Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

I usually refrain from talking about women in science issues to avoid the risk of being stereotyped as yet another shrill feminist selling a sob tale about problems faced by women in the male-dominated scientific era. Over the years, however, I have unwillingly yet unmistakably realized the importance of this issue which, even if doesn't affect the lucky few in their immediate surroundings or future, leads to an undesirable and unhealthy skewness within the scientific culture and its practitioners, who "by construction" should be unbiased if nothing else.

Eileen Pollack in her excellent article in today's New York Times

articulates convincingly many such problems and concomitant challenges faced by women in scientific fields. She is a Yale alumni and her undergraduate major was Physics, both facts which bring the story quite close to home for me (though, unlike Eileen, I was a graduate student there and had a very pleasant experience overall!).  The article is a bit long but a very easy and engaging read.

One of the statements in Pollack's article which resonated with my experience more than the others was this:

...people’s biases stem from “repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent by simultaneously emphasizing their warmth and likability compared to men.”

This has actually manifested itself in a few varieties during my academic experience. Quite a few women scientists I know, who are very competitive in their fields, almost always tend to be slightly (and surprisingly!) apologetic about it. This subconscious or conscious feeling (hint: which is definitely not genetic or biological) necessarily forces them to "conform" in some other way and appear conciliatory in their personal interactions. Men, on the other hand, do not usually feel such inhibitions and even if they do it is a personal choice/trait not some social interaction protocol seemingly impressed upon by the community.