Category: Women in Science

Bias, Bias Everywhere

By Sean Carroll | October 8, 2012 2:00 pm

Admitting that scientists demonstrate gender bias shouldn’t make us forget that other kinds of bias exist, or that people other than scientists exhibit them. In a couple of papers (one, two), Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh have investigated how faculty members responded to email requests from prospective students asking for a meeting. The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female, and also whether they were Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.

And the inquiries most likely to receive positive responses were the ones that came from … white males! You should pause a minute to collect yourself after hearing this shocking news. Here are the fractions of students who didn’t even get a response to their emails, and the fractions who were turned down for a meeting. (Biases aside, can you believe that over half of the prospective students who asked for a meeting were turned down?)

The results pretty much speak for themselves, and help to highlight the kinds of invisible biases that are impossible to detect directly but can end up exerting a large influence on the course of a person’s career. As previously noted, the first step to eradicating (or at least lessening) these kinds of distortions is to recognize that they exist. (Although a quick perusal of our comment sections should suffice to convince skeptics that the biases are very real, and oftentimes proudly defended.)

Interestingly, the studies didn’t only look at scientists, but at academics from a broad variety of disciplines, with dramatically different results. Read More

Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing

By Sean Carroll | September 19, 2012 3:44 pm

Nobody who is familiar with the literature on this will be surprised, but it’s good to accumulate new evidence and also to keep the issue in the public eye: academic scientists are, on average, biased against women. I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in PNAS by Corinne Moss-Racusin and collaborators at Yale. (Hat tip Dan Vergano.) To test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications, the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.

Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.

This lurking bias has clear real-world implications. When asked what kind of starting salaries they might be willing to offer the applicants, the ones offered to women were lower.

I have no reason to think that scientists are more sexist than people in other professions in the US, but this is my profession, and I’d like to see it do better. Admitting that the problem exists is a good start.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts, Women in Science

It's a Girl Thing

By Sean Carroll | June 22, 2012 9:34 am

Update: Ha! They took down the video. Fortunately it’s copied here. The EU commission has acknowledged its goof, and wants to make a list of real women scientists.

I can’t come up with a better phrase for this video than Peter Coles did: “patronizing drivel.” And YouTube users — not always the most discriminating bunch — agree, giving it “55 likes, 1,848 dislikes.”

They mean well. It’s a video from the European Commission on Research and Innovation, trying to get girls interested in science. A noble goal, and we should be thinking of innovative ways to make it happen.

The problem is that whoever made the video clearly starts from the assumption that girls hate actual science, and therefore the route to increasing their interest is to pretend that science is all about lipstick and sunglasses and runway models draped in pink. Science isn’t actually about that. But science is interesting! For girls and boys alike.

If you want to make science seem exciting to girls, it helps to start from a perspective that science is interesting to all human beings, and that girls are human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts, Women in Science

All-Male Conferences

By Sean Carroll | November 12, 2011 8:59 am

We all know that certain areas of academia exhibit a profound gender imbalance — philosophy, it turns out, is nearly as bad as physics. Interestingly, one often sees major conferences organized in which the ratio of men to women on the invited speakers list is substantially higher than one would expect even on the basis of gender-blind selection. I have nothing profound to say about this interesting phenomenon, except to quote in full this lovely comment by “Modalist” concerning the 2011 Oxford Graduate Conference (in philosophy).

