Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Where Are The Women?

Percent Women in Some Science Fields at Various Stages
A new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles the question of whether discrimination can explain the low numbers of women in math-intensive science fields.

As shown in the accompanying figure, the percentage of women in fields such as physics, astronomy, computer science, chemistry and math is well below that in biology and psychology (data from NSF and AIP). For example, women account for an abysmal 13% of all physics faculty but over half of all women faculty members in psychology departments. As the authors point out in their paper's introduction, "Today, half of all MD degrees and 52% of PhDs in life sciences are awarded to women," yet only 9-16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields are held by women.

The work reported in this paper was thoroughly done and the results presented show that women in the math-intensive fields were not "discriminated against," if discrimination is defined in the way the authors insist upon. Their definition is based on the fact that journal editors accepted women's papers at the same rate as they accepted those from male authors. Oh, and funding agencies seem to be doing an exemplary job of ensuring that women who apply for grants receive a fair review. This is good, but why are we looking for evidence of discrimination at this career stage? The problem clearly starts much earlier (as shown in the above figure for postdoc and graduate student percentages).

I cannot agree, though, with the authors' conclusion that no "overt discrimination" occurred and the only explanation for the low figures shown in the above figure is the differing biological realities women face. We all know that women are faced with tough choices juggling career and family, but this happens in all fields--not just in science. We will never understand why there are so few women in math-intensive science fields if all we talk about is the problem of family vs. work. If this were the only thing going on, we would not see over half of our MDs and psychology department faculty being women, not to mention the whopping 77% of veterinarians who are women.

Where are the women who might otherwise have become a physicist, astronomer or computer scientist? Are they more affected by work-life choices than our MDs, veterinarians, biologists and psychologists? I can't see why that could possibly be the case.

I have always been struck by the huge discrepancy in the percentage of women in math-intensive fields and it should be clear from the above data that the problem starts way before these women get jobs and start writing papers and applying for grants. Lots of studies have shown that it starts early, well before high school, perhaps even in elementary school.

What is the explanation for the lack of interest by girls and young women in math-intensive careers? The authors claim it's because girls prefer "careers focusing on people as opposed to things" but I can assure you that most of my career as a woman in a math-intensive field has been focused on people! I always loved math and never thought of it as having more to do with "things" than people, so while I'm sure this survey result is true, it says more about the way math is taught to kids (dry, boring, irrelevant) than it does about real work being done in math-intensive fields.

My interest in this goes way beyond the merely curious, since I spent over twenty years of my career as one data point in that tiny percentage of women chemistry faculty. For most of that time I was, in fact, the only woman in my department. Every chance I got, I tried to show young girls, particularly those at the critical seventh-grade juncture, that it was possible to be both scientist, wife and mother, but there's only so much one woman can do.

So, I have more than a passing interest in this topic and would have loved to read a paper that addressed the major fact of my life as a scientist, that I was often the only one of "my kind" in a field that I loved. Once, when I tried to explain how hard it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field to one of my super-sharp female students who had decided to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher she said, "I don't know why anybody would choose that."

And, yes, that's the issue: why would I choose to try to do what nobody who looked like me seemed to be attempting? Well, it was simple: I loved it. I loved the work, loved the math, loved everything about science. And I still do. 

What I didn't love was never having any friends who were "like me" and having little in common with the other women I came in contact with, if I was lucky enough to have time for friendships. I also grew weary of having to justify my opinion as just my opinion and not, somehow, representative of the entire female gender. And we won't even talk about the guy who told me during my job interview that he wasn't going to vote for me to be hired since I was a mother and "should be home with my children."

So why would anybody freely choose a life like this? As I said, I loved science, but I was also fortunate to be a student during the post-Sputnik era when lots of us were being lured toward science. In those days, my country made it clear to me that they wanted me, despite the fact that I was a girl. I needed that kind of encouragement. Girls these days still need it.

And it is this aspect of the problem, the choice that a young woman makes when she decides what interests to pursue, that was not addressed in this paper. Despite the paper's title ("Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science") we will never get to that understanding until we start paying attention to the kids, not the women who have survived the gauntlet of graduate school, postdoc and a hiring committee.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Self-Organizing The Revolution

There is a revolution underway in Egypt unlike any the world has ever seen before. Leaderless, organized from within using technological tools and inspired not by any particular ideology but by a desire for self-determination and freedom, this revolution is different in many ways, but it is the lack of a single charismatic leader that seems to have bewildered many in the media and in the opinion sphere.

Recent articles have been written about using complex systems science to understand what is happening in Egypt. While it is true that we can look at the entire complex system, including its economic, environmental and political aspects, and try to explain how we got to where we are today, I am much more interested in applying the ideas of complex systems science to what is unfolding in front of our eyes right now. Complex systems science can give us insights into the possible future that awaits the people of Egypt and, in fact, the entire world.

When this uprising started last week, I wrote about the thin line between chaos and emergence of order, but it was way too early at that time to really know whether we were witnessing an example of a bifurcation. I think I've seen enough now to confirm that this is, indeed, what has happened: the world has changed and it will never, ever be the same again.

I have been watching the events unfold for a week now, and am now convinced that what we are seeing is a dramatic and moving instance of the power of self-organization. In the natural world, we see examples of self-organization in such things as the flocking of birds and the behavior of micro-organisms. These are dramatic enough, but when human beings, homo sapiens, begin to self-organize the result is nothing short of inspiring and awesome.

The crowd in the center of Cairo that has been gathering for a week now seems unimpressed by the individuals that have been brought in and presented to them as potential leaders. When Mohamed El Baradei, who is the closest to a spokesperson the group has, entered the square the other night to speak, the crowd shrugged and paid little attention. Their reaction seemed to say, "He has not risen up from our ranks, so how can he represent us?"

On the other hand, we have heard remarkable reports of people in the square dividing up tasks--guarding entrances to the area, preparing food, distributing water, providing medical help--in short, governing themselves. We know people can do this, since we've been doing it for millenia. Civilization would not exist were it not for our own inherent abilities to organize ourselves into vibrant, functioning societies.

It will be interesting to see whether this self-organization can continue once the current regime leaves power--and I believe Mubarak will leave, perhaps very soon. Will the people of Egypt be allowed to continue to self-organize into a new nation, one that will be of their own choosing? I certainly hope so, but only time will tell.