Best Of: Gender Disparity: An Open Letter to 'Gabe'

originally published November 2, 2007 by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

i-f6a1cfdbddd590bc4bc0957f71d73fed-rosie.htmI'm publicly responding to a particular reader's provocative comments because women-in-science is a topic that needs to be settled. Finally. After which, I'll be moving away from the great gender divide for a while and back to science and policy next week. Here goes.

November 2, 2007

Hello there Gabe,

You may be wondering why I'm addressing you in this forum. Well, since you visited both blogs and stirred up quite a response, I figured you deserve to be in the spotlight.

To begin, I'm glad you read our blog and take enough of an interest to participate. My favorite aspect of The Intersection is that folks bring varied opinions that promote discussion. Lance and Neuro-conservative, for example, are regulars who we expect will chime in anytime we write about climate change. Fred always has an interesting book recommendation. And so on. I enjoy the challenge to think critically and turn ideas upside down daily with everyone.

Recently, you weighed in here:

Girls are just not good at science and math. I don't see why people have a problem accepting that. Think of all the greatest discoveries in human history. How many women come to mind? Case closed.

Gee, I can think of a bunch.

And then you contributed to the dialogue at Correlations:

Maybe girls just aren't very good at science and math. Not to be sexist, but maybe they're just not.

While your sentiments are at best... charming - in the ironic and prehistoric sense of the word - I appreciate the way you actively demonstrate the purpose of studies on gender disparity. Why, it's firsthand evidence of preconceived notions contributing to the problem.

So what's actually going on and why all the hullabaloo? The statistics on ladies having a tough time in science and math certainly are no longer considered groundbreaking news. Of course, on a personal note, I say don't cry for me academia. While there are undoubtedly hurdles, I'm having a great time here and plan to stick around the ivory towers for a while. Still, I strongly suspect the veritable nosedive in XX representation over time is, at least in part, a self-perpetuating cycle resulting from long-standing cultural norms and social expectations. There. I said it.

i-fca11d0595b120afd94c6d59ceb6bb94-cover.jpgNow bear with me Gabe, and read on after the jump...

Sure, we womenfolk became working girls like Melanie Griffith in the 80's and even got the right to vote not so long before that, but social progress takes time to ripple outward. Most of us are still struggling to figure out how to balance family, career, and strive to achieve the pop culture Cosmo image of what we're expected to be.

i-daa2c5145b6576f9f978232947aeea84-B000EHSM0O.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpgYou may be wondering how this is any different from what the fellas have to surmount and guys certainly have their share of difficulties. But still, the Y chromosomed among us are often encouraged to pursue science and engineering while we're generally pointed in other directions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of girls interested in studying science and technology is shrinking despite that the great gender divide is supposedly closing. Males are also often invited to engage vocally in theatric debates while generally the women are watching from the sidelines. It may be we simply don't cause enough friction in the public arena for entertainment or that if we do make a fuss, we're often called difficult or... ummmm, worse.

And then there's the great big ick factor that occasionally rears its ugly head when you're a girl in a testosterone dominated field. Gabe, how would you respond to casual jokes about your body, being told not to carry 'heavy' equipment, or finding the patience to deal with counterparts who unintentionally treat you like a child all too often? Ever have to explain why you're not married yet with kids, deal with a superior's advances as a student, or wind up on a date under the pretense of a work meeting? Okay sure, these experiences can happen to anyone, but somehow, I expect they are more common among women. Might it be that sometimes the academic environment presents unusual obstacles for the double X? If so, consider that may also be discouraging bright young ladies in the field.

Note, even in the blogosphere, comments on my threads regularly discuss something concerning appearance, yet my co-blogger is solely regarded for the content of his posts. I'm betting there's an unspoken possibly subconscious difference in the way information is perceived based on expectation of the author. But that aside, what's up with those comments readers?

And so Gabe, while blaming the gender disparity on different innate abilities is an easy scapegoat in the numbers game [paging Lawrence Summers], I just don't buy it. Danica doesn't either. But then again, what do we know? We're just girls.

Thanks for reading,
Sheril Rose Kirshenbaum

Forget preconceived notions of what to expect because today's young women can and will accomplish what they dream if we encourage them to believe in themselves.

* After this post was originally published, Gabe apologized.*


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With regards to the dearth of women in science, I would like to point out 3 women who deserved Nobel Prizes but whom were left out when they were awarded.

1. Lise Meitner deserved to share the Nobel Prize in physics with her colleague, Otto Hahn but for reasons of antisemitism and politics was left out.

2. Chien-Shiung Wu (known as Madame Wu) deserved to share the Nobel Prize in physics with Lee and Yang but was left out.

3. Rosalind Franklin deserved to share the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Wilkins, Crick, and Watson but was left out.

The message here for women looking for a role model in science is that they have to be better then their male counterparts to achieve the same level of recognition.

But Sheril, you're cute... and Chris is just 'meh' ;)

Seriously though, I do run into some female (and other of course) folk who are a bit overly sensitive. The sciences are often a pretty rough and tumble place socially, and there are a lot of socially 'challenged' members of our community. There is also the assumption of 'we are all adults here' and the odd politically incorrect or downright rude comment shouldn't be taken terribly seriously.

I'm not saying sexism (or Gabe's comments) are defensible. I'm am saying that many if not most perceived slights (sexist or of any other sort) should be given the benefit of the doubt. I really do like the rule we had at Caltech... if someone is annoying you, you should assume they are just clueless and it is your duty to tell them. If they keep at it, then you can get pissed at them.

Regarding Rosalind Franklin: She was already dead when Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded their Prize, and the Nobels are never awarded posthumously. Of course, the question is whether or not she would have been included had she been alive; probably not, IMNSHO.

As a father of two young ladies, both of them very good at science, I'm a big proponent of guiding girls into the sciences. I've told them many times that men and women see the world differently (that's why Mom and I argue from time to time). Science, first and foremost, is about looking at the world and asking questions. They view the world differently than I do and so the questions they come up with are often very different than mine as are the approaches they use to answer those questions. This paternalistic view of science, the boy's club, has to go. Girls are every bit as good as boys in math and science. All they need is encouragement.