On The Paradox of Under-representation of Women (Part II)

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 4, 2009 3:06 pm

Today’s NYTimes features a sad article about child abduction and sale in rural China where boys are targeted because of the tradition of favoring them over girls:

Su Qingcai, a tea farmer from the mountainous coast of Fujian Province, explained why he spent $3,500 last year on a 5-year-old boy. “A girl is just not as good as a son,” said Mr. Su, 38, who has a 14-year-old daughter but whose biological son died at 3 months. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you don’t have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one.”

This is related to an important topic explored earlier this week.  Christine Luk’s research on women in science and technology is focused on why the gender gap persists despite enhancement of female status in the U.S.  There are many hypotheses, but the NYTimes piece serves to remind us that we’re not isolated from the rest of the world.  While social change and new technologies continue to offer emerging opportunities for women to rise in many fields, bias–conscious or otherwise–persists globally in a myriad of forms.  We are working against thousands of years of anticipated gender roles and so cannot expect to rise to equal status over a few generations.  And despite progressive ideals and new institutions, there will likely be a very long lag time for many women to achieve visibly prominent positions across the spectrum.  We may get there eventually, but a gap will undoubtedly persist far into the foreseeable future.

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Comments (23)

  1. John

    Whatever…. We just got done with the review cycle at my workplace, and for every negative review you gave a technical female or a hispanic you had top dig up X negative reviews to give to people who are not minorities of some kind. A person white as snow and with a decidedly non-hispanic name but for some mysterious reason coded as a hispanic in the system got his negative message muted by my boss at the expense of muting the positive message of a another person. Promoting equal opportunity is one thing, this is a whole different ballgame, and an ugly one at that.

  2. Also John

    John, what you claim may be an unfortunate occurrence at your workplace, but it does not refute Sheril’s thesis. A response of “whatever” is vacuous given the subject of her post, which simply states there is thousands of years of worldwide “women < men " inertia. I have no doubt some companies fail in their attempts to create social equity and unjustly punish (or fail to reward) suburban white men with biblical names. I'd have more sympathy, however, if you could outline what steps you feel would eliminate the lag Sheril describes. Certainly the issue deserves more than "whatever."

  3. Shannon

    I am trying to figure out what the 2nd from left “woman’s job” is pictured in the awesome picture of career women. Ballerina, ?, stewardess, teacher, model, nurse – right? So maybe Genie (or princess?) was considered a brilliant career option for those crazy “career-gals”?

    Also – the comment above is malarkey – I really can’t believe that reviews are done that way and if they are it’s a generally a poorly run work-place. I’m in science and hear all the time about how everyone wants to hire women and we have a huge advantage. Funny then that all the new hires are men – and the apps are 25-33% female (and they’re very good). I’m still waiting for equal opportunity.

  4. MadScientist

    @John: really? What a silly game to play. So your workplace does not evaluate people on their merits then? What a silly place to be in.

  5. I am trying to figure out what the 2nd from left “woman’s job” is pictured in the awesome picture of career women. Ballerina, ?, stewardess, teacher, model, nurse – right? So maybe Genie (or princess?) was considered a brilliant career option for those crazy “career-gals”

    I had trouble with that one too, but it turns out to be actress. Click on the board game for details…

  6. Kim

    Shannon – the second job from the left is “actress.” (I was given that game as a present when I was in grade school in the 70’s.)

  7. Christine Luk’s research on women in science and technology is focused on why the gender gap persists despite enhancement of female status in the U.S.

    I’ve noticed that people who are the first in their family to go to college are discouraged from wasting the opportunity; they are almost always encouraged to become either doctors or lawyers. Art and Drama are obviously out, but science is also pretty low on the list of acceptable career paths. My own experience (both parents and most aunts/uncles had Master’s or Law degrees) was slightly incredulous support – and I was encouraged on getting my Ph.D. to finally start doing something productive with my life (like selling cars).

    I don’t know if this applies to those who are the first woman in their family to go to college, but I believe that women are about at parity with men in both law and medical school.

