Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sexism and Research

I was alerted to this post, 'Women and BigLaw: Yes, Virginia, it is Sexism' on The Mama Bee by my friend, Suzanne Doyle-Morris, via LinkedIn . It reminded me of a naturenews story 'Data show extent of sexism in physics' describing a study by Sherry Towers of post-docs at Fermilab (http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.2026) that showed women were only one third as likely to be allocated conference talks as their male colleagues. Two reactions particularly interested me. One was quoted in the news story and is from a male particle physicist who commented that the small numbers in the study (48 men and 9 women) were not enough to prove systematic bias, though Towers used an analysis that took into account the very small number of women. This illustrates one of the problems with investigating reasons for the slow progress of women in science: there are few women so it is difficult to obtain statistically significant results. The other was the first comment on the post which contained the observation: '...women in physics are generally harder working than male colleagues and are great co-workers in terms of encouragement, diligence, and backup support. They do not, however, contribute a great deal of original ideas and rigorous logical analysis to the research. Female judgment seems to more emotionally biased.' In a subsequent comment the same person complained 'I am amazed at the furious response to my comment.' The 'women are diligent but lack originality' is not an uncommon belief among physicists so the author of the comment may well have been surprised to discover that not everyone agrees. What I find uncomfortable is the condemnation evident in some of the responses. Most people have unconscious biases. I once found myself making the assumption that the reader of a book about electronics would be male - on the train returning from a meeting about women in engineering. Rather than attacking people for erroneous beliefs we should educate ourselves and others about the effects of unconscious bias and design our processes to minimize its effects.

The previous post on The Mama Bee, 'Wake Up, Ivory Tower: We Need You!' is also interesting. The author makes a plea for academic researchers on work-life balance to be more cognizant of the actual needs of employees who would benefit from flexible working. In particular, that people who need flexible working are often not in an ideal position to fight for it. It seems to me that a similar situation pertains to women in science. Academic researchers carry out projects that are often of limited relevance to women who are working in science and engineering while data that would be useful are not obtainable, for example, is there gender bias at the step from post-doc to independent scientist, for example, with a Royal Society University Research Fellowship? Do women who work part-time in science find it harder to progress?

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