I think it worth emphasizing that the most important thing for everyone involved in the GCC is to ensure, by all means possible, that they bend over backwards so as to make sure that there is never any possibility that some Anonymous Internet Person might conceivably be offended at the suggestion that conference organizers anywhere—let alone conference organizers at an institution such as Oxford, whose commitment to gender equity and rejection of male privilege in education runs as far back as the High Middle Ages I’m sorry, I mean 1974—should risk feeling any twinge of private or, Heaven forfend, public embarrassment in the face of some no doubt imagined tendency to repeatedly organize conferences that feature only men on the program. We are, it is worth remembering, only in the second decade of the twenty first century. Mary Wollstonecraft is not yet cold in her grave. Surely Philosophy as an enterprise—nay, an endeavor; a vocation; the love of wisdom itself; a noble calling that grabs one by the testicles early in life and refuses to let go; perhaps indeed the last best hope of rationality and clarity of argument on this benighted Earth—can only suffer terribly if small, unfunded websites populated by aggressive viragos and their emasculated enablers insist on making a habit of pointing out the unfortunate yet, I am sure, entirely accidental Male Pattern Allness occasionally visible at conferences within the field. I should also like to remind the organizers of this “campaign” that a policy such as I have recommended—characterized as it is by polite deference, an unwillingness to make any person feel in any way even slightly out-of-sorts or unpleasantly compelled to recognize their so-called “privilege” on an otherwise perfectly pleasant sort of afternoon in the Junior Common Room, combined with a constant willingness to apologetically back down at the slightest suggestion that umbrage has been taken, or the first appearance of a convoluted description of an imaginary yet technically possible state of affairs wherein the observed outcome might not have been sexist in any way, shape, or form—has been shown by repeated historical experience to be without question the most effective means of effectuating change, especially the kind of modest, incremental and above all comfortably distant, blame-free social change that I am sure we all agree would be the best outcome in this case. Now if you’ll excuse me, my cocoa is getting cold and I do not want to have to ask my wife to heat it up again.

Via the always interesting New APPS.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science

NSF Tries to Make Family/Career Balance Easier

By Sean Carroll | September 27, 2011 10:30 am

Among the various difficulties that women experience when they embark on a scientific career, a big one is how to balance the challenges of work with raising a family. (In principle men could face the same challenges; in practice the burden usually falls on women. Individual cases will vary.) Science is extremely competitive, and it’s generally not a 9-to-5 job. The years when you might be at your scientifically most productive can be precisely those years when you want to have kids. I’m not familiar myself, but I understand that raising kids actually takes up some of your time.

So it’s great to see the National Science Foundation trying to do something to help. The White House just announced a major new initiative aimed at giving parents new flexibility in their careers. As explained in this press release, the general focus is flexibility, which is a great idea anyway: letting grant recipients defer for a year, and cutting down on the demands for investigators to travel to NSF headquarters when applying or renewing. (Via New APPS.)

These are tiny steps, and there are many other hurdles women face in academia other than the timing of their grants. But every little bit helps, and it’s certainly good to know that someone upstairs is paying attention.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science

The Aftermath of the Clown Murders

By Julianne Dalcanton | May 4, 2011 11:20 am

Last night the good Dr. Isis posted a fairly droll video of the “Grad Student Rap“. After enjoying an amusing 3:51 minutes on YouTube, I clicked through to one of the many “Suggestions” on the right hand side. As a Flight of the Conchords fan, I was drawn to a parody of their “Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” (Lyrics from the original: “Looking at the room, I can tell that you/Are the most beautiful girl in the…room./(In the whole wide room)./And when you’re on the street, depending on the street/I bet you are definitely in the top 3/Good lookin girls on the street./(Depending on the street).“)

The parody was “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Lab”.  The guys performing it did an impressive job of capturing the vocal stylings and presentation of the original, and their revised lyrics were clever.  But watching it, I suffered from a creeping feeling of “ick”.  Take a sec and watch:

So here’s the ick factor, for me.  The chick is just trying to do her freakin’ job.   I know that’s part of the intended humor, but it just hits a little too close to home for many women.  I doubt that there is any harm that has resulted from the video, and I’m sure the video’s creators had no intent beyond making a funny, well-done parody — indeed, the original video was taken down in response to comments, and replaced with a statement acknowledging how the video might have been interpreted, while opening up the comments to a discussion of issues facing women in science. (Graciously handled, although it now looks like the heavy hand of humorless feminists and political correctness run amok.  You just can’t win.)

That said, I feel like I need to explain a little why even a fairly easy-going viewer might be squicked out.  It’s like someone losing a loved one to a brutal clown attack, and having a hard time finding clowns funny down the road. (Ok, it’s not exactly like that, but you get the idea — sometimes your past experiences make it impossible to ever “lighten up”, no matter how innocently something was meant).   Now, killer clowns are thankfully not a common scourge, but it is a rare young women that hasn’t had to deal with someone being openly more interested in her sexual desirability than her job performance in a professional setting.

Just to drive this point home, this morning I ran across the following:

At a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) was questioning a panel of experts on the tax code’s fairness. To kick off his questions, Mr. Roberts jokingly said he was conferring an “honorary doctorate of economics” on each of the four witnesses.

