Women, Part 1

As I said in my chat with PZ on Blogging Heads, Im probably not the best person to talk to about the problems women face in science. Why? Meh, my parents have always encouraged me in the sciences (CONSTRUX WHOO!). They threw me on a bus, by myself, to Space Camp when I was 10. Aunts and uncles who live in The City would take me to museums and botanical gardens and state parks when Id visit them. I had great high school teachers and college professors for my science classes. Bossman has always made it perfectly clear that sexism against me is unacceptable, and to come to him if anything happens.

If Ive been discriminated against, Ive been too oblivious to notice.

Well… Except for one time. At one point during high school I was thinking about going into engineering. Big Bro is an engineer, and I loved math and science, so YAY! Engineering!

… Then I had a phone conversation with one of Bros professors.

A phone conversation that was supposed to convince me to go to Engineering University.

Yeah. Ive never felt so ‘talked down to’ my entire life. I hung up the phone, and called Biology University to accept the deal they offered me. Why go to Engineering University and deal with that crap every day, when Biology University made it clear that they would encourage my abilities?

So ERV is a biologist today. YAY! Its one of the best decisions Ive ever made. I am just so goddamn happy all the time because my research kicks so much ass. So Im pretty happy with the outcome of that one sexism incident.

Enter Dude-Who-Wants-To-Talk-About-Women-In-Science:

The science “problems” we now ask students to think about aren’t really science problems at all. Instead we have the National Science Foundation vexed about the need for more women and minorities in the sciences. President Lawrence H. Summers was pushed out of Harvard University for speculating (in league with a great deal of neurological evidence) that innate difference might have something to do with the disparity in numbers of men and women at the highest levels of those fields. In 2006 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.” Officials of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education are looking to use Title IX to force science graduate programs to admit more women. The big problem? As of 2001, 80 percent of engineering degrees and 72 percent of computer-science degrees have gone to men.

A society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn’t a society that takes science education seriously.

Hi, Stupid Twat. The reasons I didnt go into engineering had nothing to do with my ‘innate’ abilities. Im not DaveScot, so Im not going to brag about my achievements (read the article, us dang students today are so arrogant), but I assure you that my scores and honors put me in the top percentages of the accepted students at Engineering University.

I didnt go because the ‘engineer’ I spoke with was a paternalistic jackass. Fuck if I was going to spend 4-5 years with jackasses like him, only to graduate and enter a work environment with more jackasses!

Certainly Im not saying all engineers are jackasses, and ya, Im having fun as a biologist, but I am one more woman who could have bumped up the engineering stats, but didnt because of the hostile environment. Why the hell shouldnt major science organizations be worried about this?? How can you take scientific education ‘seriously’ when women are discouraged from joining certain fields for no goddamn reason??

I love virology as a community because theres not exactly a shortage of kick ass women to look up to (half the invited speakers at the conference I was just accepted to are women). And, the older male virologists are just super. Very encouraging. Is it any coincidence that according to the NSF, in 2006, there were 3,050 female graduate students in micro/immuno/virology vs 2,274 male? OMG, women flock to a field that doesnt discriminate against women? No way! Whoda thunk it.

Well damn, with all those ‘innate differences’ that kept women out of biology for so long, has micro/immuno fallen into a tailspin after all these apron-wearing women commandeered the field?


Thats because its got shit to do with ‘innate abilities’, Stupid Twat. It has to do with encouraging young talent without discriminating against gender/race/etc. We all lose when a bright kid doesnt reach his/her potential because of sexism/racism/etc. Thats why science community worries about ‘which chromosomes scientists have’.



  1. #1 John Kwok
    August 6, 2008

    Hi Abbie,

    I knew a few women professors and have met several women alumni from my undergraduate alma mater who thankfully never experienced anything remotely like what you described. Instead, they received ample encouragement from their professors.

    However, you may find useful at some point membership in the OU chapter – I presume there is one – of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

    So when are you ready to blast Behe and Dembski again? Am looking forward to it.



  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    August 6, 2008

    President Lawrence H. Summers was pushed out of Harvard University for speculating (in league with a great deal of neurological evidence) that innate difference might have something to do with the disparity in numbers of men and women at the highest levels of those fields.

    First of all, that business about the “great deal of neurological evidence” is a fuckwitted lie.

    Second, if Summers lost his cushy job at Harvard, I guess that just proves he’s too weak for academia. Pansy. Go back to your sandbox and shove a G. I. Joe doll in your Tonka truck, you big baby!

