Monday, August 2, 2010

The Snark Syndrome

In my local public library I came across 'Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome' by Eileen Byrne, Professor of Education at the University of Queensland. It was published in 1993 and describes the results of a review of research and policy regarding women in science in Australia in in the mid-1980s. The title is taken from Lewis Carroll's 'The Hunting of the Snark':

'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man at the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true'.

Having noted that a great deal of the received wisdom in the area of women in science is still based on assumptions, beliefs and prejudices operating at the level of superstition noted by Hypatia (between 350and 370 – 415 AD), Byrne defines the Snark Syndrome as the assertion of an alleged truth or belief or principle as the basis for policy or practice that neither has a basis in sound empirical research nor is consonant with established theory. She goes on to describe the Snark effect which requires firstly that the educator, teacher or policy-maker has internalized an assertion from hearing it being constantly repeated ('What I tell you three times is true') when the asserted belief is either unfounded or only occasionally and contextually true and secondly that the internalized belief is used to justify and implement major policies.

The research was focussed on the recruitment of women to undergraduate courses in science and engineering and retention to post-graduate, in particular, Ph.D. Courses. The researchers identified ten core factors:
  • same-sex role models for women
  • the mentor process
  • the image of different branches of science and technology (male, female or sex-neutral; socially responsible or systems- and machine-oriented)
  • male attitudes to females in 'non-traditional' disciplines; female attitudes (self-esteem, or towards peers)
  • single-sex versus co-education
  • prerequisites and school patterns of curricular choices as critical filters
  • mathematics as a negative critical filter
  • careers education and vocational counselling
  • women's support networks
  • affirmative action projects in science and technology
The research reported in the book covers role-modelling, mentorship, attitudes, image, mathematics as a critical filter and single-sex schooling versus co-education. As well as reviewing previous work the researchers gathered data on women in science and engineering in ten institutions in Australia and also both circulated papers to staff for their response and carried out group interviews with staff.

One of the factors that was particularly affected by the Snark syndrome was role-modelling. They distinguished two hypotheses. The first was:
• same-sex role-modelling is an important influence on breaking the stereotypes of ascribed masculinity and femininity in the vocational setting of curricular choice and of career aspiration.

They concluded that the research tended to support this hypothesis.

The second hypothesis was stronger:
• the acquisition of more female staff in a given discipline will, in itself, result in an increase in female students.

They concluded that this hypothesis is not supported by sound empirical evidence and nor is it consistent with well-grounded rigorous theory. One of their suggestions is that there needs to be a critical mass of women in a particular role for that role to be seen as 'sex-normal'.

However, when they analyzed the views of academic staff they found that, of those who said there were visible women in their discipline, almost all assumed that their mere presence would cause a same-sex modelling process to take place for female students. Furthermore some believed strongly that same sex role models were essential while others argued for the equal value of opposite-sex role-models. The researchers note:
'Both views were frequently described in terms of secure belief without any evidential basis for the belief. The strength of the convictions was inversely correlated with the presence of any factual basis.'
They also noted that role-modelling tended to be confused with mentoring.

Byrne suggests two policy consequences of the widespread but unsupported belief that the presence of women staff would increase enrollments by women. First, it provides an alibi for male inaction:
'It is significant that almost all the proposals put forward both in interviews and in writing also involved women taking on more work, but no traceable expected change on the part of men.'
Secondly, active role-modelling wastes women's scarce time. This does not mean that women should not be visible in the normal course of their work on committees, at public events and forums and as delegates to meetings and conferences. Simply that they should not be asked to participate in additional activities aimed at providing role models for secondary school girls:
'Grants and project money spent on ferrying untypical women to small functions without the context of an overall strategy to attack sex-role stereotyping in books, careers materials and the visual media is likely to be a total waste of scarce public money'.
Byrne also reports some of the reactions to the study:
'This is, of course, exactly the kind of garbage I associate the feminist movement with, and I hope you do not really expect me to waste my time reading it and trying to figure out what all these nonsensical questions mean! It is bad enough that we have to pay tax so that the government can employ people to produce this sort of rubbish; you can't expect me to also spend time on it.'
Policy based on clear definitions, logic and empirical evidence! What will these feminists want next?

The ability to judge the contents of a document without actually reading it is, of course, widespread in academia.

She finishes by telling a story about a conversation during one of the group interviews:
After reading the first four discussion papers in advance, and listening to the group discussion of the issues raised, a Professor from a discipline in which girls were well into the 'abnormal/rubric of exceptions' minority, said: 'Professor Byrne, I have a problem. You are two women directing this project. Do you not think that this invalidates the results?'

After a moment's stunned silence, I replied, 'Professor X, let me be clear what question you are asking. You are saying that because we do not have a mixed-sex research team, our research into these issues is invalid? Presumably you will accept that, then, 90% of scientific research so far is invalid because it has been conducted exclusively by men?'

He shook his head uncertainly.

'I'm sorry. You are saying that because we are women, we are less able or well qualified and need what Simone de Beauvoir termed a “male mediator between us and the Universe”?

He hastily protested that our qualifications and experience were impressive.

'I'm sorry to have misunderstood again. You are saying that because we are women, even if our research is in fact sound, no one will listen to us, simply because we are women?'

As the Professor struggled to come to terms with that, a colleague came to his rescue. 'I think what my colleague is saying, Professor Byrne, is that it would be a pity if so much wide-ranging and substantially funded research on so important an issue, were not influential because …' His voice died away.

I said quietly, 'So you are in fact saying that he believes that however right women are, they cannot be listened to with the same scholarly clout as men?'
That was in 1986, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Have things changed since then? Many policies intended to increase the numbers of women entering, staying in and progressing in SET are still based on the Snark Effect, that is, on internalized beliefs that are unsupported by evidence. In fact, these internalized beliefs are often impervious to facts. If the facts do not support the belief people look for reasons why the facts are wrong. For example, if the figures show that women are just as likely to be promoted as men it must be because the figures are based on an incorrect definition of who is eligible for promotion since it is well known that women are less likely to be promoted than men. I am not sure that the reaction that research on women in science and engineering cannot be objective if it is carried out by women, though of course, it would be objective if carried out by men, has entirely died out, either.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this, Esther, very useful.

    I was waiting to make a more reasoned response, but have decided that waiting for some clear time is probably not a good tactic. So quick, not well-thought-out comments:

    There is the work in the US that has led to many male comments that now they are being discriminated against because women were earning more. These stats look at young single women in selected cities, where they do often outearn men of their age. Obviously coincidentally, hey are also significantly more likely to have degrees! (You can skew it even more by picking black women, with the huge rate of incarceration of young black men badly affecting their earning power (in the formal economy).

    The other fun bit of skewed stats can occur in jobs with well-defined pay grades involving yearly increments. If the increments for a grade go on for say 11 years but promotion, if it is going to happen, will be at about the 5th year, you can get a pay gap favouring the women in the grade if they are actually being discriminated against for promotion.