One of the witnesses, Aviva Aron-Dine, actually is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at MIT. Making nice with the senator, she said she appreciated the conferral of a degree, because she wouldn’t mind getting hers a couple of years early.

“I always heard a Ph.D. was a pretty hot Democrat,” Mr. Roberts replied.

“Pretty…sorry?” Ms. Aron-Dine responded.

“Somebody asked me what a pretty hot Republican was, and they said, `Nothing,’” Mr. Roberts continued. “So, you know, it’s an equal deal.” Then he went on with his questioning.

Feeling proud about getting to testify before the Senate as an expert witness, and one of the first things she has to deal with is some senator commenting on her being hot?  This crap happens to guhzillions of women in workplaces throughout the world, especially if they also happen to be in the top 3 of good lookin’ girls on the street (depending on the street).  And, it’s complicated, and frequently humiliating when it does.

Which explains why even well-intentioned clever YouTube videos can sometimes have a stronger reaction than intended.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts, Women in Science

Playing From a Different Tee: How Not to Write a Recommendation Letter

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 21, 2009 6:06 am

As Mark recently mentioned, we are deep in recommendation letter season. I’ve been in the biz long enough that I’ve probably written at least a hundred letters (estimating more than ten a year for more than a decade), and read far more than that.

After you read enough letters, they can start blend together. But, in a big stack of applications, there are usually a few letters that stand out as risible, causing a good chuckle and round of comment from the committee.

And they are almost always letters written on behalf of women.

In a standard letter of recommendation at the postdoc/faculty level, there is frequently a comparison to other successful scientists. The letter usually reads something like “reminds me of person X, Y, or Z at a similar level of their career” or “shows the same persistence and insight as person Q, and stronger big picture thinking than person P”. These comparisons are almost always favorable, saying that the applicant is in the same league as other people who are recognized as having had a significant scientific impact.

But, for some reason, some fraction of letter writers insist upon doing these comparisons only within a single gender, when the applicant is a woman. In other words, “(woman) X shows a similar level of insight as (woman) Y and (woman) Z”. I’m not saying that these comparisons are not favorable — they’re usually comparing a strong female applicant favorably with other successful female scientists. Their praise is genuine and well meant. However, one can’t but help perceive that they see women as somehow swimming in a different pool than the rest of the guys.

Now the good news is that most committees that I’ve been on have seen right through this. We note it, and have a small laugh at the letter writer’s expense. In addition, it’s not common — usually only affecting a couple of letters in an applicant pool.

So, if you’re writing a letter for someone in an underrepresented group, please save yourself from mockery by examining exactly how you perceive the applicant’s comparison sample.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Women in Science

Ada Lovelace Day: Chien-Shiung Wu

By Sean Carroll | March 25, 2009 9:12 am

240x240_wu.jpg March 24 was designated Ada Lovelace Day. To honor the world’s first computer programmer, bloggers posted something about a woman who made a significant contribution to science or technology. Serious bloggers wrote detailed and engaging pieces, but we overdue authors don’t have time for that. So instead, only one day late, here’s a short excerpt from my book draft, about Chien-Shiung Wu and the discovery of parity violation.


It came as quite a surprise in the 1950’s when parity was shown not to be a symmetry of nature, largely through the efforts of three Chinese-born American physicists: Tsung-Dao Lee, Chen-Ning Yang, and Chien-Shiung Wu. The idea of parity violation had been floating around for a while, suggested by various people but never really taken seriously. In physics, credit traditionally accrues not just to someone who makes an offhand suggestion, but to someone who takes that suggestion seriously enough to put in the work and turn it into a respectable theory or a decisive experiment. In the case of parity violation, it was Lee and Yang who sat down and performed a careful analysis of the problem. They discovered that there was ample experimental evidence that electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force both were invariant under P, but that the question was open as far as the weak nuclear force was concerned.

Lee and Yang also suggested a number of ways that one could search for parity violation in the weak interactions. They finally convinced Wu, who was an experimentalist specializing in the weak interactions and Lee’s colleague at Columbia, that this was a project worth tackling. She recruited physicists at the National Bureau of Standards to join her in performing an experiment on Cobalt-60 atoms in magnetic fields at very low temperatures.

