Nerdify the World

Scott Aaronson takes up the eternal question of why there are so few women in science. His contribution to the nature/ nurture side of the debate is particularly noteworthy:

To put the point differently: suppose (hypothetically) that what repelled women from computer science were all the vending-machine-fueled all-nighters, empty pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling, napping coders drooling on the office futon, etc.; and indeed that men would be repelled by such things as well, were it not for a particular gene on the Y chromosome called PGSTY-8. In that case, would the “cause” of the gender imbalance be genetic or cultural? This is a fascinating question, right up there with whether rocks fall because of gravity or being dropped, and whether 3+5=5+3 because addition is commutative or because they both equal 8.

As you would expect, Scott has a novel solution to offer: The problem isn’t that scientists are too nerdy, it’s that the rest of the world isn’t nerdy enough.

Sounds about right to me.

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    May 25, 2006

    Dude, there are smart and nerdy women aplenty. But lots of them don’t dig the constant barrage of sexist crap they get from peers, professors, and all the onlookers who feel moved to share their opinions of the wisdom of women going into computer science/physics/chemistry/math/rocket science/etc.

    So by all means, nerd the place up, but then let’s take of the real barriers.

  2. #2 Cryptic Ned
    May 25, 2006

    I don’t think using the generalized term “science” is quite appropriate when complaining about a lack of women. I’m a PhD student in microbiology, and I don’t think I’ve had a single biology class, in undergraduate or graduate school, that was less than 2/3 female. (except the mandatory classes that non-majors take, of course) My entering class in my current department contained 12 women and 2 men. (2 of the women have since dropped out)

  3. #3 Alison Chaiken
    May 25, 2006

    Another version of the women-in-science question is, why are there so many dang women in astronomy? The May 2006 issue of _Physics Today_ reports that in 2003, the last year for which figures were reported, an eye-popping 41% of the new graduate students in astronomy were women, compared to 21% for physics. Given that physics and astronomy are usually offered by the very same departments, these numbers are rather startling! Astronomy was much higher than physics in 2002 as well so this year’s numbers are not a fluke.

    My suspicion is that what does not appeal to women is engineering and that astronomy has less engineering in it than physics, but I could be wrong. There is likely more than one cause for this glaring factor-of-two discrepancy.

  4. #4 Miss Krieger
    May 25, 2006

    It’s funny that you mention engineering as a turn-off; back in university, my exboyfriend’s roommate had this theory about the lack of girls in his department that summed up to:
    “Women don’t like engineering.”

    However, I don’t think this has anything to do with the startling number of women in astronomy. If you look at it, radio/microwave/submillimiter astronomy is really just applied electrical engineering.

    Whereas lots of areas of physics (string theory in particular comes to mind) have zero engineering involved.

  5. #5 Ponderer of Things
    May 25, 2006

    I think there are better questions to be asked:

    Why are there so few people interested in Science?

    Why are there so few *americans* interested in Science?

    In case you haven’t noticed, the physics/engineering is being outsourced to chinese, indians and russians/west europeans. Who are mostly male.

    Cheap labor force, good analytical/science/math skills, motivation to work long ours for minimum wage with a very little chance of getting a good permanent job. hmmm. Let’s make sure women are equally represented, so we all can share our mysery!

    My wife is a biologist. Their department is primarily all-women. She is in charge of feeding the fish and taking care of our dog. I am in charge of fixing stuff around the house. Even though her current work involves working with proteins, rather than alive animals, she thinks her interest in biology is in some extent due to “motherly instinct” of taking care of living things. Getting a puppy was her idea (they are apparently “cute”). I am a physicist, who doesn’t care much for puppies, but who took great deal of pleasure taking apart clocks as a 5-year old, just to see “what is inside”. Anyone see where I am going with this?

