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The devil's in the details

Anne Dalke's picture

On the updated (on-line) syllabus, you will see that there are three readings assigned for Monday: an essay by Mary Thom, another by Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton, and a report by Rachel Ivie and Stacy Guo. Look over all three, report on the one statistic that surprised you the most, and say why. Then identify the one statistic that worries you the most, and say why.

Anne and Liz

Sam's picture

It may be because I've seen

It may be because I've seen academia in anthropology/archaeology, but the behavior that the articles describe don't really surprise me. The competitive nature of academia has always been something of a turn-off to me, and I knew that academia had a lot of politics, but seeing it stated so baldly in both Thom's article, and the article by Sonnert and Holton, was a bit disheartening to say the least. The idea that men tend to get more opportunities because they're more aggressive and self-promoting, and that they tend to look better to institutions because they publish more, was a pretty frank summary of some of the downright intrigue-filled plots that people have for advancing their own careers. It really wasn't something I had expected from academia at all, until I got into college and started seeing it for myself.

The threshold hypothesis was new to me, though. I'd always heard of it as a glass ceiling, and while the threshold isn't particularly good, it does give me more hope. Eventually being taken seriously is a good step to being taken seriously every step of the way.

Like others have said, it was really nice to get some hard and fast numbers for things I'd only heard about anecdotally, or things that "tend to" happen.

The statistic that surprised me the most was from Ivie and Guo's article, about how female physicists would "choose physics again (86%), a majority (71%) also reported being discouraged by physics" (Ivie and Guo 9). These women clearly love their field, but the number of them who have been discouraged by it is... well, worrying. Especially for the reasons of finding employment and the discrimination in the field-- one of the respondants from France remarked that someone actually told her that women couldn't do certain fields of physics because they weren't intelligent or clever enough!

Pemwrez2009's picture

Statistics will be statistics

When I first read both articles, my first thoughts that came to mind were that none of these statistics were really surprising to me! Most of them bothered me, but i started to think about the fact that nothing was surprising me. After that realization, I decided that the fact that most of these statistics didn't surprise me was the most worrisome. Gender and its relationship to science should be something to be concerned about (not necessarily worry) but certainly something to analyze.

the statistics that was worrisome and surprising to me were both from the Sonnert and Holton article (both on page 67)

My worry: "Women in our questionnaire sample who had been affiliated with female advisers during their post doctoral fellowships later left science at a higher rate than those who had not (16.7 percent vs 9.7 percent), whereas the reverse was the case for men with female advisers (0 vs. 8.7 percent)."

I was worried by this finding because statistics like this make it seem like failing or not succeeding in science is more likely if you are advised by a female. Furthermore, one would think that women would help to propagate the importance of higher powered roles for other women. Unfortunately, science is not the only field with this sort of occurrence. In politics, women do not vote for other women. So this made me really upset and uncomfortable, but not surprised.


My surprise: "Do men and women 'do science' differently? Yes, said many of our interviewees. Somewhat more women than men (60.8 percent vs 49.4 percent) said that they believed int eh existence of gender differences in the work of scientists in general"

- I would have hoped (wishful thinking) that women would have said no. That sort of response has pretty much been ingrained in the minds of so many women, where as soon as they hear "math" or "science" they become intimidated and say "oh i don't have that sort of mind" I refuse to believe that rather than people having either humanity based thinking or science based thinking are divided by gender. I fear that the women who are saying these things are part of the reason of why it is near to impossible (or at least it seems to many) for women to succeed in science!

Rebecca's picture

Would I?

The statistic that I found the most surprising was the one regarding breast cancer and the human genome project. Only 5-10% of breast cancer is caused by genetics yet so much money is poured into reasearching the genetic aspect because of the human genome project perspective.  As an ecologist I found that fascinating because the article then brought up the exploration of the environmental causes of breast cancer and the importance of many different perspectives in solving these critical problems.