As they designed the experiment, Wu became convinced of the project’s fundamental importance. In a later recollection, she explained vividly what it is like to be caught up in the excitement of a crucial moment in science:

Following Professor Lee’s visit, I began to think things through. This was a golden opportunity for a beta-decay physicist to perform a crucial test, and how could I let it pass? — That Spring, my husband, Chia-Liu Yuan, and I had planned to attend a conference in Geneva and then proceed to the Far East. Both of us had left China in 1936, exactly twenty years earlier. Our passages were booked on the Queen Elizabeth before I suddenly realized that I had to do the experiment immediately, before the rest of the Physics Community recognized the importance of this experiment and did it first. So I asked Chia-Liu to let me stay and go without me.

As soon as the Spring semester ended in the last part of May, I started work in earnest in preparing for the experiment. In the middle of September, I finally went to Washington, D. C. for my first meeting with Dr. Ambler. … Between experimental runs in Washington, I had to dash back to Columbia for teaching and other research activities. On Christmas eve, I returned to New York on the last train; the airport was closed because of heavy snow. There I told Professor Lee that the observed asymmetry was reproducible and huge. The asymmetry parameter was nearly -1. Professor Lee said that this was very good. This result is just what one should expect for a two- component theory of the neutrino.

Your spouse and a return to your childhood home will have to learn to wait – Science is calling! Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957; Wu should have been included among the winners, but she wasn’t.



By Sean Carroll | May 30, 2008 11:19 am

Via Swans on Tea, a great article about Richard Feynman’s days in the 1980’s working for Thinking Machines on their groundbreaking massively-parallel computers. (Reprinted from Physics Today.)

Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”

But then there is this:

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

“Charming” and “sexist” are not actually exclusive properties. We don’t have to say “he is sexist, but very charming, so it’s okay”; nor do we have to say “he is a brilliant and charming man, but incorrigibly sexist, and therefore cannot be admitted to possess any good qualities.” People can be talented and charismatic and warmly human, and yet have a looming blind spot when it comes to gender.

All of which is perfectly obvious, but worth reiterating because the pervasive culture of science is steeped in a sort of geeky pseudo-machismo that is handed down through the generations. Charming it may be, but far from harmless. The latest evidence to add to the teetering pile comes from a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, who looked at the career paths of women in science, engineering, and technology.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave…

They also do well at the start, with 75 percent of women age 25 to 29 being described as “superb,” “excellent” or “outstanding” on their performance reviews, words used for 61 percent of men in the same age group.

An exodus occurs around age 35 to 40. Fifty-two percent drop out, the report warned, with some leaving for “softer” jobs in the sciences human resources rather than lab bench work, for instance, and others for different work entirely. That is twice the rate of men in the SET industries, and higher than the attrition rate of women in law or investment banking.

The reasons pinpointed in the report are many, but they all have their roots in what the authors describe as a pervasive macho culture.

Engineers have their “hard hat culture,” while biological and chemical scientists find themselves in the “lab coat” culture and computer experts inhabit a “geek culture.” What they all have in common is that they are “at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women,” the study said.

Too many scientists figure that, if someone leaves the field, it must have been because they weren’t good enough. There are other reasons. Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science would not only make for happier people, it would make for better science.



By Julianne Dalcanton | April 18, 2008 1:39 pm

Much of the April 15th angst that Sean described comes from student’s questioning “Will I be a success if I go to this particular graduate school?”. They place a tremendous weight on this decision (and rightly so, given the 5+ year duration of a typical PhD). The decision of where to go to school presents a clean well-defined juncture, where you can imagine two clear paths before you, one that leads to a happy land filled with unicorns and flowers and all night coffee shops and independent record stores, and another that leads to a sad grey land where you spend your time shuffling piles of paper for The Man. However, having been in the game from the faculty side for nearly a decade, I can say that much of what determines whether one is a “success” is largely independent from this decision. (An aside: for this discussion I’m going to assume “success” equals working as a research scientist, which is the typical goal of an entering grad student. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, since “success” is really “whatever career path you find fulfilling”, and I’m just as happy to train phenomenal future high school science teachers as future faculty at Harvard.)

