Women in the Sciences

Nature has a news article on the resignation of Teri Markow from her position as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. I don’t know much about what happened other than the stuff in the Nature piece, but apparently Markow was frustrated by the treatment of women within the administrative ranks of scientific professional societies. I have some quotes and comments below the fold.

I hardly know Markow — I have met her and a few of her students briefly — so I am in no position to evaluate her personally. She does excellent research in a top notch department. She is also the director of the Drosophila species stock center, which I imagine is a thankless task.

I was first made aware of Markow’s resignation in the email mentioned in the Nature article that was sent to all SSE members:

We regret to report that in March 2006 Therese Markow resigned her position as President of the Society for the Study of Evolution. President Markow felt there were irreconcilable differences of opinion between the Council and herself regarding the process used to select and approve the new Editor-in-Chief and Deciding Editors of Evolution. The latter offices represent a new category of editor not covered by the Constitution or By-Laws; clear rules for these positions had not been fully specified when these positions were established. In addition, there were lapses in communication and in following established procedures for the selection and approval of editors. Many of these lapses have now been corrected and rectified, and an ad hoc committee will be appointed to address remaining unresolved issues. This Committee will recommend changes in policy and/or procedures to the SSE Council at our June meeting.

Note that there is no mention of what those “irreconcilable differences” are, only that Markow and the Council parted ways. The Nature article, however, sheds some light on what was going on behind the scenes:

A rare resignation has focused attention on scientific societies’ treatment of women. Theresa Markow, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), has stepped down in protest that women were not adequately considered for the editorship of its journal, Evolution.

The society’s rules state that it should create a nominating committee to choose a chief editor. But instead, the society appointed a man after informal queries. It then rejected Markow’s request to redo the process…

“I strongly feel that being inclusive with respect to gender … is non-negotiable,” Markow wrote in her resignation letter. “I cannot serve as president of a society when the council and I share such major contrasts of view.”

This is troublesome because the council did not follow the appropriate procedures. It’s impossible to say whether a woman would have been chosen chief editor if those procedures had been followed, but at least a woman would have stood a better chance. I, personally, believe that the problem of a lack of female biologists is being reconciled organically, but will take a few more decades to come to fruition. As I look around my own department, I see a disproportionate number of males amongst the senior faculty, but they rose through academia in a previous generation when female scientists were even less common. Amongst my peers, there are equal numbers of males and females, which suggests that (all other things being equal) we should see a good gender balance when we become senior faculty.

All of this assumes organizations like the SSE follow fair practices in choosing their administrative and editorial boards. I’m not advocating affirmative action or actively pursuing certain ethnicities or genders, but actions that deliberately exclude those groups should be highly discouraged. The following anecdote reveals something about how senior researchers view junior scientists:

The journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, The Auk, has not had a woman editor in its 123-year history. But Kimberley Sullivan, an ornithologist at Utah State University in Logan, has a grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to address such issues, and seems to be making progress. The society’s existing fellows pick new fellows at the union’s annual meeting, from a slate of nominees. At her first fellows’ meeting, Sullivan says women nominees were “trashed”. “They started blackballing nominees, with someone saying: ‘I was with her on a field trip and she misidentified a bird’,” she says. “It was terrible.” The younger men on the slate came in for the same treatment, she says.

It appears that all established researchers think that the newbies are worthless pieces of shit. It just so happens that most of the people with seniority are males, whereas the junior researchers are a mix of males and females. What may come across to some people as sexism, may look like ageism to others. Either way, all these -isms lead to schisms, and that just ain’t cool. With so much stuff going on behind closed doors (tenure reviews, professional society managing boards, faculty hiring) it’s difficult to determine what role gender bias plays in determining sex ratios in the sciences.

I’m curious to see whether Markow’s resignation comes up in discussion at the two big evolutionary biology meetings I’ll be attending this summer: Molecular Biology and Evolution at Arizona State and the Evolution meeting in Stony Brook.