The other part of the article that I found interesting was the discussion about programs such as the Clare Boothe Luce professorship program.  I think that programs like this may be problematic because women may be discriminated against at their new jobs because of this special placement.  Also, it worries me that the existence of programs like these may foster the belief that there are differences in intrinsic aptitude for science between men and women.  That being said,  I would take one in a heartbeat.

rmalfi's picture


We've been talking a lot about why women are absent from certain fields in science, and I was very happy to read articles that gave some tangible numbers. Like some others have mentioned, I would have to say that the most worrisome statistic that I read regarded women's self-esteem as professionals in the sciences (see Sonnet and Holten stats under the "Socialization" section on page 67). I wish I could say I understood where this comes from, but I don't. Is it a humility thing? Is it born out of the societal expectation that women need to prove themselves in order to be accepted into a given field/profession? I think these are definite possibilities. I also think that this article made a good point about "shmoozing" (sp?). The Holten and Sonnet article reads:

"'Professor talk' may be a waste of time in terms of exchanging research information or gaining scientific insights. But it may be anything but wasteful in terms of its hidden agenda. What other women respondents called a "bull session" or "chatty self promotion" may have the function of a bonding ritual." (H&S, Scientific and Professional Styles, pp. 68).

I wonder if it is not just women thinking that these "professor talk" sessions are a waste of time, but feeling uncomfortable engaging in them because of the gender roles we play. If a male colleague asks another colleague out to the bar for a beer, that's considered friendly. If a woman colleague asks a male colleague out to the bar, especially if she's a lesser rank, she's flirting her way to the top.

I realize I've been rambling a little, so back to the question - what stat surprised me the most. I'd have to say it was the stats on ecology/biology which say that this field has gone beyond the proverbial "threshold" that H&S mention. This was a good surprise. It does make sense, as H&S say, because women have been involved in biology for longer than other sciences. I think we should strive to learn from what biology has accomplished and apply to other scientific fields the principles or actions that have made this a successful field for women to enter.


eli's picture

Statistics Are Free To Interpret

Like Flora, the statistic that surprised me the most was the one sited in Sonnert and Holton's section that cited that men published on average 2.8 publications/year whereas for women the ratio was 2.3 publications/year. This surprised me because of the weight put in the other two articles on how women publish less frequently and tend to get cited more. However, this overreaching statement seems to be pretty insignificant in the face of that statistic. Does producing .5 less publications/year really effect them so much? Furthermore, it boggles my mind that if men are that competitive as the articles make them sound, why they would focus so much on the production of the publications and not worry more about how they were being cited.

Another point of information that surprised me was the commentary in the same article about how men have a different professional style than women (pg67-68). This surprised me because the behavior described, with the men actively trying to gather a social network wheras women being more concerned with the issues discussed in "professor talk," seemed to be a role reversal. Aren't women supposed to be more concerned with and/or better adapted to creating large social networks? Isn't that what gossip is supposed to be all about? And in all three articles, it seemed to also be a foundation for the contrast between men and women that women were focusing more on "traditional methods" of forming science. Yet I believe it is also pointed out, at least in Thom and Sonnert and Holton's pieces, that one of the things that women bring to science is a unique perspective.

Which us to the worring statistic. One of the most discouraging statistics that came from the reading was the contrast between how frequently men and women think about gender. "Do men and women 'do science' differently? Yes, said many of our interviewees. Somewhat more women than men (60.8 percent vs. 49.4 percent) siad that they believed in the existence of gender differences in the work of scientists in general. In additon, substationally more women than men interviewees thought that their own gender influences the way they pursue their work." (pg67) It is interesting to contrast this statistic with the one from Ivie and Guo's article, where 25% of women said they would not discuss the situation of women in science with co-workers. (pg 9)

The reason this is troubling is that one can look at these statistics and conclude three things that could negatively effect women from just that factoid. The first is that it is all in women's heads that they are being discriminated against, that gender differences are only there because women think about them too much. The second is that, based on the fact that women adhere more to traditional methods of science, that they feel due to these gender differences they have to act more masculine in order to be a part of the science field. The last is related to that second point: that it doesn't matter anyway, because women would never talk about gender differences in the workplace for fear of standing out amonst their male peers.



