Columns

Aluthge ’15: Where are all the women?

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, October 16, 2014

Suppose that you are walking down the hallway of a large building. Every time you pass a door, you open it and peek inside. Nine times out of 10, you see that the person at the front of the room is a man. If asked later about this experience, you would probably conclude that whatever activity was being held in that building was almost certainly biased in favor of men.

Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario is anything but. Indeed, roughly speaking, that is exactly what you would experience if you walked down the halls of Barus and Holley today.

Sexism in the sciences is nothing new. For hundreds of years, scientific establishments have marginalized, oppressed and excluded women. Early philosophers such as Kant and Rousseau wrote that women were biologically incapable of being intellectual. During the scientific revolution, a clear divide was established between men, who were considered capable of being scientists, and women, who were seen as only capable of domestic duties.

In the 19th century, it became somewhat acceptable for women to practice “watered-down science” — children’s books, for example — but scientific research was still restricted to men. Even in the early 20th century, when women gained somewhat increased access to science education, they were still excluded on a large scale from employment in the scientific community.

But what is perhaps most disturbing is that these structural inequalities still persist today. The problem is very evident here at Brown. According to the Office of Institutional Diversity, in October 2013 — the most recent date for which there is data available — there were 111 tenured faculty members in the life and medical sciences. Of those, only 32, or 28.8 percent, were women. The gap was even more stark in the physical sciences, where only 15, or 10 percent, of the 150 tenured faculty members were women.

These patterns are by no means unique to Brown. According to the National Science Foundation, women constitute just 20.6 percent of all tenured professors in science and engineering at research universities in the United States.

When confronted with these data, many scientists counter that the gender disparities in science are due not to discrimination but to other factors, such as the notion that women are less interested in science than men. But these arguments quickly disintegrate when we look at the evidence.

In 2012, a team of researchers conducted a randomized, double-blind study in which they sent the same job application to 127 different science faculty members. Roughly half of the applications were assigned a stereotypically male name, while the others were assigned a stereotypically female name. The applications were otherwise identical.

The researchers found that the faculty members consistently rated the male applicants as “significantly more competent and hirable” than the female applicants, and that male applicants were thus much more likely to receive job offers. And when female applicants were offered jobs, the starting salaries were significantly less than those offered to male applicants. Interestingly enough, both male and female faculty members exhibited these biases when making their hiring decisions.

In 2014, a different team of researchers conducted a similar study. The researchers drafted an email that appeared to be from a prospective graduate student requesting a 10-minute meeting with a faculty member to discuss research opportunities. They sent this email to more than 6,500 professors at 259 U.S. universities. Analogous to the other study, some emails used a male name and others used a female name; the emails were otherwise identical.

The researchers found that requests from women were ignored at a higher rate than requests from males, especially “in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions.” And they observed that, as in the other study, male and female faculty members responded similarly.

These two studies serve to highlight a crucial point. Gender disparity in the scientific community is not the consequence of differences in career preferences or genetic factors. Nor is it due to a few “bad apples” who are the source of discriminatory hiring decisions. The gender gap in science is the direct result of essentially sexist practices. Discrimination against women is deeply embedded in the practice of science, and in fact manifests in faculty members of all genders. This is not an individual issue, but a fundamentally structural one.

And a fundamentally structural problem necessitates a fundamentally structural solution. In order to truly alleviate sexism in science, we need to dismantle our existing systems and replace them with new systems that do not induce the same discriminations. Of course, it is much easier to state this abstractly than it is to craft specific strategies to achieve this goal. Change will require some drastic steps, and I must confess that I do not yet know what those steps should be.

But in the shorter term, there is immediate opportunity for action. One of the four core areas of Building on Distinction, Brown’s new strategic plan, is “Academic Excellence,” which includes as a goal the improvement of faculty diversity. As part of the implementation of the strategic plan, the faculty and administration can and should explicitly include a timeline with concrete goals for increasing the number of female faculty members in the sciences. While this does not get to the heart of the underlying issues, it is nevertheless a crucial goal with invaluable consequences.

By 2018, the School of Engineering will have finished construction on a new 80,000-square-foot building. Hopefully, when you walk down the halls of that building, you will not need to open 10 doors just to find one female scientist.

 

Dilum Aluthge ’15 MD’19 wishes that more scientists were feminists and can be reached at dilum_aluthge@brown.edu.

  • TheRationale

    Computer science had staggeringly more women graduating in the 1980s than today in absolute terms. Just an interesting tidbit worth sharing.

    Sexism is not deeply embedded in the practice of science. It’s from the larger culture. Many other fields have had similar lines drawn between men and women (law, medicine, education, you name it). Science and its practice aren’t philosophically concerned with gender at all. I’m not trying to defend sexism in science, but rather point out that you need a broader perspective. Looking for some cause “within science” will probably will not provide any deep or satisfying answers.

    • No neutral science

      It’s quite clear that these practices are embedded in the practice of science, as shown in the article:

      In 2012, a team of researchers conducted a randomized, double-blind study in which they sent the same job application to 127 different science faculty members. Roughly half of the applications were assigned a stereotypically male name, while the others were assigned a stereotypically female name. The applications were otherwise identical.

      The researchers found that the faculty members consistently rated the male applicants as “significantly more competent and hirable” than the female applicants, and that male applicants were thus much more likely to receive job offers. And when female applicants were offered jobs, the starting salaries were significantly less than those offered to male applicants. Interestingly enough, both male and female faculty members exhibited these biases when making their hiring decisions.

      Yes there is sexism in many different facets of society, but it’s particularly prominent in the sciences (1 in 10 female faculty for the physical sciences is appalling and not standard for the rest of Brown/academia), and saying that because science appears to be neutral means that “sexism is not deeply embedded in the practice of science” ignores the long history of science and society (a concentration at Brown!), a history which has been and continues to be highly sexist in it’s undervaluing of scholarship produced by women. The many barriers placed in front of female students (and even more so in front of transgender students) to becoming scientists and having their work respected need to be addressed throughout academia, and it would be great to see Brown taking action on it.