Adventures of Women in Science

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.

More like this

History has had no shortage of outstanding female mathematicians, from Hypatia of Alexandria to Ada Lovelace, and yet no woman has ever won the Fields medal - the Nobel prize of the maths world. The fact that men outnumber women in the highest echelons of mathematics (as in science, technology and…
In the recent articles, blog posts, and comment threads about possible biological reasons for the continued gender disparity in tenured math and science faculty positions, the discussion seems to be divided between two groups: those who emphasize the social and cultural aspects involved in gender…
Related to the question of why there is a gap between the genders in math and the sciences is whether there are possible means of remedy. With respect to possible remedies it is often a good idea to look internationally at which countries don't have this problem -- to see what they are doing right…
When I lived in North Carolina, I got to know a woman who worked in one of the Research Triangle labs. She had a baby girl, and I occasionally baby-sat for her. She had named her daughter Melina, which I thought was an incredibly beautiful name for a little girl. I remarked upon this one time,…

Thanks for writing on this, I was also really upset about it. Great response.

I read this article this morning and it also really upset me. As a woman and a scientist, I get really tired of reading the same tired arguments over and over.

"...including possible social biases"?? Come on!

So do you feel the hypothesis of equal mean but greater variance shouldn't be discussed or researched? Have other studies debunked it as an explanation? I'm no expert in the field (although I am a scientist) but the article certainly makes it seem a plausible mechanism with some supporting evidence.

It's that the hypothesis also assumes a lot of other factors that are wrapped up in complex social issues and prejudices and can't be separated out in a simple analysis of standardized test scores. The statistics show that today the highest test scores in math are disproportionally achieved by boys, but is this because of some innate difference in the distribution of intelligence between boys and girls, or because of social forces affecting how girls perceive their ability to achieve and their habits? Is it possible to predict adult achievement from such tests at all, and does it make sense to measure innate intelligence with a test as flawed as the SAT? How does the appearance of articles like this, perpetuating the idea that women are somehow not able to reach the highest level of achievement, affect women who are making their way through academia, affect how the people in positions of power view women's abilities, and how does that skew the statistics for the next round of studies? Implicit (and in the case of the NYT article, explicit) in these discussions is the notion that the reason why women aren't equally represented in positions of power is because they just can't cut it, and this is a dangerous and flawed assumption. There are a lot of other studies out there that start from a different assumption, that look at institutional and societal reasons for the skewed numbers at the top. Here is just one, and I'll look for more and post them later: "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review"

Since men are more risk-takers they follow into a new path more easily than women and hence women always lag behind.

Forgive my common sense assumption, I hope I didn't rile you up.

And why did he use the stats of 7 graders, the article here says that the IQ difference, comes into factor about the age of 21.…

The undeniable, easily measurable fact remains that, by the time both sexes reach 21, men, on average, score five IQ points higher than women.

For instance, at the near-genius level (an IQ of 145), brilliant men outnumber brilliant women by 8 to one.

If you assume the bell curve holds true then the ratio steadily decreases but still is greater than 1 when it comes to the avg. IQ of people getting in these streams.
(assumption on my part, I do think the IQ needed would be about >110-115)

... including possible social bias against women.

Just because, y'know, we've heard a couple of rumors, but that sort of qualifier is absolutely necessary until field work is finished and reported by Chris Matthews, Lawrence Summers and Charles Murray.

But now no one can claim we haven't included even the wildest imaginable scenarios!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

[reposting comments with links stripped out to try bypassing moderation filter - google or search]

. 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

Late spring, 1915: Prof. William Cabot of Harvard Medical School gives a commencement address at the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia, apparently claiming that most women doctors simply aren't suited for the rigors of general practice and research work, and should instead stick to social service. This sets off a a lengthy debate in the NY Times letters section that summer, including both a Dr. S[igard?] Adolphous Knopf pointing out that no, this is nonsense . . .

and a Dr. Simon Baruch insisting that Cabot was right - not, he stresses, because of "superior mental endowment" (so far so good) but rather due to the simple and obvious "biological fact that in medicine originality, logic, initiative, courage, and other distinctly masculine qualities are calculated to overcome obstacles which the truly feminine temperamental qualities that spring from the biological maternal source are incapable of coping with . . . it is a biological law of nature that bars women from great and epoch-making achievement" (oh, so not good).

