Thursday, 4 June 2009

women in science

Thanks to the recent post in Women in Science blog, I got acquainted with this Nature editorial and the actual EC report. (I had no time to read all 136 pages of it yet, but I am doing my best.) All interesting stuff, but, in the end, did they come with anything that we did not know before?

In conclusion, it appears clear that even the most gender-aware countries in Europe do not escape strong gender imbalance at the level of highly prestigious grants, positions or prizes.
Really? Well, I heard there was a bit of gender imbalance among the Nobel Laureates (there are altogether 35 female Nobel Prize winners out of 789 individual laureates, i.e. 4.4%; only 12 women got Nobels in science). But wait, read this:
What does clearly emerge is that application behaviour differs between men and women. Women apply or re-apply less, apply to less prestigious sources, requesting less funding, and for shorter duration.
So now we know who to blame: it is the women themselves. Instead of concentrating on important things like grant writing, they take career breaks or work part-time to raise their children etc.

Forget the EC report: this article by Philip Greenspun was written three years ago but is every bit as relevant now as in 2006. Don’t be deceived by the title: it is not only about women in science. It is about men in science too. (Granted, he talks about American science, but it is equaly applicable to the ‘Western’ science in general.) On the contrary, the section titles speak for themselves: ‘Why does anyone think science is a good job?’, ‘For whom does academic science as a career make sense?’, ‘What about the excitement and fun of science?’, and finally, ‘Why do American men (boys, actually) do it?’.

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?
Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:
  1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
  2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”
It may be not always politically correct but a great read anyway.

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