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Women and science Women and science
by Joseph Gatt
2020-11-16 11:16:43
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The stereotype goes like this: there are very few women in science, technology, math and engineering because women lack the analytical mind that men have. That is, they say, women are better at “describing” when men are better at “fixing” and “discovering.”

In my experience this is not correct. A lot of women have great analytical minds and make important scientific discoveries.  

womscie001_400The fact that there are few women in scientific careers is due to social factors more than it is due to purely reasoning capabilities or the ability to conduct science.

Scientific careers tend to work like this: you lay the groundwork in your teens, you study in your 20s, you make a series of discoveries in your 30s and early 40s, and then you become a bit more slow.

But, if you go to any conference, you'll find both men and women (or in many cases it's all men and no women).

I've been to those conferences where women discuss their findings. And I saw all the men hinting at sex and throwing in the sexual innuendoes, and I saw the women blush. I also saw the women leave the conference in tears and wonder why the men were less interested in their scientific findings than they were interested at a date or just denigrating them sexually.

So there's the fact that women can not discuss science without a group of men praising their sex appeal instead of discussing their papers from a purely scientific perspective.

There's also a bit of a bias towards women in the scientific realm that has nothing to do with sexuality. Men and women just tend to be harsher towards women when it comes to scientific findings or scientific research than they are towards men.

That is a lot of times men are going to be more lenient towards other men when a bad paper is presented than they would be to women.

Because science is about good papers and bad papers. And, more importantly, your first few papers are usually going to be your worst ones.

As a man, when I started presenting papers in 2006, the male crowd in the audience was “soft” with the criticism. I probably deserved harsher criticism. Oddly enough, my better papers were getting harsher criticism, but that's another story.

But women tend not to be allowed to present bad papers, and face a barrage of criticism if they present a bad paper.

Then there's motherhood and science. As I said, a lot of your findings as a scientist are going to come in your 30s. Oddly enough, that's also when a lot of women start having children and can't focus on both the harsh realities of scientific careers and raising toddlers.

Then there's just the fact that scientific careers tend to be semi-public careers. You won't always be on television, but you will work with big social circles very frequently.

And women in semi-public scientific careers tend to be preys for gossip and face predatory comments that men tend not to face. Men tend to “blend in” and be more or less anonymous, when women tend to be the targets of gossip and invasion of their private lives.

Then, there's another important factor. Scientists are not the “soft” kind of people as portrayed by Leonard Hofstaeder or Howard Wallowitz and Raj Kuthrapali in the “big bang theory” sit-com.

Male scientists are often “A-type” men, the kind of men who like to lose their temper, can cross lines frequently when handing in criticism, tend to be shameless, and love the kind of behavior that would land then a few Tweets with the hashtag “me too” or several Tweets at that.

Examples of thing I heard at scientific conferences (these are real things...)

(A Korean scientist to and Indian female scientist) “You’re not a Christian, so shut up, you're going to hell!”

(A Canadian male scientist to a Canadian female scientist. The female scientist just changed her mind about something) “oh, honey, don't puss out! Stick to your guns!”

(American scientist to an Australian female scientist) “I'm never inviting someone with an Australian accent again. I didn't get a word you said!

And I've heard a few (lost) more “hardcore” things that I won't share here.

In sum, I've met women who work in robotics, airplane engineering, architecture, marine biology, astrophysics and many, many other scientific fields.

The only problem is, you need to toil in your 20s and 30s before you usually get all the respect in your forties.

Men usually hang in there (or many drop out) but men usually are allowed to take risks because family obligations and social obligations tend to be more flexible with men.

Women usually won't even try, first because of family and social obligations, then because scientific circles tend to play with their dignity a bit too much.

I'll finish with this story. Back when I was a professor we shared all shared an office. There was an Indian female medical science professor who shared the office with us. A middle-aged mother of a child.

Because we were men we used to swear quite a bit in the office, and talk about the kind of stuff men like to talk about. I did point out several times that the Indian professor had ears and that I did see her cover her ears quite a few times, and that we should perhaps avoid a few topics and expressions.

The Indian professor eventually asked to change offices, and her wish was granted. She moved in with a group of Chinese female professors.

Two months later, she moved back to our office with a huge smile. When I asked her what happened, she told me, almost in tears, that “you guys are so much better than I thought. There's a lot worse out there!”

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