And after Dr. Maude Glasgow writes in to argue that "Cabot's diatribes against medical women should be taken ... as a sincere compliment. It is not because women are inefficient or incapable that Dr. Cabot would like to see them excluded from the profession; it is rather that they are too clever, too capable , too persevering to suit him. When a women stood in the way of Dr. Cabot's ancestors [*those* Cabots, the Boston ones -ds] she was promptly burned as a witch - a very effective way of disposing of competition ..."

an "A.L.S" quickly pops up to ask, well, hasn't "Dr. Glasgow allowed her emotions to displace the dictates of calm reason...", disqualifying herself and hurting her cause by resorting to emotional invective instead of cool logic ...

'The more things change . . .' - wait, change? Really, it's 'The more things stay the same . . .'

I can offer some incite into this.

Ritalin..the drug methymphenidate - indirectly increases math scores by bumping extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens of the brain, binding to DAT transporters and causing them to work in reverse - much like cocaine. Volkow did a study showing that kids who take ritalin find math more enjoyable due to this extracellular release, and it's this which causes them to 'pay attention' - moreover kids with low math scores and 'can't pay attention' (the adhd epidemic) have general lower d2 accounts in the said accumbens.

What does that mean for women and math?

It means they would have to have some lower d2 genetic profile, or some other receptor profile in a region indirectly related to this. But that doesn't make sense because then they would have an inclination for adhd, drug addiction, obesity (all problems messing with the reward center, see volkow)

There's a woman mathematician profiled in the book about Paul Erdos "the man who loved only numbers" who was prolific and I think she dated Voltaire? Anyway, women and math are there.. just dig deeper.

Anyway, easy on the times. Sean Carroll, volkow, Carl Zimmer, Natalie Angier typically contibute. They are prophets in my haughty opinion.

-Doctor James

By Doctor James (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

Shamesless plug for those who are curious about numbers/the philosophy of quantity -
why they are so interesting to so many people, why it's the oldest science, and why only the coolest kids don math degees, etc.

By Math lover (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

Well, did you get accepted into MIT and the NSF fellowship partly because of your gender? How would somebody who wasn't familiar with your record and with how competitive those things are know? Knowing what I know about you - that you're a female scientist, and not much else - it's certainly plausible. The natural consequence of non-meritocratic admissions practices is that people are going to wonder why members of the favored groups really got where they are.

If you don't like this, can we assume that you're in favor of race/gender blind admissions practices?

I'd like to remind people, largely those in news agencies, that correlation does not imply causation. Studies have shown that men score better than women in math and science on standardized tests. That doesn't tell us that gender is an explanatory variable for aptitude. Studies have also shown that when people in a community eat more ice cream, the rate of death by drowning increases. Obviously no one in the NYT or anywhere is going to suggest that ice cream consumption leads to drowning. There is clearly an underlying cause which explains why both those events tend to occur together -- Summer. Drawing causal relationships based on correlations is dangerous and, frankly, stupid. This female engineer knows that is true from Science Research 101.

@sr: You write as if when men get accepted into MIT and for the NSF fellowship it has nothing to do with their gender. "Meritocratic" admissions practices are not race/gender blind: they reward those who have already benefited from systems of unequal resource distribution and promotion, i.e. white men. The historical advantage afforded to white men is very real (and, lest you forget, was broadly and explicitly endorsed less than 50 years agoânot to mention the ways in which it persists). Systemic biases do not disappear because individuals have decided that they are no longer sexist (or racist); that is why they are called "systemic." Affirmative action pales in comparison to the advantages that white men received and continue to receive culturally, institutionally, and economically. The idea that rewarding this historical advantage is somehow "meritocratic" is baffling, and, frankly, offensive.

The SAT study obviously is not perfect and one can criticize any study to death by finding flaws. However, the comments here make it seem like it is totally worthless and without any merit. I don't come to that same conclusion for the following reasons:

(1) I agree that the SAT is not a perfect indicator of math or intelligence ability. But I don't think it's a particularly bad measure either. The authors probably chose to use the SAT because there is a lot of data available (useful for statistical control), they can measure changes over time, and it's easy to test reproducibility (using different data from other time periods not covered in study, other countries).

