Another day, another article about how women are biologically inferior to men when it comes to high-level math and science. The fact that this one comes from the New York Times Science section, a newspaper I typically respect very highly, is all the more tragic and frustrating. I don’t have time today to write with as much depth and ferocity as I would like to, but I want to just say that I find it outrageous that the New York Times would publish something so obviously sexist and one-sided about such a complex, nuanced, and important topic under the headline “Daring to Discuss Women in Science.” Jezebel debunks this image of the iconoclastic man daring to go against the PC tide quite well:
Those who question women’s innate scientific ability (whatever that is) continually claim that such questioning is edgy, dangerous, or pathbreaking. But since men have been arguing that women are the stupider sex since antiquity and probably before, those who make that argument today have more in common with flat-earthers than with Galileo. And while they may claim to be rebels against some politically correct feminist orthodoxy, that argument rings a bit hollow when science and math departments are still overwhelmingly run by men — and when newsrooms continue to be majority male as well.
After two pages of statistics from standardized testing, the New York Times article closes with a nod towards the complex cultural issues surrounding gender in society:
Of course, a high score on a test is hardly the only factor important for a successful career in science, and no one claims that the right-tail disparity is the sole reason for the relatively low number of female professors in math-oriented sciences. There are other potentially more important explanations, both biological and cultural, including possible social bias against women.
The irony here being that this article is a very clear example of some of the social biases women in science face every day, just one of the countless attacks and indignities that make it that much harder for women to get up and go to lab every day, to achieve great things in math and science. I’ve been very lucky to have had many wonderful teachers and terrific opportunities growing up and during my education as a scientist (not to mention how lucky I am to live in a time and a culture where women are allowed to go to school at all and in a socioeconomic situation where I could focus entirely on my studies), but I’m constantly reminded of my position as a female scientist benefiting from affirmative action, as a member of a class of people that on their own just wouldn’t be able to cut it in science. When I got into MIT (I didn’t end up attending) several people, including mentors and friends that I looked up to, told me that it didn’t hurt that I was a girl. When I got an NSF graduate fellowship, a family friend and senior scientist said that it must have been because I was a girl. When I asked a group of synthetic biologists at a conference why they thought there were so few women in attendance, the answer was “well, it’s engineering” and the conversation rapidly veered to the apparently well-known fact that women can’t lift cannonballs over their heads (a lot of wine may have been involved, but the sentiment remains). Is it surprising that after being bombarded with messages about not being as good at math and science as boys, that girls don’t want to do math and science, perpetuating the cycles and statistics in these articles?
We’ve come a long way in how women are perceived and treated in society and in science and academia, but there is still a long way to go, and this kind of discourse about what women are and aren’t “naturally” good at is just one small part of that (same goes for boys and verbal skills). By naturalizing one kind of institutional discrimination and societal bias, discrimination in other aspects of our culture become easier, more invisible. By scientifically definitely anything as innately “feminine” or “masculine” at all, we pigeonhole men and women into rigid roles that limit where people can go, what people can do. I hope that this gets others as riled up as it gets me, and that we can really fix the way our culture defines and thinks about the characteristics and abilities of girls and women, so that our daughters won’t be women scientists, but women and scientists.