Science, Sex, and Success

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | October 23, 2007 12:35 pm

Can the federal government actually penalize universities that are not actively working to overcome subtle and unconscious gender bias by invoking Title IX of the Civil Rights Act?

Step back and first consider these stats from Harvard on women in the life sciences:

HarvardLogo.jpgundergraduates: 57%

doctoral students: 45%

postdoctoral fellows: 37%

assistant and associate professors: 31%

full professors:13%

Women in academia make less than our male counterparts, are promoted more slowly, and hold fewer leadership positions. So what’s the big deal about examining gender bias? Cathy Young’s Boston Globe Op-Ed suggests there could be trouble past all the inquiry. My post over at Correlations is now up exploring the disparity.

Here’s what Cathy had to say:

Equal opportunity, most of us agree, should be the law. But what does combating discrimination mean when definitions of bias are expanded to include the “stereotype” that success in science requires single-minded devotion? And what if some gender disparities in scientific careers are indeed related to innate differences in ability and personality? Will institutions be penalized for failing to meet impossible goals?

Can it be possible that efforts to overcome gender differences risk implementing a new and alternative bias? Read more here.


Comments (13)

  1. the15th

    Cathy Young sees potential “trouble” behind pretty much all efforts to ensure women’s equality. Not that it’s a bad column, but it would be interesting to read one from the other side of the issue as well.

  2. As Intersection readers know, I often like to suggest books that I have reviewed that illuminate the post. Click my name for my review of a 1999 book The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science by Theodore Roszak, Foreword by Jane Goodall.

    It’s among the most negative reviews I ever wrote, not because the author was completely off-base, but rather because he “framed” his discussion in a way that would turn off the people whose minds he most hoped to change, including me.

    Sheril, did you read that book? And if so, what was your reaction to it?

  3. David Bruggeman

    One point worth mentioning from the hearing referenced in the Op-Ed you cited, Sheril. Donna Shalala, President of the University of Miami, observed that given the existence of Title IX and the NCAA, it is much easier for her to ensure gender equity in sports than it is in hiring for academic positions. It’s an odd circumstance to have sports be more progressive than science on something.

    Maybe the issue doesn’t need to be more strongly encouraged in marine science, but other disciplines shouldn’t have to wait for the old men to die, because by then the young women and minorities will have lost interest or never had the support or encouragement to obtain the positions they want – which we need to fill.

  4. Gabe

    Girls are just not good at science and math.

    I don’t see why people have a problem accepting that. Think of all the greatest discoveries in human history. How many women come to mind?

    Case closed.

  5. Linda

    You really need to broaden your frames of reference, and come into todays world.
    Shame on you…

  6. Ferdinand

    Equal opportunity must start with equal status. One can only marvel at the obsticles women in science have overcome to receive any recognition at all. Limited of access to education, lack of adequate research facilities, society’s view of their proper place and function, distain of careers or interests outside the home and overbearing prejudice of men who belittle them and either ignore or fail to recognize their abilites.

  7. Gabe, you’re providing excellent evidence for why sexism is still a huge problem, especially at the highest levels of academia. I know I shouldn’t be feeding the trolls, but frankly, your attitude makes me sick.

  8. Gabe is a beautiful illustration of the moronocity so prevalent among the more insecure males of the species. But Gabe, you can make all the wishful pronouncements you want; they still don’t add up to reality.

    For those of you who would like to know about some of the fabulous things women have contributed to science and engineering, there are many great sites on the web, but here’s one that celebrates birthdays of famous women scientists:

    Shameless plug, it’s on my blog.

  9. As long as we’re shamelessly plugging women in science websites, click my name for, the website that the Joseph Henry Press (imprint of the National Academies Press) created for the middle-grade Women’s Adventures in Science biography series, of which my Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel is a part.

  10. daenku32

    Don’t full professors usually have a few decades of experience in the academia? If so, that would put their entry into the “marketplace” to 70s or even further, back when things were much more skewed. Include childrearing into the picture, and I can see both time lag and family priorities keeping the higher positions from being equalized yet.

    Of course I don’t have all the figures. Just going by what is posted here and what I would consider biggest assumed factors.

  11. Don’t full professors usually have a few decades of experience in the academia? If so, that would put their entry into the “marketplace” to 70s or even further, back when things were much more skewed.

    That may be a factor, but doesn’t explain the noticeable drop in gender parity between the PhD and junior academic staff (post-docs, assistant professors) stages.

    As for Gabe, perhaps he could provide us with his evidence that the controlled use of fire, writing, agriculture and the wheel were invented by men?

  12. Dark Tent

    Any article that puts the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Enterprise Institute in the same sentence — to say nothing of on equal footing when it comes to making judgments on scientifically related matters — (as Cathy Young’s piece does) should be looked upon with a certain skepticism (to say the least).

    NAS is one of America’s premier scientific organizations.

    Suffice it to say, “AEI is not…”


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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