(2) The study doesn't control for every variable (including all societal biases) that we would like. Well that's inevitable in science. I think this is partially mitigated by the fact that the subjects are young and anybody taking the SATs at that age probably has a very supportive home environment.

(3) "Drawing causal relationships based on correlations is dangerous and, frankly, stupid." I don't think anybody is claiming that the study proves that men are innately better at the top end in math. Rather, I interpret the study/article as showing (a) there is a large difference in the gender ratio when you look at the sub-population of young children gifted at math (b) it's consistent with the equal means, different variance hypothesis (obviously does not prove it but I think does lend some support). The study is important because the outcome could have contradicted Summer's hypothesis (but it did not). (c) the study is suggestive enough that it is worth digging deeper and trying to verify whether the difference is innate or due to societal biases. If nothing else, it tells us that no matter what is the causal factor, it's already had an impact at a very early age.

@Christina - If your argument is that we shouldn't even be asking the question because the societal impacts outweigh any slight scientific advantages we gain -- that is fair enough. I can understand and respect that argument (maybe even agree with it), but if you want to make that argument I think you should have clearly stated it upfront rather than dismissing the study/article as obviously sexist and one-sided.

@photoguy: I was listening until you hit "the subjects are young and anybody taking the SATs at that age probably has a very supportive home environment." Please step back and consider how horrendously inaccurate that statement is, and all the various ways that home "support" can actually scale with gender, racial, or class privilege.

FWIW, studies have shown that SAT are a better predictor of parental income and education levels that any actual scholastic aptitude ( and references therein). The SATs and GREs both also have well-documented score disparities between men and women as well as whites and minorities - I'll leave it to someone who knows more about this than me to speculate on whether that's due to stereotype threat, inherent bias, socioeconomic effects, societal influence, or anything else, but the phenomenon is well-documented.

I personally despise standardized tests and think they are used as a poor replacement for actual big-picture assessment; however, I will recognize that, for the time being, nobody has come up with a better solution (the ACT seems slightly better, but is also far from perfect) and some kind of mass-applied "baseline" is helpful for a variety of reasons. I just wish the baseline wasn't so overwhelmingly dominated by factors that have nothing to do with aptitude!

I'm also intrigued by how these "innate gender differences" that Tierney tries to harp on somehow only manifest in children birthed in America (how about those UK studies? Japan? Anyone else?) and fortunate enough to participate in this documented testing. Doesn't seem like a sufficiently bias-free sample to be drawing sweeping fundamental-genetics conclusions about the top fraction of a percent...

I think it's just obvious women aren't as good as men at math. They have all those parts - ever look at a female reproductive anatomy chart? It's like a whole differnet universe in there. And I'm not joking. I onced played around on and just messed around for 20 minutes in utter amazement. There's so many tubes. I probably sat there and said 'what the hell is that?' two or three times. And what's sad is I guarantee 99% of men (all the male posters above) don't understand any of it either, I had to attend a female reproductive neuroscience lab meetin gon a regular basis - sex ed has nothing on this.

I don't know how Women can walk around with all that stuff.

Irresponsible at best. Itâs impossible to isolate ability from socialization â yet broadcasting these results will influence what we know has a huge impact on achievement: expectation. Donât pull the science card and think itâs okay to perpetuate this shit.

Recommended readng forthis post: The Making of an Exceptional Scientist

I live in Mexico, a nation wich most americans would consider sexist however at the Reasearch institute in wich i work (Institute for Cellular Physiology, National Autonomus University of Mexico) about one third of the top research jobs are held by women as well as half of the PhD candidates.

To me its just weird to hear so much about sexism and gender bias in science when in Mexico popularization of science between women has increased exponentially over the past 20 years, altough im by no means denying it, but my personal opinion is that if a scientist is made by support and encouragement rather than by a bunch of SNP´s that may be linked to intelligence

I wish I could say something to make you feel better - it hurts me to see you rant and rave, but if I were to compose something to uplift you you'd block the user's ip. Look into Vera Rubin. I hope you relax, and if it makes you feel better, your probably wiser/more creative than 90% of men. Screw them.

"Since men are more risk-takers they follow into a new path more easily than women and hence women always lag behind."

