The scientific community has spent plenty of time rejoicing the new pro-science era, and our spanking new president has continued to give every assurance (including a shout-out in his inauguration speech!) that he will make good on his promises to prioritize science and base policy decisions on actual scientific evidence.
But could all this pro-science fervor have secondary benefits besides, oh, say, putting big dents in global warming and the looming health care crisis? The New York Times takes on this question, asking whether the new administration will enable scientists to “tackle a chronic conundrum of their beloved enterprise: how to attract more women into the fold, and keep them once they are there.”
The general hypothesis behind the supposed Obama-boost for women is that the rise of science awareness and “geek chic” will be good for all scientists, and thus women will eventually get some trickle-down benefit—a somewhat weak line of reasoning, particularly when you consider how well it worked in Reaganomics. And critics of the argument point out—quite rightly—that what could really give women a boost is if a single female scientist was appointed to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
Of course, the real capacity for a pro-female boost, which the article eventually hits on, lies in the new president’s ability to grant additional family leave and parental benefits to the recipients of federal grants—a group that includes a ton of research scientists, many of them women. Though whether that’ll have any affect on the dearth of female physicists is anyone’s guess.
Physicists, rejoice! (Even more!)
Science magazine is reporting that Obama has chosen to nominate physicist John Holdren as his science adviser. The well-credentialed and -bearded Holdren is currently a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, as well as the director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A top adviser to Obama’s campaign and world renowned expert on climate change, energy policy, and nuclear proliferation, Holdren is the second physicist to join the president-elect’s team, following Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu’s appointment as Secretary of Energy.
Cosmic Variance: Steven Chu Nominated to be Secretary of Energy
Ever since their inception and hasty popularity rise, Second Life and its virtual cohorts have been a fascinating fishbowl into human nature. With their near-limitless possibilities for meeting, dating, battling, selling to, and influencing strangers, these cyber-worlds are perfect for studying the ways we behave and interact—both the beautiful and the ugly. And there’s been plenty of the latter to go around, from rape to infidelity to theft—in other words, all the same cruelty, discourtesy, and immorality that goes on in real life, only in a smaller, more publicly track-able format.
As such, it should be no surprise that the prejudices that play out in regular society—such as, oh, say, racism—also manifest in virtual worlds. In a new paper published online in Social Influence, Northwestern University professor Wendi Gardner and grad student Paul Eastwick found that avatars with darker skin in the virtual world There.com (a close cousin to Second Life) were less likely to have a basic request granted by another avatar.
All in all, women are doing pretty well in science. Surveys from the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of women getting science and engineering B.A.s has gone from from 39 percent in 1984-85 to 51 percent in 2004-5 (though the number of them actually stay in the profession is still dwindling). In fact, only one field can truly call itself still entrenched in male domination: computer science. The stark gender divide was summed up beautifully in last week’s New York Times:
Ellen Spertus, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.
Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field.
And the numbers are just as startling: “In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent.” And this year? “Many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.”
So why is this happening?
The New York Times is reporting that the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy are invoking Title IX, the anti-discrimination law usually reserved for college athletics, to examine science programs at schools receiving federal money.
Specifically, the feds are sending investigators to take inventories of lab space and interview faculty and students in physics and engineering departments in order to determine whether there are signs of discrimination (an issue we’ve addressed before). The only problem with this tactic: Overt discrimination, the kind that leaves a clear and visible trail, is rarely what’s operating in science departments. Rather, subconscious biases (the power of which we’ve also discussed before) and subtle forces such as a lack of childcare options and flexible maternity leave are more likely to be contributing to the gap.