  3. #3 Aaron Golas
    August 6, 2008

    Go Team Biology! Woo!!

  4. #4 Ethan Obie
    August 6, 2008

    That’s engineering’s loss and virology’s gain.

  5. #5 DAM10N
    August 6, 2008

    ERV – I don’t think we can rationally generalize from your own experience to society at large. You might have just as easily run into an asshole misogynist biologist (e.g. Randy Thornhill of UNM) and by now you’d be blogging about, say, advances in structural composites, or next-gen solar collectors, or some other such engineering breakthrough.

    To what extent either innate differences or social factors are driving any particular gender disparity is a question for careful statistical treatment by the social sciences, not a matter of individual anecdote.

  6. #6 Terry Small
    August 6, 2008

    Part 1, eh?

    Looking forward to part 2 then!

  7. #7 Robert Grumbine
    August 6, 2008

    I’ll look forward to part 2. In the mean time, a brief anecdote of my daughter’s. She was so heavily recruited by science and engineering departments, if anything she’d have preferred less attention be paid to her gender. This, even though the attention was favorable (please, please, please come to our school and major in science/engineering!).

    Anecdote level stuff. But the fact that it happened at all is already a major shift from when I was in school. Then, it was progress for colleges not to throw out (figuratively, if not literally) applications from women to engineering departments. And much better than when my mother was in high school, where she was half the women in the top math class (engineer father saw no reason his daughters shouldn’t do math).

    Which still leaves too many jackasses around, as your example shows.

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    August 6, 2008

    Bossman has always made it perfectly clear that sexism against me is unacceptable, and to come to him if anything happens.

    Unfortunately, sexism in science is much more than just a set of incidents that “happen”. Rather, it is an entrenched structural feature of the entire scientific enterprise.

  9. #9 windy
    August 6, 2008

    ERV – I don’t think we can rationally generalize from your own experience to society at large.

    She didn’t do that.

  10. #10 Logan N
    August 6, 2008

    I think there’s probably some truth to psychological and neurological explanations why we have more men than women in physics and mathematics and more women than men in psychology, but I get miffed when people use this to say “men and women are psychologically different, therefore men are better” or vice versa.

    I thought Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” had a good discussion of this. He said even if data show that more men go into physics and more women go into psychology you shouldn’t discourage a woman from entering physics or a man from entering psychology. And of course the converse is true: don’t force people into careers they aren’t interested in because their gender isn’t well enough represented.

  11. #11 Magpie
    August 6, 2008

    I’ve never thought of anyone’s genetalia to be relevant to anyone but prospective sexual partners and doctors. In a perfect world I don’t think we’d need to give two shits what the gender proportion is in any job. Brains are what counts, not what does or does not dangle.

    But it’s not a perfect world, and at the moment at least the imbalance is not an indicator of preference, it is a symptom of bias (we have enough examples like ERV’s to see a significant trend). Maybe one day we can shrug and say that chicks don’t dig maths, or aren’t sociopathic enough to climb the ladder, or whatever – but until we level the playing field we have no way of coming to any such conclusion from the stats. In fact, all the data I’ve seen on small scales seem to point pretty firmly towards social factors (and to agree with PP, I think it’s influenced more by general cultural attitude, rather than individual incidents).

    So this guy has correctly identified that gender imbalance is not, in itself, a huge issue, but has failed to recognise that it is a symptom of a disease that is.

    It’s like pointing out that red spots are not harmful, but then applying that rationale to measles.

  12. #12 Becca
    August 6, 2008

    I have already ranted about Pricky McPrickster, so I will refrain this time.

    On the topic of your post… just for fun, why can’t the explaination be that women are really, incredibly, amazingly TEH AWESOME at microbiology? Maybe we are just biologically hardwired to be good at it.
    I don’t particularly believe this, but why is it never suggested as a possibility?

  13. #13 gg
    August 6, 2008

    “Yeah. Ive never felt so ‘talked down to’ my entire life. I hung up the phone, and called Biology University to accept the deal they offered me. Why go to Engineering University and deal with that crap every day, when Biology University made it clear that they would encourage my abilities?”

    The irony is that people like the Prof you describe will turn right around and argue that the lack of women in various sciences is ‘proof’ of a lack of interest, math skills, etc. without any acknowledgment that their own behavior might be part of the problem.