    Another bit of observation. I wouldn’t mind putting my personal life on hold until I am 40 (still relatively young for a man), if that’s what it took to establish a solid career in science. My wife has a different type of timetable, however. Science is a job, like any other, but it ends at 5PM, and no work on weekends (I work evenings and weekends very often). We are both motivated, but she has other things on her mind.

    I strongly suspect that if you asked an average 30-year old scientist, broadly defined, the priority lists would look very different for male/females. Males would tend to put careers and making money on the top of the list. Females would value these things too, as long as they don’t conflict with their ability to have children some time before biological window runs out on them.

    People who look at the percentage of faculty that are females are missing two important points:

    1. A big portion of any faculty is “old timers” who heavily weigh the ratio towards men – even if faculties start hiring females only, it would take decades to correct the ratios.

    2. Focusing on who gets hired/promoted on faculty is a small part of the problem – a tip of the iceberg. Look into things like offering dual faculty positions to couples on the job market, offering quality child care and “stop tenure clock” options for women.

    Even then, there’s only so much that can be done on administrative levels. Peer pressure accounts for most of the problem, in my opinion. I strongly believe that most faculty genuinly would like to see more women become interested in science. I am sure some women will share stories of male chauvinists, but in my experience working with plenty of women, I almost never see any of that. But what do you do about “subtle” messages that come from female scientists’ mothers, fathers, girlfriends, etc.? In other words, we tend to think of some stern old male faculty as being the opressor, but is there some chance that it’s the nice kind mother who wants her daughter to have a “normal” life is to blame.

    I also wonder if there are the same discussions about lack of female car mechanics, plumbers and construction workers?
    Or male kindergarden teachers? Society tends to outline gender roles, and biology/genetics may have something to do with it too. Departments can try to go to extremes in attempting to boost female participation in certain disciplines, but the idea that departmental policy alone can overcome bias imposed on women by society or biology overnight is rather unreasonable.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    May 25, 2006

    Another version of the women-in-science question is, why are there so many dang women in astronomy? The May 2006 issue of _Physics Today_ reports that in 2003, the last year for which figures were reported, an eye-popping 41% of the new graduate students in astronomy were women, compared to 21% for physics. Given that physics and astronomy are usually offered by the very same departments, these numbers are rather startling!

    I think that may be true on the undergraduate level, but most graduate programs seem to have separate Physics and Astronomy departments.

    I can say that we’ve had our fair share of female majors over the past several years, and I haven’t really noticed a significant bias toward astronomy. Four of our graduating majors this year are women, and only one did a senior thesis that was related to astronomy, and that was more astrophysics (simulations of accretion disks around black holes).

    I don’t have the energy for a full-out women-in-science flamewar at the moment. I really only posted this link because I liked the “5+3 = 3+5″ line. And also: “computer science departments could attract and retain better people of both sexes if they felt less like monasteries or pirate ships.”

    (Though, really, “pirate ship” could only be an improvement for most academic departments. Arrr!)

  7. #7 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    I can do a physics-vs-astronomy flamewar….

    and only one did a senior thesis that was related to astronomy, and that was more astrophysics (simulations of accretion disks around black holes).

    That’s astronomy. I see this in my own department– there are a number of physicists who seem to think that most astronomy is still something like what William and Caroline Herschel were doing. My first year at Vandy, a few years ago, one physics professor even said, “aren’t most astronomers still cataloging things?” Another, very recently, objected to a “Stellar Astronomy” course title, because “Astronomy” means “naming the stars. All of these people are speaking from ignorance about what the science of astronomy is.

    There is this term “astrophysics” that gets used and means different things to different people; unfortunately, it is often used for political purposes by physicsts who hold some disdain for astronomy despite having seen some science in astronomy that they thought was interesting. Ultimately, astrophysics is what the vast majority of astronomers are doing nowadays. Yes, there are theorists and observers, some are more rigorous than others, some mostly report observations– but, heck, in the glory days of high-Tc superconduting research, there were a bunch of physicsts that looked to the outside world like little more than experimental chefs, cooking up a new concoction to see what it did. It’s not really like that.

