Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Girls with Toys

LabRatIn case you haven’t seen it, there is a hashtag going around Twitter and Facebook called #GirlsWithToys showing awesome WomenOfScience and their experiments. I posted a few myself on each platform. I can see that the broader public probably doesn’t see women as “toy-oriented.” But, what I want to discuss is how, within the social construct of science, there are different stereotypes of what are masculine and feminine. Further, what is seen as appropriate for men and women to do/work on/study within science appears to depend on the field of science you are in.

Women in “Soft” Subfields. I have noticed that some subfields of certain fields of science have more women than others. In many cases, those subfields are seen as “soft,” but to set the record straight – they are anything but. For instance, in Physics, Astronomy and Biophysics seem to have more women. In Astronomy, this is historical. There are many examples of excellent women who have made big, huge discoveries. AAS has a blog and Berkeley Astronomy has a nice site. More can be seen here and here.

Biophysics has had its share of women who are not well-celebrated (think Rosalind Franklin). What about Margaret Oakley-Dayhoff? Biological physicists within physics departments are more likely to be women. Why? In my opinion: I think it is because biophysics was seen as relatively new, and the field wasn’t already a “sausage fest.” Most women I know compete with themselves, but shy away from direct competition with aggressive men. A field that has few people in it also have fewer men and even fewer aggressive men that want to push everyone else out.  The issue with there being more women in such subfields is that they are often seen as “less serious” or “less difficult.” This is soft sexism at work.

Women Theorists vs. Experimentalists. Physics and Chemistry both have a division between theory (like Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory”) and experiment (like Leonard in “Big Bang Theory”). Again, I think there is a bias that such theoretical fields are “harder” than experimental fields. That is certainly how Sheldon acts. As Leonard always points out, this is NOT TRUE. I feel there is an implicit bias against women entering those fields because they are somehow viewed as more masculine and are thought to require more mathematics than the experimental sides. Interestingly, I find that when women are theorists they are somehow more capable of being feminine. It is easier for them to wear skirts because they don’t have to climb around their equipment fixing things. Ironically, once women choose the experimental side of a field, they somehow become more masculine. I have had a number of conversations with WomenOfScience friends about how best to dress as an experimentalist – not too femme in case anyone doubts your science/experimentalist cred. So, even though only incompetent, non-mathematically inclined girls do experiment, you better look like a dude while you do it. That is how masculine physics is. Of course, I stress that these are my personal feelings. Others may feel differently, and I encourage you to comment.

By the way, while I dare to mention Big Bang Theory, I want to point out that Leslie Winkle was the BEST character. Why did they take her away? Bring her back! She was clearly way smarter than Sheldon, as pointed out in several episodes. She was also an experimentalist. Maybe she went away because she got a job as an Assistant Professor at a top university while Sheldon and Leonard seem to still be some kinds of weird postdoc or soft money scientist. She should have tenure by now. I vote that they bring her back to give a seminar at CalTech to rub her lifetime appointment at BigEliteUniversity in Sheldon’s face.

Another weird thing about all this: How is it even noticeable or detectable at all? How could I sense or feel that I shouldn’t be a theorist? It isn’t like there are so many women in any given field. Even in the subfields with “more” women, it is only about 20% or so.  Once you get to about 20% women in the room, things feel even – despite the fact that they are not. Maybe the feeling that there are more women in the room (20% instead of 5%) clues you into where science-society tells you to be?

Finally, I want to point out that this is all a construction of our society. How do I know? Ask a woman in science in Iran. They will tell you Physics is a “woman’s field” because it is creative and more akin to art. Women in many developing countries have more opportunity to do science and are supported to do so. Each has its own little sexist take on it. For instance, saying that “Physics is OK for women, because it is like art,” implies that other fields, such as Engineering, are not open to women (which is the case). Also, some cultures that allow women to do science also don’t give them the opportunities to do it at a high level. They are OK to teach, but not to pursue research.

So, what do you think? Which areas of your field of science are more “manly”? Which are more “femme”? Is it weird that science has gender at all? I think so. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Girls with Toys" (1)

  1. Sad but true — I may see some of the details differently, but the basic picture you present is about right.

    Have you seen the articles about different academic fields where they talk about geniuses? The more likely it is that a field thinks it has some geniuses, the more masculine the field is. Think math, philosophy, and physics theory. Physics talks about heroes such as Einstein, Newton, Feynman: all geniuses, right? From what I’ve read, there is an unfortunate link between thinking physics theory requires being a genius, and then unconsciously thinking that being a genius requires being male. Put “genius academic fields” into google and the relevant articles come up. (I wonder how we should dress to look like a genius? Sheldon dresses like how I dressed when I was a grad student, but I suspect the image I was presenting was “nerdy” rather than “genius”.)

    Oh, and yes, Leslie Winkle was the best character! Plus Sara Gilbert is a funny actress.

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