows that
there have always been a few women in science. This leads to what I’ll call the “Marie Curie
Effect.” Often we are called upon to list famous scientists:

Marie Curie
Stephen Hawking

(Odd isn’t it how some scientists have two names and some only one?). We put Marie Curie
on the list because we want to include role models for women and we don’t want women’s
contributions to be forgotten. However, from glancing at this list I would deduce that 20% of
the great historical achieving scientists were women. We are over-representing women, and
therefore minimizing their absence and the issues that lead to that absence. When we make these
lists we never mention all the women of Marie Curie’s cohort who were unable to become
scientists. This also leads to another fallacy — we like to emphasize that our hero-scientists have
overcome enormous obstacles to succeed — Einstein being a Jew in Nazi Germany, Newton
banished from the University due to the plague, etc. However when we over-represent women in
science we suggest the following: “If women succeeded historically in producing important
scientific work despite enormous obstacles (such as not being allowed access to higher education!)
then if women today are not succeeding it must be because their work is not of sufficient scientific

In fact Marie Curie is not statically significant in her time. These obstacles (as well as
more subtle ones) were effective in reducing the number of women scientists from N to basically
zero. [Ed. Note: c.f. See “Science Has No Gender” by Sethanne Howard, STATUS
January 2000.]

Here I am going to take an unpopular stance. I am going to sing the praises of mediocrity. We
will not have achieved equity in science until mediocre women achieve tenure — women who
have solid but uninteresting research programs, have brought money into the university and are
(just) adequate. Most people in favor of the inclusion of women in science argue that women
make great scientists. I want to point out that most men in science don’t qualify for the list of
greats I’ve listed above. If anything, the scientific record has shown that progress is made on the
back of lots of mundane, dull labor, as well as new ideas from unexpected sources.

The scientists who are concerned about women in physics and astronomy talk a lot about the
“leaky pipeline” (Table 1). Each part of the pipeline should be flowing into the next, but
instead is leaking girls/women. You could set the“necks” at different levels but I’ve chosen a few
common ones. Where I could find data I’ve placed the ratio of women/men for Physical
Sciences + Engineering on the left and the percentage of women/men in Astronomy (my
field) to the right. The early stages, marked with“?” are guesses on my part.

The problem with this pipeline concept is that there is, in fact, no “flowing” going on. Rather, it
is a “snapshot” of populations at any given moment, the easiest data to gather. The girls
interested in science are not the same population that becomes tenured faculty — no one has ever
done this longitudinal study.

There are consequences for mistaking a“snapshot” pipeline for a longitudinal study. It
places the largest responsibility for the leaks at the “soft” end — home life, kindergarten, grade
school, high school. These are areas not in the responsibility realm of hard scientists. It lets
hiring committees, tenure committees and conference organizing committees off the hook.
Effectively they say, “If we were given anything to work with we could include women but until
there are women to include, we are just doing our job.”

At some level we do recognize this is a“snapshot”. Often we think it fully explains the
number of tenured women professors — there were simply fewer girls interested in science in
the 1960’s when they were young. There is however no scientific evidence to support that
thesis — I suspect that the 1960’s pipeline was narrower at the beginning but also less efficient
than the present pipeline at “leaking” women at later stages. I encourage someone to refute this!

We are encouraging girls in science — where do we expect them to go? The problem is
complex — the closer a woman comes to being a model scientist, accepting without question the
scientific culture I enumerated above, the less prepared she will be to cope with the inequities
she will encounter. The culture as it stands simply does not allow the following questions to be
posed, let alone answered: Is peer review biased? Are men and women in science evaluated by
different standards? Is there a culture to science that works to exclude women?

There are probably more questions I should be asking but as a model scientist I can’t even
formulate them. I do know that when I talk to girls interested in science, undergraduates and
potential graduate students, I have to admit I lie to them — I tell them how wonderful science is
and I point to the one or two (statistically insignificant) women at the top to prove it can
be done. I don’t tell them how many women drop out of graduate school or how dismal the
employment statistics are for women who do graduate.

There are many desires and plans to include women and minorities in the sciences — these
admirable solutions don’t exist in a vacuum — it’s worth examining the paradigms they assume
as context. There are several standard paradigms:

  • The deficit model. Girls are like boys but they lack certain things. Programs that try to give
    girls hands-on experience in labs, because they often get less experience than boys are
    operating within a deficit model.
  • The difference model. Sarah Berenson’s Girl Math program operates within a difference
    model. She believes that girls are different than boys, no less talented, and that by changing the
    context of math problems we can involve girls in math relevant to their values.

I believe we need to move to a climate model if we are going to understand and address these
problems. Both the deficit model and the difference model take as a standard the way boys/
male scientists do things. Both put girls/women scientists under the microscope to examine why
they are different. This is like finding a threelegged frog in a polluted pond and taking the
frog back to the lab for an interview, demanding“Why did you grow an extra leg?” without ever
examining the pond, the environment.

There have been quite a few studies of women in science — I think it is time to study men in
science — the default culture, and to make that culture the responsibility of the scientists.
Women, who make up less than 5% of tenured physics faculty, are not in a position of power. It
is a fact that we are not the ones granting tenure, directing research funds or guiding hiring
committees — we cannot solve the problem of the lack of women in science by studying women in science because women in science don’t actually have control over the problem.

I think until we do this — examine the underlying culture of the hard sciences we
will not be able to place effective patches on the leaky pipeline. I worry that it’s dishonest of
us to work so hard to patch the beginning, when even students who clear many hurdles, will
simply be cannon fodder in graduate school. And I think we need to teach the culture of
science to students at all levels — knowing the unspoken culture as well as that noble facade can
provide them with the tools they will need to overcome barriers, barriers the statistics make
all too clear.


Further material on the culture of science and its effect on women:

“Women Science and Technology: A Reader in Feminist Studies” by Wyer et al. 2001, published by Routledge.

Statistics on women in science and engineering came from the NSF: http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf00327/

Statistics on women in astronomy came from STATUS June 2000 http://www.aas.org/~cswa/, and from a
1999 AAS survey which was reported in Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 31, 1552 #121.01.

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