Friday, April 15, 2005

Who's in the club, and why does it matter?

For some reason, I was resisting taking the issue up in this weblog, but the furniture I keep bumping into in the blogosphere makes me think I really ought to take it up.

How much does it matter that certain groups (like women) are under-represented in the tribe of science?

I'm not, at the moment, taking up the causes (nor am I looking for any piss-poor "Barry Winters"-style theories as to the causes. At present, the bee in my bonnet is the effects.

And this is not a hypothetical situation. This post over at Thanks for Not Being a Zombie links to an article from the New York Times with some sobering statistics:

Even as the number of women earning Ph.D.'s in science has substantially increased - women now account for 45 percent to 50 percent of the biology doctorates, and 33 percent of those in chemistry - the science and engineering faculties of elite research universities remain overwhelmingly male. And the majority of the women are clustered at the junior faculty rank.

As some of you know, I'm one of those women with a Ph.D. in chemistry who is no longer a chemist.

Meanwhile, in the small world that is the blogosphere, I learned that kmsqrd, someone I know from a completely different context, is another woman scientist/engineer who is planning on "leaking" out of the pipeline.

Many of us have really good reasons for leaving science and engineering. The big question is, what effect does it have on science and engineering, both as professions and as producers of knowledge and technologies, that so many of us leave?

There are some fairly predictable outcomes. For one, it may make the environment for women considering careers in science and engineering a bit less attractive, there not being so many other women. Not that it's necessarily a deal-breaker. Some women don't care that much whether there are other women in their field. (Some women actually enjoy it, I'm told, because it makes them special. Some women like it so much that they'll actively discourage other women from getting into the field. Whatever.) And some women are so driven by the questions that keep them up at night that they find themselves having to pursue them even if these questions are best pursued in a field that is male dominated. This is not to say one won't be lonely while pursuing them. It can be really hard to be in a field where you don't have too many connections to people who understand you in particular ways. (Dude, analytic philosophy is pretty male dominated. And, even if I were a man, the fact that none of my colleagues have little kids, as I do, would still make me feel somewhat isolated.)

It seems that increasing the number of women scientists and engineers, especially at the senior level, would exert a positive feedback, leading to a further increase in the number of women entering science and engineering. Perhaps each woman who leaves makes it just a bit harder for the next woman to break into the field.

(But, it's not like we've left in disgrace -- we haven't flunked out or been fired. We've balanced our interests and responsibilities -- all of them -- to make the best decisions we can. If anything, we stand as evidence that women do have the aptitude and talent to take on science and engineering. But aptitude and talent for X is not the same as desire to do X for the rest of one's professional life.)

A big question is the extent to which the direction of knowledge and technology production is affected by the relatively low numbers of women scientists and engineers. It's hard to know what the answer is here. But, we can make some guesses. (Male birth control pill? Still waiting. Viagra? You betcha.)

An even harder question is whether the tribe of science might come to different conclusions when faced with the same world if that tribe is a men's club rather than a group of men and women in equal number. The standard story has been that there's just one scientific method, and that anyone who's read the manual can apply it, rather mechanically, to get the same answer as anyone else applying the same methodology. This would mean, of course, that it wouldn't actually affect the kind of knowledge you produced if it happened that there were only men doing science. But anyone who has actually done science knows that there's a lot more interpretation that goes into figuring out just what it is you know. What pushes us toward the interpretations we come to? Who the heck knows? It seems like controlling for all sorts of potential influences on our interpretations (such as being male, or being female) might be a sensible part of setting up a good experiment.

So why, oh why, in proposed "Academic Bills of Rights," are the sciences given a special status? (Brian Leiter has an interesting discussion of the proposal before the Florida legislature.)

Florida HB 837 Section 1004.09 (1) says:

"Students have a right to expect a learning environment in which they will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subject they study. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, the fostering of a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose."

(Bold emphasis added.)

This makes it sound like there is exactly one "serious" scholarly methodology and perspective in the sciences. And if that's the case, it really shouldn't worry us what the composition is of the community applying it.

So, who cares if there aren't more women in science and engineering?

I don't know about you, but I'm not quite ready to stop worrying about this. (At the same time, I'm not exactly ready to take my lab coat out of mothballs. Another indication that I am a bum? You be the judge!)


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