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Of men, women and chimpanzees June 14, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science, women.
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Holy bananas I got a Hubble fellowship!

Dr. Smith was ectstatic he'd been shortlisted for a fellowship

Last week I listened to an excellent podcast at Slate.com on how to get more women into science. I can’t find the podcast anymore but the transcript is here, with lots of interesting links. In it, Ray Fisman reports results of a study into academic achievement in maths and science at the US Air Force Academy. The study found that replacing male instructors with a female one has a dramatic impact on the performance of the female students in the class, bringing it level with that of the men. Specifically,

women on average obtain scores that are 0.15 grade points lower (half the difference between an A and an A-) than their male classmates, even after accounting for students’ SAT scores. The gap in performance was widest for women taught by men. When a female instructor was put at the front of the classroom, nearly two-thirds of the grade point gender gap evaporated.

Bottom line: hire more women. Interestingly, the study also found that the gender gap in science performance was also reduced or absent under some male instructors. Obviously some men are better teachers to women than others as well. The study doesn’t seem to go into this very much, but perhaps this is an avenue worth exploring. If there were some helpful pointers to lecturers on how to be better mentors to women, I’m sure many would happily take them on board.

Measures that aim to make the system more women-friendly are only half the picture. As taboo a statement as it may be, women and men are actually different. In another Slate piece from 2005 on the Larry Summers controversy, William Saletan writes:

A year and a half ago, after completing a study of the Y chromosome, MIT biologist David Page calculated that male and female human genomes differed by 1 percent to 2 percent—”the same as the difference between a man and a male chimpanzee or between a woman and a female chimpanzee,” according to a paraphrase in the New York Times.[…] You’d expect some of these differences to show up in the brain, and they do. A study of mice published a year ago in Molecular Brain Research found that just 10 days after conception, at least 50 genes were more active in the developing brain of one sex than in the other […] Men and women, on average, also possess documented differences in certain thinking tasks and in behaviors such as aggression.

There’s evidence that men are more assertive, more competitive than women, which gives them an obvious advantage in the science jobs market. So women need to be made aware of how they can perform better in the world of science.

We’re not in Oslo anymore, Toto

At a recent meeting in the UK I shared the dinner table with Dr. Helen Walker, a British astronomer at RAL and Chair of the then just-launched IYA cornerstone project, She is an Astronomer, which aims to raise the profile of women in astronomy. We ended up having  a very casual conversation with the men at our table about women in astronomy. Why are there so few? Why do many drop out? How do we address this?

The most entertaining aspect of the discussion however was the national stereotypes that immediately emerged. There was the Scandinavian who argued that a quota-based approach was the only way to get women onto a level pegging with men. Norway implemented just such a policy in a dramatic way some years ago, and the Scandinavian countries have long led the field in gender equality. At the other end of the spectrum, the Spaniard felt family-friendly policies in his institute were not an issue, as his institute is largely male with the wives staying home to look after the children. Incidentally, Spain will this year for the very first time count the number of women it has working in astronomy. Spain: meet the 21st century, you two should catch up.

I asked whether maybe “family-friendly policies” weren’t also beneficial for men? Don’t men like to be able spend a bit more time with their children? There is after all documented evidence that senior influential astronomers with a history of “fun and debauchery” (their words, not mine) can embrace parenthood with as much passion and gusto as their female colleagues. Yet when I asked this question there was Silence. A Dutchman ventured: “Yesh, yesh… I think that may be changing…..”. Trust the Dutch to share their opinion when the others remain silent. Census of national stereotypes: a success!

Discussions like this make people think that I’m a bit militant on this subject. I’m not really, I just like a good argument and I’m not afraid to ask. I’ve never experienced any disadvantages in my studies or my career due to my gender and I’m really thankful for that. In fact I think there are some perks to being a woman in a man’s world. Let’s be realistic: men have run the show for centuries and it’s not realistic to expect that to change over a couple of generations. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work at it, talk about it, and celebrate women’s achievements in science.

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1. on children « a god called fred - June 16, 2009

[…] i’d packed more into my life – certainly more fun and debauchery – no apologies, Sarah! – than many thrice-reincarnated hindus. i was ready for a new challenge, a new story to […]


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