I had no reason to doubt that brains were suitable for a woman. And as I had my father's kind of mind -- which was also his mother's -- I learned that the mind is not sex-typed. -- Margaret Mead

sky stegall's picture

numbers, numbers

you know, actually, flora's most surprising statistic was one of the ones that surprised me not at all - i've encountered this phenomenon and i agree with this study's suggestion that women, although they publish slightly less (not a very statistically significant difference, actually), are cited far more often because each publication is so much broader (and probably more likely to be right).  the most surprising thing for me was (pg 67) the bit about people leaving science after having female advisors.  one of our very recent search candidates raved about having a female advisor for the first time, and said that her mentor was inspiring and comforting and pretty much exactly what she needed.  on the other hand, after some thought, i can see how, if your mentor doesn't have the life-outside-of-science that you want, she could be discouraging, too.what worries me most is still the glass ceiling.  i've heard peter beckmann ramble about it for four years now, and i finally have a clear understanding of what it means - in 1995, assistant professors were 30% female, associate professors were 20%, but full professors still below 10%.  in physical and mathematical sciences, we still hadn't hit, women can do science but only up to a certain level?  THAT'S terrifying to me - in the same way that the fact that i can name a dozen male physicists in two minutes and only one woman (um, liz, does emmy noether count?) scares me.  when i was little and i lived in south america, i didn't understand why i had red hair and nobody else did.  i had no visual role models, besides my mom - unless you count the little mermaid.  i know this is a silly example, but it's legitimately scary to have no idea where your path leads, no-one to look up to and follow, no one to get ideas from.  we, as women scientists, look up and see a great expanse of thick glass, and on the other side, only men, schmoozing with famous people, using citations from our careful work to advance their agressive careers. that's creepy.

oschalit's picture

surprising/worrisome statistics

The statistics that surprised me the most were in Sonnert and Holton's article within the section about Discrimination, Exclusion and Tokenism. The statistic illustrated that women who worked with female advisors (during their postdoctoral fellowships) had a higher chance of leaving the field of science than women who worked with male advisors (16.7% to 9%). For men, the opposite was true (0% to 8.7%). According to an interviewee of Sonnert and Holton's, this result came from the fact that for women, having a female advisor, gives an (unattractive) insight into life as a female scientist. This surprised and terrified me because i was always under the assumption that working with women who had accomplished their goals of becoming a scientist would somehow empower female students. I suppose, yet, this cannot be generalized to everyone but clearly this needs to be looked into more deeply.
Many statistics throughout the three articles worried me. In fact, most did. However, the first statistic that I came across that caught my eye was in the article by Mary Thom. This statistic looked into how easy men and women regarded consulting professors about personal ideas and interests. Results showed that men found it easier than women (52% to 38%). Again, this is just one of many disquieting statistics but this one really unsettled me because it became very clear how dabilitating this dilemma can be for the career path of female scientists. I can say with certainty that the relationship between student and professor is very important to the future of the student. If female students cannot overcome this (or rather, if the scientific community cannot be changed such that women may feel comfortable talking to their professors), then the discrepancies between female and men will always exist.

Flora's picture

The statistics that

The statistics that surprised and worried me most were in Sonnert and Holton's section on Perfectionsim and Socialization (68-9). The surprise was the evidence that women were choosing quality over quantity. They found that each man published an average of 2.8 publications/yr to a woman's 2.3 However, their small scale study found that the women's articles were cited much more than the men's, women= 24.4 vs men=14.4. I was surprised because I had never heard of this phenomena before. It certainly explains the ways in which women might potentially do science differently than men.

As for what is worrisome, I feel really limited here by having to single out a statistic instead of drawing from the personal narratives in all of the articles. So, I'm including what I found to be the a heartbreaking personal statistic: the differences in self-perception ability of the study participants. 69.7 percent of men vs 51.5% of women considered "their scientific ability to be above average" and 34.7% of women versus 18.0 percent of men considered themselves having an average ability. How can it be that even after jumping through all of the hoops necessary to get to the level these interviewees were at, over a third of these women only considered themselves average?