  8. WhatMeWorry

    The real reasons women are underrepresented in science and technology are as plain as the nose on my face. (1) they aren’t as interested in men in those subjects and (2) they aren’t as good as men in those subjects.

    Most men have the good grace to cede superiority to women in verbal and linguistic areas. I don’t see men lamenting this fact of life, this ‘unfairness’. Suck up the fact our brains are different, and move on.

  9. The real reasons women are underrepresented in science and technology are as plain as the nose on my face. (1) they aren’t as interested in men in those subjects and (2) they aren’t as good as men in those subjects.

    Anyone else get the feeling we’re going in circles? Thanks to the above contributor for demonstrating one mentality holding us back.

  10. WhatMeWorry

    So let’s see if I have this right. Women are equally proficient in maths and sciences, and better in everything else.

  11. Paleojo

    As the stay at home father of a daughter who excelled in math and science in high school, I may have something to say about this topic. When our kids were young, my wife was busy as the executive director of a nonprofit while also serving on the city council and numerous other boards around town. Although my daughter did well in science and math she loved music and art. I have an intense interest in biology. I didn’t pressure her to go particular direction for her college major although I’m sure she knew I preferred science. So what did she choose to study? Politics! Her first job? She works in the sustainability office of a small liberal arts college. She continues to enjoy playing violin and doing water color paintings. Conclusions? I think she was smart enough to do the math and figured out a direction that just might be, well, sustainable.

  12. Artemis

    WhatMeWorry – women aren’t as good as men in science? Funny. I tend to do better than most of the guys in my classes, including my computer science classes which are full of predominantly male students.
    Different people are stronger in different areas. Some women are good at science and suck at humanities, and some men are the exact opposite. Don’t assume something based on someones gender.

    That being said, I haven’t felt particularly held back because of my gender. Maybe it’s because I haven’t entered the workforce yet.

  13. The real reasons women are underrepresented in science and technology are as plain as the nose on my face. (1) they aren’t as interested in men in those subjects and (2) they aren’t as good as men in those subjects.

    Most men have the good grace to cede superiority to women in verbal and linguistic areas. I don’t see men lamenting this fact of life, this ‘unfairness’. Suck up the fact our brains are different, and move on.

    Needless to say, in middle school, you can either develop breasts or an interest in science. It’s mutually exclusive. Are you serious?

    And of course, if men are so inferior in verbal and linguistic areas, why are the English professorship numbers also heavily weighted towards men, not to mention lawyers and law schools. If men are indeed inferior in those areas, they don’t complain about it because they get all the privileges of being superior anyway.

  14. John

    I’d have more sympathy, however, if you could outline what steps you feel would eliminate the lag Sheril describes

    I do not deny that the lag is real and needs to be addressed. However, seeking for a set of steps that would resolve the problem everywhere is unrealistic. One of the reasons why females are severely under-represented at my workplace is that the hours are variable and insane. It is impossible to commit to being able to leave every day at 5:30pm so you can pick up your child from daycare. You never quite know what the weekend will bring and whether you can fully spend it with your family. Such is the nature of the job and expectations for doing it well. Both men and women have to make a choice — get ahead at work or get ahead at home. Doing both is simply impossible. What is most annoying is that senior management refuses to acknowledge this simple truth and continues to pay lip service to the non-existent concept of work-life balance. In doing so they end up rewarding unequal performance.

    I have no problem with a mandate for balanced hiring. However, that has to come hand-in-hand with an upfront statement — if you want to get ahead you need to forget about work-life balance, as well as the decision to eliminate all preferences and quotas in the evaluation process. If, as a result, women and minorities choose to decline our employment offers in greater proportion, then senior management has a clearly defined problem statement — workplace expectations — as opposed to some phantom gender or social bias.

  15. Lynsey

    Actress? :) I thought she was a debutante (society lady in the making), then I thought princess and was really upset with myself for not having realised that that was a career option. Got to admit to being slightly disappointed that she’s not a princess, actress is so banal by comparison.