  14. #14 ERV
    August 6, 2008

    Damion– You are very right. I could have met a dick biologist, and the situation could have been reversed… But I didnt? The bio profs I had in college were absolutely wonderful– And half of them were women. I felt like in bio, me being a chick wasnt an issue, my abilities were the issue. Before I was on SB, I used to leave baffled comments on Zuskas blag about gender BS people have experienced– Ive been that sheltered. Its great! I dont think we would be having the same conversation if I went into engineering.

    Physio– Probably, but the ‘old cranks’ in viro sure kick ass :) I hope the rest start following suit.

    Logan– Oh totally! Just because I like pineapple, doesnt mean everyone does! BUT, I think the telling feature of gender differences in science, is that as fields opened up to women, women took advantage of those opportunities. It wasnt that women hated immunology– It was that they werent ‘allowed’ to be immunologists. When that changed, the gender balance changed. When all fields are ‘free’, and there is still an imbalance, then yeah! No one should be forced to eat pineapple or be a mechanical engineer :)

    Becca– LOL! Oh, I think they still say that. See, girls can do micro because its a soft science, what with all those squishy bacteria and glowing viruses and fuzzy fungi. Its not all hard and full of math, like manly engineering! And never mind it used to be that women couldnt do micro because its all disgusting and scary…

  15. #15 DAM10N
    August 6, 2008

    Windy – “She didn’t do that”

    ERV stopped short of claiming “all engineers are jackasses” but she did generalize as to the “the hostile environment” of the engineering field as a whole. It seems clear to me that her view of engineers was prejudiced by a single unfortunate encounter with an exceptional jackhole. As I noted, there are bio profs like that, as well.

    My experience is pretty much the opposite of ERV’s. I spend every workday around mostly male aero/mech/electrical engineers, who seem to me no more nor less chauvinist than others of their generation, but I was really turned off by that Thornhill guy in the bio dept. at UNM. Ought I assume therefore that biology is a misogynist field based on my own rather limited experiences? Seriously, folks, prejudice is prejudice. Scientists ought to insist on rigorous critical thinking even outside of their own field.

  16. #16 DAM10N
    August 6, 2008

    Sorry if that sounded harsh, ERV. I just read your post after my last one went through. Where is the delete buton?

  17. #17 ERV
    August 6, 2008

    Meh, youre right, Damion– no delete needed :) But I do mean to speak from my own experiences, and why ‘I’ didnt go into engineering myself.

  18. #18 nanoAl
    August 7, 2008

    Engineering IS pretty harsh for women. The woman engineers I know are all in mechanical and had to do a group project involving designing and building a simple car (a dumptruck really). During the initial few weeks of the project we would all sit around and bounce ideas off of eachother and come up with decent designs, which would then be rejected in favour of really bad ones by the male members of the group. One friend is on the design team of the Formula SAE group who (gasp!) designs and builds performance cars and she had to fight hard for any influence. It was not oncommon for the women to mantion an idea in a brainstorming session and then be ignored. After an hour of arguing, the men almost always arrived at her conclusion.
    At the Geo job I’m working at over the summer, it seems to be different, more than half the techs I’m working with are women, but that isn’t the norm.
    In NanoEngineering (and EngPhysics in general) there are about 80 people, 6 of whom are women, in my year there are 26 men and one woman. and She would probably get a lot less respect if she wasn’t A.) Smarter than us and B.) taken.
    Women in engineering don’t have trouble with the math and design and skills, its always the people. I haven’t met a single woman engineer who hadn’t had to deal with sexism. It most definitely is a generalized phenomenon. ERV you aren’t unique, well, not that unique.

  19. #19 manigen
    August 7, 2008

    It’s so easy to underestimated just how insiduous stereotypes can be. Public expectations influence an individuals performance and how they view and remember that performance. For example:


  20. #20 Charlie
    August 7, 2008

    Ironically, I got encouragement from all my male maths and physics teachers in highschool as well as the female ones. The douchebags were the advisory teachers not anywhere near that subject, male and female. Evidently, the perception of ‘old, white, male with bad hair’ for science and engineering still exists. I told them politely to fuck off and I got an offer from one of the best science universities in the UK for physics. I don’t think I got talked down to after that. I’m not planning to let anyone else do that from now on either. My physics teacher was pretty happy that three out of five of his class were going into physics or engineering, (plus a guy going into statistics, which he considered a bit on the side but still mathy enough to count), much more than any of the other classes in the year, which gave him bragging rights.

