Isn’t it great that women can do science too?

Filed under: academe,rants,thoughts @ 01:52

*vision of a thousand hackels rising on each of a thousand people*

Down the hall from my office is a poster of “Women in Science & Mathematics”. It shows about twenty or so famous women, noting their respective fields of studies: astronaut, theoretical nuclear physicist, geneticist, mathematician, etc. Every time I walk down the hall, I see this poster and I cringe.

Whether it’s intended to be so or not, it reeks of sexism: bigoted, discriminatory sexism oozing all over it and dripping down into thick, toxic puddles on the tile. I have never understood this kind of “encouragement”. Putting up this kind of propoganda is just reinforcing the notion that men and women somehow need to be treated differently. By singling out women as a specific group, the poster makes is seem like female scientists are some sort of oddity, that they’re unusual in some way or somehow special. What the hell is so special about women in science? I know plenty of them. And I don’t see any difference between them and “Men in Science & Mathematics.”

Nobody is going to argue that gender or race or sexuality or anything but talent should factor into job hirings or university placements. So why should any of those things factor into deciding whom to encourage to apply for those jobs or to study certain fields (or to study at all!)? If some highschooler comes up to you and says “I really like math, but I’m not sure I want to do it because I don’t see many women in the field”, your response shouldn’t be “Of course there are women in mathematics. I bet you didn’t know that Florence Nightingale was a great applied statistician, did you? Or that Noether was a woman.” It should instead be a confused “Why are you letting your gender and the gender of those around you influence you.” followed by a credible “It simply doesn’t matter.” (You then realize the highschooler in question is a dude, and he’s just worried about the ratio. You change your response accordingly.)

There is every reason to be proud of women who broke through barriers in a sexist society and opened doors for the thousands of women who would follow them. I, for one, don’t have the grapes to do something like that. There is no reason, however, to keep planting the idea that “these women were excellent scientists; women can be scientists too”. The idea is so poorly framed. It forces people to consider gender and science at the same time, something that should never happen. I simply don’t see why anyone would even pause to consider his or her gender while deciding what to do with his or her life (unless of course he or she is considering being a wetnurse or professional sperm donor). Likewise, I don’t know why anyone would consider someone else’s gender. Of course women can be scientists! “Women can be scientists” is a true statement; it is rigorously provable. But (unless you have some sort of lab coat fantasy) why even put gender and science in the same equation? If gender is irrelevant, why consider it?

“But”, you say, “gender is relevant. It may be irrelevant in the abstract as you argue above, but in the here and now it’s very relevant. There are fewer women in science and mathematics (not to mention engineering) than there are men.”

We’ve all seen the numbers at Caltech (some of us are very intimate with those numbers). And, if anything, I imagine the numbers show greater equality in gender representation than most other science or math or engineering departments. It isn’t fifty-fifty. But look at how much closer to even the undergraduate population is than the graduate population is than is the faculty. And, quite frankly, I’d love to see a break down on gender spread and nationality (note the lack of the word “ethnicity” – I’m talking country, not race), but I won’t go there without data. A hundred years ago things were bleak. No one can imagine that things will even out overnight. The change is continuous. Intermediate Value Theorem, blahblah blah. Boom – qed: we’ve got to be in the here and now with all its problems before we can realize a true ideal.

A sketchy argument, I know, since you can argue the numbers are improving precisely because of the propoganda I’m complaining about (also the undergrads/grads/faculty example is not exactly apples to apples). But regardless of whether or not the propoganda is working, there’s a better way.

My issue isn’t with where we are or where we’re going, it’s with how we’re getting there. If you want people not to be sexist (or racist or anything), don’t give them the opportunity. Don’t frame your arguments or your worldview in terms of gender. Science transcends human differences. So should your view of it.

I guess it’s just that I can’t wait until the day I’m some crotchety old man with a cane and mild dementia and some kid comes along all creeped out by a historical sociology exhibit he saw in a museum which displayed a poster about “Women in Science & Mathematics”. “Why were people so bigoted back then,” he’ll ask, troubled. “I don’t know,” I’ll smile and say, “but good for you for noticing.”


    Uber 02.07.2005 @ 04:33

    The problem that has arisen is that many women are getting good grades at the expense of underperforming males. That’s not to say that they don’t deserve the places, but there is a deeply worrying trend whereby males are dropping down the academic performance table at a serious rate. I think that it has something to do with the large number of highly sexist “Girls smarter than boys” type headlines. For a start, it’s stupidly patronising to women; it also has the problem that it reinforces the dumb = good stereotype for adolecent males.

    In short, no-one wins in that scenario.

    MDA 02.08.2005 @ 21:13

    “The problem” is a bit much, but I agree. There’s stereotyping running rampant all over the place. I think the seed for the problem you mention is a fallacy of the converse.

    Smart kids are socially awkward. Therefore, to be dumb is to be cool.

    Obviously, the above argument also requires both the refusal to acknowledge that both intelligence and popularity are continuous, and, as you mention, sufficient blindness to overgeneralize.

    passingthru 02.13.2005 @ 19:15

    like yu know , whatever.

    MDA 03.01.2005 @ 17:52

    passingthruyourgastrointestinaltract: The capitalization and the misspellings I can forgive, but “ , “? Regardless of whether or not you agree with me, at least I can string four words together (and before you ask, I’m only petty to people like you).

    Thanks much for your highly informative critique. I have been enlightened by the depth of your insight and look forward to the next of your pearls of wisdom to “passthru”.

    helen 04.18.2006 @ 15:31

    there are posters like that to offset all the pictures of guys in lab coats, all the photos of male scientists, all the images of men men men in scientific publications.

    i’d like for gender to be nothing, & for the statment “women can be scientists” to be essentially meaningless. but unfortunately, there’s still plenty of people for whom that statement is not logical, or provable.

    i happened to show up here via a google search, looking for quotes by men (historical or contemporary) about why women aren’t as smart as women. nice accident.

    helen 04.18.2006 @ 15:33

    that would be “why women aren’t as smart as men.” wish your preview button had worked, but there you go.

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