    I once read someone say that it’s men that demonstrate penis envy not women. The whole social pecking order for many men being based on their masculinity – they see those without as being non-entity and don’t know how to deal with them. If this is true then to seek equality we either have to stuff socks in our pants or teach men to have more self-respect.

  16. Mark

    I’m curious, why is a boy much better than a girl to a tea farmer from Fujian Province? Long lag times from thousands of years of anticipated gender roles? Su Qingcai suggests its social pressure: boys impress the neighbours more than girls. But are there more practical reasons? Is it just that boys can work harder in the fields?

  17. Erasmussimo

    A couple of thoughts here:

    WhatMeWorry presents the simple-minded case that it’s all in the genes. This case minimizes the role of cultural factors, which I believe to be the dominant factor at work. At the same time, we should not go all the way in the other direction and declare that there are zero genetically based gender differences. Such differences do exist, but they are less significant to our current problem than the cultural factors. My own subjective impression, after working with young women of different ages, is that the single most important factor at work is self-confidence. Our culture pushes men to exaggerate their prowess and women to underestimate their talents. This, I believe, is the factor that we can most immediately do something about. One exercise I have tried with young teens is to teach them to shoot a 22-caliber rifle. I emphasize that it is a deadly weapon, that carelessness with it can result in death — but at the same time, careful use of the weapon insures perfect safety. When these girls start hitting the target accurately and realize that they really can control lethal power, there’s a big emotional impact.

    Mark’s question about the Chinese preference for a son over a daughter is easily answered: Chinese culture is patrilinear: sons inherit and daughters do not. Therefore, a man who dies without a son dies, in cultural terms, without issue. His line has become extinct. What’s striking about this is that the cultural factor is so much stronger than the obvious genetic truth. The farmer prefers an adopted son — who carries none of his genes — to a natural daughter, who does. The cultural conception of procreation overrides the genetic truth of procreation. A secondary factor in this has to do with the way that old people are cared for in Chinese society. When married, the daughter goes off to the husband’s household and becomes part of his family; she no longer has any obligations to her parents. The son, however, owes filial support to the parents forever. He must care for them in their old age. He is the one who transmits their ancestor-worship to future generations. That makes him much more important than the daughter.

  18. Nova Terata

    In my experience, the majority of English speaking U.S.Americans I know that believe in pseudoscientific things are either women or like black vegan bicycle hipsters and of course all fundamentalists (including Rastafarians and Wiccans). I think the hegemony that is being peeled away by the previously disenfranchised is taking all the ideological flora and fauna that thrived on its surface with it. So basically, women were once shunned from science; therefore, many women were less than impressed with things like empiricism. Replace “women” with any other oppressed demographic. This is not to refute any claims that women are just as good as men at “fill in the blank”, but to point out why they may not be as interested. I’m fairly certain given the opportunity some demographics if given enough power would reinstate slavery or something similar. Look at the Taleban, Myanmar, or Jim Crow South for that matter. Sometimes its just a scrape and the skin grows back, sometimes we’re flayed alive.

  19. Erasmussimo

    I might suggest another explanation for the deficit of female interest in science: most male scientists are socially obtuse; they say really stupid things that offend anybody of normal sensitivities. I have sometimes dropped my jaw at comments made by scientists in my acquaintance, so unintentionally offensive they are. Woman may start off with an interest in science, but after spending a little time with scientists, I would expect many to be put off by their unintended brutalities. Think of it this way: if most male dancers stepped on their partners’ feet, pretty soon there wouldn’t be a whole of female dancers, regardless of their talent for or interest in dance.

  20. Superstringy Indian

    Look here.The society which they live in values manual labor.A degree in Women’s studies will not help you in China’s rural industrial jobs.In such areas,strength is needed.Males arem preferred,females are unfit..non-breadwinners.Uplift their society if you wish,but this is just the way things work.The universe is a mean place.It doesn’t care whether females have to be tossed away for a male who is better suited for a job.Upon my experience,all you’ve built in the west for gender equality is a dream,an utopia.A dream from which your precious enlightened females will awaken,finding themselves drowned unto a greater nightmare.

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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 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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