The launch of the Long March-2F rocket carrying Shenzhou-9 into space
On Monday, Chinese spaceship Shenzhou-9 docked with Tiangong-1, the first time that China connected a manned craft with an orbiting module. Liu Yang, one of the three crew members, also became the nation’s first woman in space.
China’s ground base regulated the docking by remote control, and then Yang, along with fellow crew member Liu Wang and mission commander Jing Haipeng, entered the Tiangong-1 module for a 10-day stay in space. Although China did not send a man into space until 2003, becoming the third nation to do so behind both Russia and the United States, its space program does not lack for ambition. It plans to launch more manned space missions, possibly even to the moon, and to replace tiny Tiangong-1 with a larger 60-ton space station by 2020.
In the continuing debate about how to make the career playing field more level for women in science, much of the attention has been focused on eliminating outright sexism in publishing and hiring. For a study published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, researchers looking into the causes of the lingering gender gap for women in math-intensive sciences suggest that it’s not outright discrimination that’s holding women back.
A 2008 survey of US universities by the National Science Foundation revealed that less than 30% of PhDs in the physical sciences were awarded to women. Higher up the ranks, women make up only about 10% of full professorships in physics-related disciplines. Yet when psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, sifted through 20 years of research, they found little evidence of continued gender bias in journal reviewers, granting agencies or hiring committees. [Nature]
Instead, Ceci and Williams say, external and social factors—some matters of choice, some not—are the major ones hindering women in science today. Those factors include the much-discussed, such as the fact that a mother with young kids is still expected to stay on the fast tenure track, and the less-obvious, such as caring for aging parents or following a spouse who gets a job in a different city.
We’ve heard (and written) plenty on the struggle of women to reach equal footing with men in the sciences. Now, two of the more prominent women in American science are talking up the issue before they accept their Nobel Prizes next week.
Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, along with a third American, Jack W. Szostak, won this year’s award in medicine for showing how chromosomes protect themselves as cells divide. Speaking in Sweden in advance of the award ceremony, Blackburn said the setup of scientific careers prevents more women from reaching the upper echelon. “The career structure is very much a career structure that has worked for men. But many women, at the stage when they have done their training really want to think about family . . . and they just are very daunted by the career structure. Not by the science, in which they are doing really well” [AP].