  21. #21 cptchaos
    August 7, 2008


    so you “meet” one jackass and back down? So I am a (male) science geek and had to “explain” myself all time during school time. I just got bullied for having my interests all the time. This stopped when I phsically got stronger than most of those Bullies. Lucky me.
    Therefore I’m not really convinced that the odds for Women in science are greater than for man any more. They sure are different, thought. So as women you’ll get easier support from your male students but you might have to handle some annoying sexists … or let them get handled, whatsoever.

    best regards

  22. #22 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 7, 2008

    Engineers more likely than biologists to be stupid sexist twats.
    Engineers more likely than biologists to be Creationists.

  23. #23 Iron Soul
    August 7, 2008

    Hey, easy on the engineers. Your comment comes of sounding a little like discrimination. I don’t know about engineers being more sexist than biologists. My school had a very active chapter of Society of Women Engineers, and the dean was very involved in that organization. I was not aware of gender discrimination, but I’m not always that clued in.

    There may be more creationist engineers than biologists though. Engineers don’t have to study any biology and can be completely insulated from exposure to things like evolution. That was certainly true in my case. I’ve had to take the initiative myself to learn a little biology, so I can understand the errors of my creationist upbringing.

  24. #24 Eric
    August 7, 2008

    @Aaron Golas
    Yes, go Team Biology!
    Or we could combine the two and work on bioengineering.

  25. #25 Kathy
    August 7, 2008

    I grew up with the bias. When I was 8, I wanted a chemistry kit for Christmas. I got one. Then my parents took away all of the chemicals (except salt), because I “might hurt myself.” Meanwhile, my little brother was playing with Exacto knives, but I couldn’t touch one.

    Then, a friend of mine got me a dissection kit for my birthday (I think I was 10). I got to keep the scalpel until my parents got a good look at the set. Then, it disappeared.

    My parents told me that “girls don’t study math or science.”

    When I got accepted to Berkeley, my dad’s response was, “I don’t know why you need college. You’ll just end up barefoot and pregnant.”

    When I picked my major, I wanted biology, but my mom talked me into something “easier,” like English.

    20 years later, I’m now finishing up my degree in Microbiology, to match the one in English. I really wish I’d told them to stuff it, and done biology instead.

    Even now, my mom just shakes her head and wonders if biology is “too hard” for me.

    Yay for supportive parents! I’m buying my husband’s granddaughter a dissection kit for her 10th birthday.

  26. #26 lylebot
    August 7, 2008

    Becca’s point is a good one. The deeper you look into any field, the more likely you are to find a subfield in which women are over-represented compared to the field itself. Once you find one, the whole “innate differences” argument becomes self-evidently ridiculous.

    For example, the AMS reports that about 44% (152 of 339) of 2006 doctorates in statistics went to women, while other subfields of math (algebra, geometry, discrete math, etc) are at about 26% (213 of 818) combined. Are we to conclude from this that women are just naturally better at statistics than they are at any other area of math? What kind of tortured ev.psych. explanation would one have to come up with to justify that?

    (And don’t say it’s because statistics is less abstract than other subfields. I’ve got a stack of graduate-level stats books here that say otherwise.)

  27. #27 michael fugate
    August 7, 2008

    The National Association of Scholars, which Peter Wood represents, has a single view – “western civilization” is the end-all, be-all of human achievement. They oppose all minority views – women’s studies, ethnic studies – under the belief they will undermine “our way of life”. In other words, a “dead white European male” view is superior to any other. As a worldview, I am not sure it serves us very well in the 21st century.

  28. #28 Josh
    August 7, 2008

    Just want to say, great article, and great point. It got me thinking about all those studies of sex and intelligence, and made me realize, “Maybe being jerks to individuals is a big enough barrier to entry” for most people. Perhaps we should forget about the data and standardized testing for just a second and realize that we should *not* be letting smart people (of any race/gender/etc) be put off of particular careers for any needless reason. Again, great stuff!

  29. #29 bsci
    August 7, 2008

    Eric, Yes, go Team Biology! Or we could combine the two and work on bioengineering.

    I think there’s actually a bit of truth in this. As a younger engineering field with more biology elements, there really less less historical sexism or other biases. I’ve seen groups where everyone is doing similar research, but a greater proportion of the women students are from BioE departments. I’ve never seen a quantitative study of this, but it’s on my long list of random research tangents to study.