    Unless you really think that the people working with low-energy particle accelerators generating neutron-heavy nuclei that only otherwise exist briefly in supernovae are doing “astrophysics” (and I have heard that described that way, much to my bogglement), there isn’t really a difference between astrophysics and astronomy. *Perhaps* astrophysics is a big category that includes astronomy and some other things (the particle accelerator people, perhaps the RHIC people, a bunch of atomic physicists), but the truth is that so much of physics is useful for astronomy that it seems a bit cart-before-horse to me to insist on calling “physics useful for astronomy” by the name “astrophysics”. Modelling accretion disks around black holes, though– that’s hardcore theoretical astronomy.

    Also — only the largest schools tend to have separate Physics and Astronomy departments. Many schools, like Vanderbilt, that have more midsized Physics departments have Astronomy mixed in.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    I don’t have the energy for a full-out women-in-science flamewar at the moment. I really only posted this link because I liked the “5+3 = 3+5″ line. And also: “computer science departments could attract and retain better people of both sexes if they felt less like monasteries or pirate ships.”

    While I think that Janet is saying good and thoughtful things– it’s a little funny to get worked up about a Scott Anderson quote. Kinda like using a Stephen Colbert show as evidence that Tom Delay is being treated unfair. The guy isn’t really serious….

    -Rob

  9. #9 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    OK, I’m a idiot.

    Scott Aaronson.

    I thought I read “Scott Anderson”, and then somehow my brain substituted “Scott Adams”, and all of a sudden I thought I was reading a quote from the Dilbert-writing guy.

    Ignore me. That last comment was *really* stupid now that I see what I was misunderstanding.

    -Rob

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    May 26, 2006

    Actually, it’s probably fair to say that Scott Aaronson isn’t really serious, most of the time.

    As far as the definitional thing goes, my mental classification is pretty much “If there isn’t a telescope involved, it’s astrophysics.” Also, the faculty member supervising the project self-classifies as a “nuclear astrophysicist.”

    The important point is that it was a very physics-y project– running computer code to solve complicated systems of equations. The only astronomy content was in the context of the problem. It’s not like it was qualitatively different than what a theoretical physics student would’ve done.

  11. #11 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    It’s not like it was qualitatively different than what a theoretical physics student would’ve done.

    That’s true of much of theoretical astronomy.

    The differences in methodlogy, philosophy, approach, and culutre between high-energy/particle type physics and condensed matter/nano-type physics are as big as the differences between high-energy physics and astronomy.

    It’s all physics… just different subfields.

    -Rob

  12. #12 jenny
    May 27, 2006

    While I would hate to make generalizations, working amongst students and faculty of one of the best engineering schools in the country, the engineers are about the most sexist and egotistical people I have ever come to meet.

    But I think the real reason is that in higher ed you have to devote a LOT more time to making tenure. In other disciplines you can do your research at home, while say having a life or a family. However if a woman wants to have kids and work 80 hrs a week in a lab, something probably has to give.

  13. #13 Alison Chaiken
    May 27, 2006

    I didn’t mean to start an argument about the merits of astrophysics vis-a-vis other subfields of physics. In fact, the purpose of my comment was simply to ask, “What is different and possibly better about astrophysics that causes women graduate students to prefer it by 2:1 over other physics subfields?” This is a big effect!

    I used the term “astronomy” rather than “astrophysics” just because that’s what most departments are called. And, BTW, there is a unified department of Physics and Astronomy at MIT, the big physics factory where I went to grad school. I have the impression that separate departments of astrophysics are few.

    To summarize, I believe that we could double the participation of women across physics if we could figure out what astrophysics is doing better.

  14. #14 Sandy
    June 12, 2006

    Women are busy with other thing while men try to show off their intellectual abilities. You know women are supposed to be a little dull to be popular among males.

  15. #15 Karl
    November 17, 2006

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