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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Shirtgate and the myth of a sexist conspiracy in science

Two weeks ago, a scientist with the European Space Agency wore a tacky shirt during an interview about the Rosetta Project. That seems like an extraordinarily uninteresting news story, but the internet was awfully displeased with Dr. Matt Taylor's supposedly sexist wardrobe, taking his shirt as a sign that women in science still face all sorts of discrimination.

There were a lot of angry tweets and anecdotes about sexism in science, but curiously missing from the uproar was any discussion of the evidence. Why, you may be inclined to ask, did Taylor's shirt receive so much attention? Because there isn't any evidence of sexism in science. In fact, contrary to the claim that science is a refuge for antiquated beliefs about women, it's actually a terrific example of how far our society has gone to eradicate discrimination.

Sexism was entrenched in our scientific institutions until just a few decades ago, and we probably haven't eliminated the problem in such a short amount of time, or so the argument goes. But there's some flaws in this assertion, and the way we do science today reveals the most obvious one.

The majority of scientific research is funded by the federal government, performed at major universities and then promoted by the mainstream media. Judging by the Obama administration's campaign to get more women into the sciences, the government is no friend to sexism. And since the majority of university students today are women, it's fair to say that our schools don't take kindly to sexism, either. The media's coverage of shirtgate similarly illustrates that anyone who openly discriminates against women will be ostracized.

In other words, the institutions that finance, produce and promote science in America, the institutions with the influence to keep women out of the sciences have no interest in such a conspiracy. They have, in fact, voiced their support for women who want to enter STEM fields.

This should end the argument, at least for everyone without an ax to grind. You can't have institutionalized sexism if the relevant institutions are opposed to it. Of course, the ax grinders among us could object to this argument by suggesting that sexism has slipped through the cracks at these institutions. Though discrimination in the sciences has been reduced, there's still an "atmosphere of denigration" surrounding science, as astronomer Phil Plait argued in a column at Slate this week.

Plait's argument is weak, though. He cites some statistics and a few anecdotes from his female colleagues, but he ignores everything that doesn't fit his conclusion. For example, he fails to mention that women earn the majority of PhDs, across all fields. He also skipped over a 2011 study which found that women don't face institutional discrimination when competing for grants and jobs and trying to publish their research. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't mention that girls are now performing just as well as their male counterparts in high school math, which means they're capable of going into math intensive fields like chemistry and physics, should they choose to.

Nonetheless, there are still more men in the hard sciences, so if not discrimination, what explains the disparity? Many feminists will protest this claim, but men and women are very different creatures; the biological evidence for this is overwhelming. I humbly suggest that these differences between the sexes influence everything about our lives, including our divergent career choices.

With all of this information in mind, choice as an alternative explanation makes plenty of sense. Women are the majority on college and university campuses around the country. They're just as intelligent as men; their SAT scores and graduate degrees are evidence of that. Moreover, they're studying and working in an environment that's friendly to their ambitions, thanks to a dramatic shift in the cultural and legal landscape that's taken place over the last several decades. Discrimination can't possibly be the best explanation of these facts.

Women have rightly been given the opportunity to pursue the careers they want; they're just not making the same choices men are making. That's okay. Now, let's go find another problem to solve. There's plenty to choose from.

7 comments:

  1. "women earn the majority of PhDs, across all fields."

    But not in every field. The study you cite found that men earn 67% of PhDs in Earth and Physical Sciences, 73% of PhDs in Math and Computer Science, and 78% of PhDs in Engineering. Women earn 51% of doctoral degrees in biological sciences, and 70% of doctorates in Health Sciences, probably a reflection of the fact that medicine is becoming a female profession. My understanding of the debate is that the "sexism" is found very early, starting before kids even go to nursery school -- by the time they enter college their interests have been shaped by a variety of social and cultural forces that makes a lack of sexism in higher education or in the professional world rather irrelevant; the channeling has already been accomplished. Whether this is true or not, most of your essay here does not appear to be relevant to that hypothesis.

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    1. " My understanding of the debate is that the "sexism" is found very early, starting before kids even go to nursery school -- by the time they enter college their interests have been shaped by a variety of social and cultural forces that makes a lack of sexism in higher education or in the professional world rather irrelevant"

      So as they grow up, girls are subject to all sorts of nefarious cultural forces. But once they reach adulthood, the patriarchal assumptions about gender roles disappear and women are free to do as they please? That can't possibly be correct, given the evidence I cited.

      The study of PhDs leads to my point that women, though capable and permitted to enter the hard sciences, are still making different career choices than men.

      You have to write sexism into the narrative, and it just isn't there.

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    2. "But once they reach adulthood, the patriarchal assumptions about gender roles disappear and women are free to do as they please?"

      That is not what I wrote, and is a bizarre interpretation. "...women... and still making different career choices than men." Duh. The issue is why. My point is that the research suggests that the channeling starts very early.

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  2. The American Astronomical Society has issued a helpful statement on ShirtStorm: http://aas.org/posts/news/2014/11/aas-issues-statement-shirtgateshirtstorm

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  3. Women are entering STEM fields at an increasing rate. It's not in proportion to the overall labor ration, but the gap is closing. The much bigger issue is that women are LEAVING at an alarming rate. Over 10 years, 75% of women who got a STEM education and entered a STEM career will leave STEM altogether. That says NOTHING about "divergent career choices." It says everything about hostile work environments and a "divergent" treatment of the genders in those fields.

    For example, there is a long history of women being overlooked for Nobel prizes. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars as a student, but her male advisor got the prize.

    When you see how women get treated when they're in these fields--fields which have been set up to favor their historically male members--it's no surprise when women are like "Fuck this, I'm out."

    We deserve better.

    thatothershirt.wordpress.com

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  4. Further, your defense of the status quo in itself IS sexism. You are clearly outlining that you prefer that science be dominated by men, which implies you don't think it would benefit from the inclusion of more women. You base this on claims of "biological differences." Judging an individuals' acumen for something other than functions literally tied to biological structures (ability to get pregnant, testosterone production, etc.) IS sexism. It is literally sexism. You can't get any clearer than that.

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  5. "Over 10 years, 75% of women who got a STEM education and entered a STEM career will leave STEM altogether. That says NOTHING about "divergent career choices."

    Why not? You are still assuming what's in question.

    "Further, your defense of the status quo in itself IS sexism."

    I'm merely pointing out that the status quo is pretty good, and my arguments are supported by evidence.

    I have no preference when it comes to who dominates any profession. What I'm doing is making observations and drawing conclusions based on what I see. You may not like those conclusions, but your accusations are nonsense.

    "You base this on claims of "biological differences." Judging an individuals' acumen for something other than functions literally tied to biological structures (ability to get pregnant, testosterone production, etc.) IS sexism."

    So you deny that our genes influence our behavior? By the way, you have defined disagreeing with your position as sexism, much like Republicans did to anyone who opposed war in Iraq.

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