  30. #30 joolya
    August 7, 2008

    I had completely forgotten this but I have a nugget of anecdote which I’m going to throw on the data pile here. I have never been outwardly discouraged from persuing science by real actual scientists who I respect. But when I was in school, I had to tussle every year with this dingbat guidance counselor who, for reasons I’m still not clear about, convinced me-the two-time prize-winning science fair participant and A student- not to take honors biology. Who later tried to convince me to take dummy physics because I wasn’t taking precalculus…even though the physics class did not actually use any math beyond basic algebra! Fortunately by that point I’d realized she was an idiot…I’m lucky to be dense enough and arrogant enough to have dismissed this woman rather than interpreted her advice as anything to do with my intelligence or abilities. Thank FSM for my teenage obtuseness and ego! But when I think how wrong it could have gone if I’d listened to that bint… I shudder.
    In later years- as a PhD student at a top tier biology program- the gender difficulties I observe have been perceptions of assertive women as being ‘pushy’, and mentors who try to be ‘helpful’ while actually being condescending.

  31. #31 John Kwok
    August 7, 2008

    Hi all,

    As I noted earlier, a good organization that has combatted sexism in the scientific community is WISE (Women in Science and Engineering). Again, I would encourage Abbie to join her local campus chapter (Hi Abbie, am sure that there must be over at your school.).



  32. #32 BAllanJ
    August 7, 2008

    Maybe the problem with the engineering prof was that he so rarely ever talked to a woman that he didn’t know how to do it. Waaay back when I did undergrad physics we called the physics building the monastery for a very good reason. I came out of undergrad socially crippled. Sharing an office with interesting people in grad school helped to complete me as a person (as well as having fewer constraints on my time). I’m just saying that the guy may have been arrogant or inept. It can be tough on a guy when he gets tenure before he’s ever kissed a girl.

    A corollary to this is that by having an acceptance policy or an environment that excludes women does a real disservice to the men too… socially and intellectually.

    The stories told about women not being heard in groups of men happen sooo often. These men need to unlearn this behaviour, and being in classes with intelligent women classmates will help them.

  33. #33 rimpal
    August 7, 2008


    Glad you have started the smackdown. Peter Wood is formerly of Boston Univ. and an anthropologist – which is why he gabbing stupidly about Summers conclusions being informed by “neurological” evidence. Wood has paraded quite a bit of his gibberish on that bath tissue rag “National Review”, where the idea of there being “innate differences” is pushed hard by Derbyshire, and a few others – mostly idiots. Wood seems to know nothing about the NSF and its many directorates and departments. Shocking ignorance!

    My daughter studies engineering and she is at a university that not only has an excellent undergrad program but also has arguably the best “Women in Engineering” program. My daughter all but gave up on engineering when she took an advanced programming class in her freshman year at highschool. She was the only female in a class of 16 and found it very difficult to engage with the rest of the class. and this at a very diverse school district! While at college now she has no problem at all even when she works in teams where apart from her the 4 students could all be from the college football roster!

  34. #34 World
    August 8, 2008

    Great article, very informative. Thanks and greetings!

  35. #35 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 8, 2008

    #23: Hey, easy on the engineers. Your comment comes of sounding a little like discrimination. I don’t know about engineers being more sexist than biologists…

    I didn’t say “engineers are more sexist that biologists.” I said “engineers are more likely to be sexist than biologists.” I’m sorry that you don’t understand probability.

  36. #36 baley
    August 8, 2008

    Chemical Engineering , at my university has a majority of women ( in Italy ) that’s not true for mechanical engineering or electronic engineering.

  37. #37 Iron Soul
    August 8, 2008

    @ #35
    You may be right. I haven’t noticed any greater level of sexism in my engineering education or career than in society in general. That is just my experience. On the other hand I don’t know that many biologists, so I can’t compare. Is there any actual data you are aware of?

    I do understand your point about probablity. I was sloppy in the wording of my comment. I just haven’t been convinced my my own experience that it was acurate. Of course my experience is not a representative sample.

  38. #38 Cath the Canberra Cook
    August 11, 2008

    In my experience (uni in the early 80s) the individual department made a lot of difference. Where I was, maths was terrific – several women on staff, no discouragement; while physics was teh suxxorz. Other universities had different patterns.

    I got my only low grade from a prof who openly stated that he didn’t believe women were capable of doing physics – suspcious, eh? Translated into US terms, my grades one semester were: pure math A+; applied math: A+; one physics class: A+; dickhead prof’s physics class: D-. Hmmmm. Being a 19 year old idiot, I didn’t complain at the time.

  39. #39 eddie
    August 17, 2008

    Don’t you gals have to ask razib the child raper’s permission before doing stuff?