I think the essence of what determines your long-term success as a scientist is your ability to influence the scientific discussion. When you’re at a point in your career when people pay attention to your work, and want to know “What does <your name > think about this?”, you are on a near certain path to a stable position as a research scientist. Instead, if no one is reading your papers (to the extent that you’ve published them at all), or wants to hear what you say at conferences, or calls you up to ask you about your area of expertise, then you’re in danger of drifting out of the field.

Now, the factors that lead to having scientific influence are many. Among the most important are:

  • Writing lots of papers
  • Writing interesting papers
  • Writing papers using novel or superior data sets
  • Writing papers on a timely topic
  • Being recognized as leading the above papers, rather than being directed by others
  • Communicating your ideas with clarity
  • Being socially well-connected in your field
  • Being really, really, really, unusually smart and/or creative
  • Having influential mentors promoting you

To be scientifically successful, you don’t need to have all of these factors, or even most of these factors. You just need to have enough of them, or a long enough suit in one or two of them, that people can’t ignore what you’re doing.

Of this list, there are at least half that are almost entirely under a student’s own control, no matter where they go to graduate school. You can pick inspiring mentors, write lots of papers on interesting, timely topics, and give riveting talks about them, no matter where you are. You can fail to write any papers (on topics boring or not) and give lousy talks, under the negative guidance of ineffective advisors, even if you go to a top-ranked school. Some of the other factors do probably have some correlation with top-ranked programs, in that such programs are more likely to have the luxury to admit only students with early evidence of brains and creativity, and they tend to have more of the resources that lead to superior data access, or a larger pool of productive theorists (postdocs & faculty). [However, in astronomy at least, there is sufficiently rich access to public resources (SDSS, NASA’s Great Observatories, 2MASS, etc) that one can usually have sufficient access to create “novel or superior data sets” no matter where you are. For lab-based physics, this is likely less true.] In this list, the relative “prestige” of one’s graduate program has little direct impact on your eventual scientific impact. When I hire postdocs, or evaluate fellowship applications, I am drastically more impressed by what someone actually did, than where they went to school.

Besides the import for deciding where to attend school, the above elucidates why “climate” issues can have such a large impact on your eventual career success. If you’re at an institution that places obstacles in your path that make it difficult for you to write papers, to find good mentors, and to make scientific connections in your field, then you’ve got a problem. You’re going to be struggling uphill.

However, the same list also provides the recipe for climbing that hill, if you find that you’re on it. The number one thing you can do is to write papers (and preferably interesting and timely ones). People cannot ignore a large body of high quality work for long. Sometimes it takes a while before they notice, it’s true. But the more you publish, the more likely it is that people will begin to notice your work, and be influenced by it. As that happens, they will start noticing you as well, and will tend to deem you “someone worth having around”, whether as a postdoc, or at their conference, or as their next faculty colleague. This process is vastly easier with a good mentor behind you, but if you wound up without one (or gawd forbid with an anti-mentor), it’s going to be your only route out.

I think the clearest evidence of this is a relatively jaw-dropping preprint that was recently posted to the arXiv (h/t to Zuska). A former particle-physics postdoc (and current grad student in statistics) carried out a very detailed analysis of the productivity of postdocs on the Run II Dzero experiment, and how that translated into giving conference presentations, and being hired into faculty positions. The paper found that the postdocs’ success in eventually landing faculty jobs were highly correlated to productivity (as measured by internal papers), to conference presentations (which were awarded by the leadership of the project), and to the degree of “physics socialization”. These correlations are all what you would expect, and reinforce the above list of what leads to being scientifically influential.

The jaw-dropping aspect of the paper is that the awarding of conference presentations was grossly gender biased (as was the fraction of service work assigned to the women). The female postdocs had drastically higher levels of productivity (indeed, half the men were less productive than the least productive woman), but were allocated far fewer conference presentations than men with comparable productivity. (Note: this is a paper you actually have to read, rather than just flipping to the table at the end. It’s a very well-done piece of statistical analysis, and can’t be fully appreciated from just comparing two means in a table.)

In this exercise, we see the influence game writ large. You need to be productive and visible. If some sort of bias (against women, or shy people, or people from state schools, or whomever) is present that conspires to make you less visible, you’re going to have to be even more productive. It’s not fair, and people in positions to fight against the bias in their institution should do so. But, at least it’s something that you have a chance of controlling.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science

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