Sunday, November 10, 2013

Does your inner scientist wear heels or a beard?

What should a scientist look like?

A pair of articles was published this morning in our local paper (the Herald Times).  In it are details of the many inequities faced by female scientists at Indiana University.  In those articles, some startling statistics were published, including the percentage of female faculty in the sciences at IU (~10%) and directly relevant to me, the inequity in salary (in Biology, the seven female full professors make ~$131,000 while the 22 male full professors make ~161,000).  In addition, there were some poignant anecdotes from female professors: "I never had children" said one, "I or my partner. We never had time we could take out of our careers without feeling like we might lose what we had gained."   It's nigh time to address the root of this insidious problem.  It cannot be fixed by hiring more women -- there are few of us to begin with and additionally, we all agree we want to hire both the best and most diverse faculty (so does Harvard, Stanford,'s hard to compete for those few).  In addition, this problem cannot be fixed by simply providing maternity leave.  Family leave should be provided to faculty, male or female, but even if it is provided, you need to feel you are supported in taking leave by your department.  In order to overcome the gender gap in the sciences we need to provide work-life friendly policies but ALSO change everyone's perceptions as to what a scientist looks like, does with their spare time, or wears to the lab/office.  That goes for both the folks currently occupying upper ranks in the academy and the would be scientists themselves (altering a young girl's depiction of a scientist to include someone that would look like her).

 I'm a relatively young, hispanic, female scientist.  Barbie "I can be computer engineer" doll aside, I'm certainly not anyone's stereotype of a biologist or computer scientist (indeed, a well meaning, but perhaps socially maladroit coworker once told me that I "don't look like a scientist").  Since so very few women enter science, and computer science in specific, perhaps the view that my clumsy colleague holds is the norm.  In this NYTimes blog post, Catherine Rampell suggests that try as we might to expose young girls with an aptitude for STEM fields to the subject matter, without tech-savy, scientist role models, these budding minds will choose other professions.  I agree whole-heartedly that providing female scientist role models to both male and female students will help to curb our biased stereotypes.  

I'll continue with an anecdote.  My son's 1st grade classroom had an opportunity the other day - a colleague of mine, in Informatics, offered to teach those 6-7yr olds some computing (through the increasingly popular Scratch platform).  After hearing about this computing club, the teacher asked the students to please raise their hand if they were interested in joining.  Not a single girl participated.  Even in 1st grade! Perhaps you don't find that so surprising -- after all, few women enter computer science as an undergraduate major , particularly striking since the gender bias in college is actually inverse (>50% women).   At this point, I should let you in on one important detail: my Informatics colleague is female and own daughter (let's call her Samantha) refused to participate in the computing club.  How could that be? Hasn't Samantha, for her entire life, had her own mother as an example of what a computer scientist is?  The sad truth is that Samantha's peer group had a bigger influence on her decision than the positive exemplar provided by her mother; when queried, Samantha's reason for not joining the coding club was that "none of the other girls raised their hands."  

We must provide both role models and an inclusive environment

There's that old logic puzzle (see about a child and their dad being taken in to the ER and the physician attending proclaiming "I cannot operate on my son" - the punch line being that women can be doctors as well.   It takes folks a sad amount of time to figure this out.  If we continue to imagine the scientist as an old, white, male, that is what will populate our ranks.  Regrettably, my inner scientist sometimes sees this reflection in the mirror - it fills me with all sorts of doubts about whether or not I "belong" in science (Impostor Syndrome).  How can we alter the perceptions of others if we cannot see ourselves as filling these roles? How can we convince young, aspiring scientists to enter the track if they cannot conceive of a multidimensional, multifaceted scientist?

In a topsy-turvey counter example that proves the point, while a faculty member at Wellesley College in the Biological Sciences, I had a laboratory full of bright, female students.  My son, then 3, was asked by one of these students: "what do you want to be when you grow up?"  His response: "I'd like to be a scientist, but I'm not a girl."  Let's show the world that scientists are not who they think we are.

PS - some fun links to continue the discussions below

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