I wasn't convinced at first about that statement, it seemed like a completely made up sentence full of incorrect social assumptions and with utterly no proof whatsoever.

But all your links to supporting articles, journals, and studies done on this did actually convince me. The huge amount of evidence you produced to support this (utterly made up) viewpoint impressed me, as did the fact that you did not just resort to made up pseudoscientific "evolutionary" reasons like "men hunted mammoths!" but instead relied on actual hard science which proved your point of view beyond reasonable doubt. This was clearly a statement based on much thought and research rather than just throwaway social stereotyped nonsense with not a single shred of decent evidence...


What "risks" do scientists need to take to be successful?

If it decided that "risk taking" is a good thing, wouldn't it be easier to encourage "risk taking" simply by making the adverse consequences of taking "risks" less severe?

What part of doing "good science" happens by forcing people who want to do "good science" to "take risks"?

Isn't the idea is moot anyway? When you are hiring someone, you consider that one person in front of you, not what the statistical distributions are (or are not).

You really really REALLY should not respect the new york times. The fact that they are posed as this rogue liberal element to the main stream media is total bs. I am reading "manufacturing consent" right now, and it is full of references to how they distort the truth in the interest of the status quo constantly. Perpetuating things like sexism is useful to the class of people who own the media (and most other centers of private power economically). If these divisions become meaningful to the lower classes then there is less of a chance that they will unite around the common experience of being totally screwed over by those same centers of economic power. Wages and benefits have stagnated, minimum wage is not liveable for most people, there is not any garuntee of health care, weak labor laws, etc. I don't want anyone here thinking that I believe everyone who is economically powerful meets in a dark room and hatches some kind of conspiracy to manipulate things in this way- they certainly do not. People who have enormous power over the economy and the media know what is good for them, there is not any reason people with power over the economy and media would work to undermine themselves. If you know the structures and responsibilities of corporations and know that they do own the news media this is exactly how you would expect them to operate. All the smaller news outlets more or less rely on the major media to do the research for them- most cannot afford to send reporters out to investigate things like foreign policy first hand. They can do whatever the hell they want to, basically. Heck, is anyone having illusions about the tea party arising out of fox new's insisting that they are an important movement? I am not. They are gaining mainstream traction because of the massive pr campaign that happened via channels like fox news. Why would anyone think that much smaller feats like widespread deceit are uncommon?


You wrote "What "risks" do scientists need to take to be successful?"

Scientists take a huge number of risks in their work for example:

(1) I'm going to spend the next three months of my life setting up and running an experiment to collect data because I think X, Y, Z is true and I can show it with the data. Well, what if it turns out that I am wrong -- i've now lost months of work. It's very hard to publish papers on a non-result. (if you are *lucky* the data might show other unexpected phenomena that you can publish)

(2) I'm going to give a talk on topic Q to an audience of my peers where I believe we should pursue action R. There could be a dozen scientists who hate your idea and are going to try shoot you down and destroy your credibility.

(3) Should I spend 40 hours putting together a grant proposal that has less than 20% chance of acceptance?

(4) I have funding to support only 1 new graduate student this year. Should I fund this student and spend the time to mentor them? The risk is that the student is a dud and sucks up many of hours of your time without contributing anything to your research plans.

(5) For new scientists in academia: I'm going to spend the next six years of my life working 70-80 hours a week on my research and teaching duties. If I am successful I get tenure -- If I fail I get kicked out of the school and need to find a new job in industry (which may or may not be easy depending on your speciality). Even if you are qualified, you can still have your tenure case rejected because of politics.

Being a scientist is all about risk management.


The Nature article is commentary and thus not worth purchasing. If it were in Letters or Articles then perhaps it would be not only worth the price but important. I see you stopped rebutting after number 5 comment. The following comments were rather well reasoned and thought out. Evidence was presented; not ideology. I think that you have not shown a scintilla of the evidence that the Times article did. Women are not naturally good at bench pressing, but they are still given the opportunity to do so. Different does not mean inferior and all humans are variant, in and between sexes. This is apparent in the right tail of IQ distribution and it will mean that though we try to have equality of opportunity in some sciences there will never be equality of identity in all sciences.

By John Henry McCann (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink