Thursday, January 29, 2009

Weak-willed women too Sephora'd-out for physics

Why are there not more female physicists? Should we care? As a member of DAPA in good standing,* I'm totally qualified to address this. By "this" I mean, of course, Heather MacDonald's article (via). Nothing about dark matter or anything.

She's going somewhere right with the piece, but there's still something missing. On the one hand, the notion that diversity must mean not just equal opportunity, but that every work setting everywhere must be an exact reflection of the population ignores the fact that different groups gravitating to different fields is sometimes a neutral phenomenon. Even distributions resulting from discrimination (obvious examples: Jews in finance, blacks in certain sports, women and gay men in the fashion industry) can end up empowering otherwise marginalized groups, although it's easy to see where success in a stereotypical field can backfire. But just because turning every field into a perfect gender-and-racially-balanced microcosm of society has its drawbacks doesn't mean we should just shrug our shoulders and say 'that's how it is and always will be' when we see imbalance, or that we shouldn't be looking to knock down barriers, visible and less-visible, to participation where they exist.

On that front, MacDonald misses a couple things. One, culture matters, and cannot be reduced to some TV show that's been on for about five minutes. She writes that "the fertility clock and women’s greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities." Fertility clocks, yes, baby-craziness, no. With breast-feeding the obvious caveat, there's no biological reason a man and a woman can't spend equal amounts of time with their children.

Moreover, women "attending to preposterous wrinkle-cream ads in women’s magazines" are acting rationally in a society in which looking haggard hurts a woman's chances in both personal and professional settings. There's an aspect of appearance-consciousness that is about putting together outfits because it's enjoyable and what-not, and that is often miscategorized as superficiality, but there's a less uplifting side to self-expression-through-appearance, which is the sense - based on an accurate understanding of how the world works - that certain 'flaws' must be corrected. It's not necessarily a sign of female 'weakness' or even vanity that women of a certain age - or weight - worry in ways that their male equivalents do not. (Not to mention the question of hair and race, or how for profession women with 'messy' hair, being taken seriously means time spent styling, whereas men have the option of cutting it all off without offending any sexual norms.)

She also misrepresents the time commitment it takes the typical woman to get going in the morning. Yes, women are more interested in clothes, and are under more cultural pressure to 'fix' this or that. But men who spend three hours a day at the gym (not uncommon, even among male scientists) are devoting far more time to personal upkeep than women who draw on eyeliner on their way out of the house. I'm not saying women shouldn't spend three hours a day on makeup/shopping/fussing, but that my sense is, few do. Until we measure hours spent lifting weights versus shopping, the dearth of female physicists cannot be blamed on the allure of Sephora.

And finally, The Question: "Which is it? Are women 'strong'? Or can they be crushed by fears of a permanent bad hair day and inspired by something as superficial as Hollywood fashion?"

All variants of 'what do women want?' are frustrating because the question implicitly leaves out the possibility that one woman might be more than one thing, or that different women want different things. There are geeky-genius women who've never heard of Paris Hilton despite growing up near her in New York or LA. There are female intellectual-types who love love love books and shoes. There are unstylish ladies whose shabbiness is not accompanied by great academic potential or achievement, or even extracurricular brilliance. (See also: in either sex, social ineptitude does not equal genius.)

* Are there meetings? Of course! I go to them every week, after the ones with the Jewish cabal.

34 comments:

Petey said...

"And finally, The Question: "Which is it? Are women 'strong'? Or can they be crushed by fears of a permanent bad hair day and inspired by something as superficial as Hollywood fashion?"

False dichotomy. Good hair and good fashion are not signs of weakness.

"All variants of 'what do women want?' are frustrating because the question implicitly leaves out the possibility that one woman might be more than one thing, or that different women want different things."

While it is true that every snowflake is different and beautiful in its very own way, there is justified interest in talking about the median snowflake, or even in talking about substantial minority groups of snowflakes.

The existence of outliers doesn't invalidate the interest in norms.

-----

Also, to just play with quotes:

"the possibility that one woman might be more than one thing"

A woman and a gopher? A woman and an end table?

Phoebe said...

It's not about snowflakes. It's about the assumption that either a) all women fall into one category, or b) all women fall into one of two different possible categories, each of which is an unhelpful caricature. Women who fall outside MacDonald's definition of a woman who wastes endless time primping are not "outliers," nor are those, male or female, able to combine high-level intellectual work with an interest in style.

FLG said...

"All variants of 'what do women want?' are frustrating because the question implicitly leaves out the possibility that one woman might be more than one thing, or that different women want different things."

Perhaps I misunderstood, but aren't you really arguing that women are complicated indivduals who are not easily categorized? I agree. Women aren't a monolithic group, but saying they are complicated individuals isn't particularly useful either.

If people are concerned about why women as a group are or aren't successful at X, then don't we have to talk about women as a group. I acknowledge that any generalization is problematic, but isn't it a necessary evil if we are concerned about gender outcomes in industries or jobs or whatever?

Anonymous said...

Women ON THE AVERAGE seem to enjoy jobs in which they succeed at least in part by using their personalities. Personality is not as important to success in physics as it is in teaching or acting or management or sales///the particles don't really care about your feelings.

If it's really true that women have more emotional intelligence than men (again, on the average) as is often claimed, then it makes sense that women would want to choose careers that use this ability.

--Dan

Phoebe said...

FLG,

There's looking at averages, and there's offering up tired stereotypes about women taking hours to get ready in the morning because oh, makeup. Since women are gaining ground in math and the other sciences (although this wasn't mentioned, I think, in MacDonald's article, but was in Angier's), the question really is why not physics. A question no one seems able to answer, although I agree that just demanding half the spots at every given level go to women wouldn't help matters. It's also a question that interests me personally, not so much as a DAPA but as woman who indeed did well enough in math (Calc, even) and other science classes but had some kind of mental block when it came to physics.

Dan,

I'm sure there are studies that support what you write, but I'm not sure how particles/feelings squares with women's relative success in all-but-physics. There are also cultural factors making socially awkward women much more inclined to fix the problem than are socially awkward men, who can stay as they are and succeed, so I'm not so sure about women really being that much more 'naturally' emotionally intelligent. I'd imagine whatever non-cultural factors are at play are more about spatial sense, but I hesitate to say this because I am hopeless at picturing things in 3D and don't want to project that hopelessness onto all womankind.

Paul Gowder said...

Moreover, women "attending to preposterous wrinkle-cream ads in women’s magazines" are acting rationally in a society in which looking haggard hurts a woman's chances in both personal and professional settings. There's an aspect of appearance-consciousness that is about putting together outfits because it's enjoyable and what-not, and that is often miscategorized as superficiality, but there's a less uplifting side to self-expression-through-appearance, which is the sense - based on an accurate understanding of how the world works - that certain 'flaws' must be corrected.

I'm glad to see you're coming around. :-)

Anonymous said...

One important aspect of the women in science question that I feel is left out here (but is discussed in Angier's article - I think) is the so-called "leaky pipeline." One fifth of physics bachelors go to women, but only about 10 percent of the PhDs - the question is why do women disproportionately drop out? Angier suggests public perception, others point to gender biased admission standards (i.e. The Physics GRE http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/274/5288/710) or failure to admit women in proportion to the number in the applicant pool.

Also, as a woman in science who loves shoes, I find "The Big Bang Theory" hilarious - I work with those boys every day.

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder,

In what way did I come around? Of course there's an element to appearance-consciousness that's negative. But to dismiss all visual stimuli as falling under the rubric of superficiality is taking it too far.

Anonymous,

I don't think I've seen the TV show in question, but now I want to.

As for the rest... I can't view the article you link to, so can't comment on it. Also, I'm not sure how "failure to admit women in proportion to the number in the applicant pool" proves discrimination. What if women really are worse applicants? That doesn't mean there wasn't unfairness pre-application-period that made it so, but the admissions process might not be where the problem is located. There's a difference between dropping out once admitted to a program, which would suggest work/family issues, and not getting in in the first place, which could mean either that the GRE is unfair or that even if there are as many female as male majors, they're not as successful in their undergrad/apps. So, who knows.

Andrew Stevens said...

She writes that "the fertility clock and women’s greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities." Fertility clocks, yes, baby-craziness, no. With breast-feeding the obvious caveat, there's no biological reason a man and a woman can't spend equal amounts of time with their children.

It is a biological reality that on average women are more interested and engaged in child-rearing than men are. Of course there are exceptions - men who can't stand to go more than an hour without seeing their children and women who are terrible parents, but the hormonal changes (oxytocin) which occur in women during pregnancy more or less guarantee that they bond more with their children than men do. It is far, far more common to meet women who change their minds and decide not to go back to work after all (even though they were planning to) than to meet men who do that.

alex said...

There really is no space in "The Big Bang Theory" for many female characters - its a show about four guys who really suck at talking to women.

Anonymous said...

Well, in the Angier article she pooh-poohs the idea of difference, as follows: "and even at the uppermost tails of achievement the discrepancies were minor and inconsistent: among whites who scored in the top 1 percent, there were two boys for every girl, whereas among Asian top scorers, there was one full girl for every nine-tenths of a boy. Besides, said Dr. Gates, female students earn half of the bachelor’s degrees in another math-heavy discipline called — mathematics."

This is where Summers got himself into so much trouble - he was talking about Harvard hiring, and suggesting to his audience that they were looking for top-tenth-of-a-percenters or better. And I keep reading statistician suggestions that as you get out four sigmas from the mean, you have a lot more men.

Now, there are a lot of questions here - do you need to be four sigmas out to teach at Harvard? Or at Indiana? How about Florida State? To do plausible work to get the PhD in the first place? Is there something screwy about the tests, that they fail to find high-talent women but do identify high-talent men? And there's the problem that, if you want to breed, going into the academy is a dreadful strategy for women, pretty decent for men, so you can have people making very rational choices which skew the numbers. Summers suggested that it was all probably involved in causing the skew, and got knocked off the pedestal for his troubles.

Myself, I am much more worried about making sure that bright-average girls can go to engineering school than about making sure there are just as many women as men at the rarefied highest snooty schools.

dave.s.

Petey said...

"This is where Summers got himself into so much trouble - he was talking about Harvard hiring, and suggesting to his audience that they were looking for top-tenth-of-a-percenters or better. And I keep reading statistician suggestions that as you get out four sigmas from the mean, you have a lot more men."

This is all quite true, and we can't be having this conversation without noting it.

For example, in the original post, Phoebe says:

"Even distributions resulting from discrimination (obvious examples: ... blacks in certain sports"

But the reason blacks predominate in the NBA has almost nothing to do with discrimination. Instead, the NBA with its reliance on height, rewards genetic freaks. And since blacks have a much larger amount of genetic diversity than all the non-blacks put together, it becomes obvious why they predominate in the NBA.

-----

"Myself, I am much more worried about making sure that bright-average girls can go to engineering school than about making sure there are just as many women as men at the rarefied highest snooty schools."

I concur.

Anonymous said...

Not only are women faculty fewer at what dave.s. calls "the rarefied highest snooty schools," but women are also underrepresented in industry, something Angier's article talks less about. Is this strictly a bias in the hard sciences or are women underrepresented in all "high powered" careers? Has anyone looked at the number of women who are partners in prestigeous law firms? CEOs of non-profits? In theory, all these prestigeous and time-demanding jobs could have the same family issues as a physics faculty position.

As far as admitting women in proportion to the applicant pool, perhaps the issue is that women appear to be worse applicants because of discriminatory standards. Page 4 of this www.aps.org/programs/women/reports/gazette/upload/GAZ_fall07.pdf
report from the Committee for the Status of Women in Physics alludes to women getting lower scores on the physics GRE. The article also points out that the physics GRE is not well correlated with success in grad school. If we take success in grad school as an indication of ability in the field, then weighting the physics GRE score heavily in admissions decisions selects against women without necessarily selecting better candidates. Of course, this only applies to graduate admissions and thus says nothing of other leaks in the pipeline.

Family issues aside, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) quotes a National Academy of Sciences study about women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) finds "...that women faculty are slower to gain promotion than men, are less likely to reach the highest academic rank, have lower salaries, and are awarded less grant money than their male colleagues." (pg 3) They paint an equally discouraging picture for the environment for undergraduate women (also pg 3) "Unsupportive classroom environments and outdated pedagogy inhibit women’s participation in STEM, as do a lack of female role models and a limited peer group." Babies aren't the only reason women leave science and engineering, yet most of this conversation has not included issues with the climate for women in the field. Perhaps it is that these women are smart and capable and chose to leave the field for an environment where those same traits that make them successful in science will be valued. (Quoting from www.aauw.org/advocacy/issue_advocacy/actionpages/upload/STEM.pdf)

Lastly, women drop out of science every step of the way. Girls lose interest in science is disporportionate amounts in middle school (same STEM article as above, pg 5), which I daresay is long before many are considering the logistics of balancing a career and a family. The AAUW cites "social expectations and peer pressure" as the reasons girls lose interest, which may just reflect the fact that, on average, fewer girls than boys are in the astronomy club, but it reads too much like a "weaker sex" argument in that women are too sensitive to pursue what they find interesting because someone finds physics "unfeminine."

For my obligatory tie-in to "The Big Bang Theory," what exactly about the show is offensive to women in science? Because the four main physicists are male? Because the object of desire is not a physicist? I like shoes but don't identify with Carrie Bradshaw and perhaps this is why I foolishly think that an educated woman who saw this show may think of it as "entertainment" or "comedy."

-megan

alex said...

there's no biological reason a man and a woman can't spend equal amounts of time with their children.

Are you sure about this? The time women spend with their children is almost universally greater than the time men spend with them - this is true across almost all societies, see table 2 in this paper.


Moreover, many scientists have found evolutionary explanations for such psychological differences - see, for example, the paper of Gangestad and Buss summarized in the "development" section of this article.

So I really don't think a categorical statement of the kind you make can be justified.

Petey said...

"So I really don't think a categorical statement of the kind you make can be justified."

But the categorical statement she made can not only be justified, it's obviously true.

There really is no biological reason a man and a woman can't spend equal amounts of time with their children.

alex said...

Petey, I don't think that what Phoebe meant is that there's no physical impediment (e.g. not enough legs) to spending equal time to children - if so, her argument would not function well as a counterpoint to MacDonald's attribution of "baby craziness" to women. I think its pretty clear she wants to argue the things MacDonald calls "biological reality" are not biological, and it is to this that I am responding. Read the paragraph preceeding the statement.

Andrew Stevens said...

See my January 30th comment at 10:55 which got swallowed up by the Big Bang discussion. Women release the hormone oxytocin during pregnancy which promotes bonding. (Animals with lower oxytocin levels during pregnancy groom and care for their young less often than those with higher levels.) Unless someone's going to argue that hormones are not biological, which would come as a great surprise to me, then it seems obvious that women will want to spend more time with their children than men will, for good solid biological reasons.

I understand the temptation to believe that women's greater attachment to children is simply a social construct, but there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it is not. Evolutionarily, there is an obvious basis for this. The survival of a woman's genes means that every child is important, since it consumes a huge amount of a woman's resources (nine months of pregnancy, harder work to ensure that she can provide adequate breast milk, etc.), a much higher degree of her resources than of a man's. Therefore, evolution had to do a better job of "tricking" women into raising their offspring, be that means hormonal or psychological.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Stevens identifies physiological mechanisms which orient women towards their kids; Petey says men have no physical obstacle deterring them from being with their kids. Both true: we have evolved to match, with unknown precision, the conditions we faced during long periods very different from today, and which we guess to be most like the conditions modern hunter-gatherers face.

People are fairly plastic, but they have tendencies. Some of our tendencies I disapprove of - men squirting semen into every woman they can persuade/coerce is one of them, hostility towards nonmembers of the group is another. There's a huge fuss over whether women's math talent levels tend genotypically, as well as phenotypically, to cluster closer to the mean than men's, discussed earlier, and whether this is a problem about which we should do something.
I think it's perfectly legitimate to identify things we tend to do for biological and genetic reasons as inappropriate, immoral, and to campaign against them. On the other hand, my kid roots for the Redskins and the Nats, and I'm not going to do a lot of work to sell him on the idea that the Cowboys and the Yankees are just as nice - save that effort for persuading him not to take up arms against the vile Canadians. dave.s.

Phoebe said...

If I may intervene...

There's biology and there's biology. A man cannot give birth to a child, making this particular joy/burden something only women can experience. Even adopted children, whose mothers did not give birth to them, came out of women, not men. Culture doesn't enter into it.

But it is perfectly, physically, biologically, possible for a baby, once born, to spend more time with its father than with its mother. Surely you can think of individual cases where this has happened, whereas men or 80-year-old women who've given birth...not so much. More-involved fathers may be unusual, and the scenario may always happen less frequently, for reasons cultural and only in the most indirect way biological. Or perhaps things will even out over time. Hormones are real, yes, but not in the same way as a baby emerging from a woman and not from a man is real. Different women will have different relative interests in staying home with children and going back to work. Different hetero couples will make different decisions about who works how much when, whereas there's no debate over who actually gives birth. Being human is about being more than what one's hormones 'dictate', which isn't to say one must ignore them 100% of the time, but one need not follow them unquestioningly.

Petey said...

"Being human is about being more than what one's hormones 'dictate', which isn't to say one must ignore them 100% of the time, but one need not follow them unquestioningly."

Yup. We're chimps who have a wonderful ability to evolve a society quite different from our 'natural' chimp inclinations. It's what defines us.

alex said...

Phoebe, it is true that we need not follow our hormones unquestionably, but in reality we end up doing so a good portion of the time - for reasons that may be reasonably described as "biological," although you may prefer a different word. So MacDonalds point - "the fertility clock and women’s greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities." - seems correct.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, Alex was wrong then. Phoebe did mean simply that men have just as many legs as women. In which case, her point is clearly true and also obvious and uninteresting.

Andrew Stevens said...

Dave S.'s comment is probably the final word. I have no doubt that, as Petey maintains, we could create a society in which we convince women to override their subjective preferences and spend less time with their children and convince men to override their subjective preferences and spend more time with their children. I have no serious doubts that such a project could in fact work and parity could be reached in child-rearing. What I doubt is that this would be a particularly wise project. In the end, we're going to go the opposite way anyway. With modern birth control, women without much in the way of maternal feelings will, outside of all of our lifetimes but sooner than you might think, eliminate themselves from the gene pool. Anti-maternity feminism is a doomed project.

Phoebe said...

"In which case, her point is clearly true and also obvious and uninteresting."

Sorry to bore you.

"Anti-maternity feminism is a doomed project."

Who's anti-maternity? Why not look at this as pro-paternity?

"Dave S.'s comment is probably the final word."

No.

Look, it's a simple enough point, that there are biological factors, cultural factors, ambiguous middle-ground factors, and everything on the spectrum from one to the next. Who takes the kid to kindergarten or helps shop for folders in September clearly falls closer to 'cultural factors' than 'biological factors.' Men and women alike face conflicting pressures and desires regarding work/family. Before lumping this post into Official Feminism As You Imagine It, let me point out that I don't think there's anything gained in fighting for a world in which all parents share all household/child-rearing tasks equally. Different things work for different families. The point is to have a system that makes having time to raise a family and have a job possible for men and women alike, to have the decision of who spends more time doing what (or whether to go the 50-50 route) left up to families themselves, not to social conservatives (or social liberals) who read some study and decided that Science once and for all proved their politics correct.

Anonymous said...

It happens that in my family I am the one who does most of the doctor-office-visits, the tracking-of-mean-girls-at-school, the take-to-games stuff, the playdate calendar, cooks dinner every night, and who works the less demanding job. My wife is the 65-hour-a-week person, and she makes twice as much as I do. (I'm also the one who weenies around reading blogs, which she regards as pointless...) Phoebe's statement that different things work for different families is dead on. As I look around me, though, families like ours are kind of unusual, and families where the guy is the one out slaying tigers seem more usual. dave.s.

Petey said...

"The point is to have a system that makes having time to raise a family and have a job possible for men and women alike, to have the decision of who spends more time doing what (or whether to go the 50-50 route) left up to families themselves"

I agree wholeheartedly with Phoebe's point that we should establish a European-style social safety net system here in the US.

Had I understood this was her point earlier, many pixels could have been saved.

alex said...

"Who takes the kid to kindergarten or helps shop for folders in September clearly falls closer to 'cultural factors' than 'biological factors.' "

Phoebe, you seem to be asserting that this is "clearly" true, but its one of the points under dispute. If, say, hormones tend to make women enjoy spending time with their kids more so than men, then who ends up taking the kids shopping may end up being significantly shaped by 'biological factors.'

Andrew Stevens said...

Indeed, that is the only point since nobody here is disagreeing that different things work for different families. The point of the original article which Phoebe was criticizing, let us recall, was that on average women do do most of the child-rearing and that this is for very good reasons.

Phoebe's entire last comment was knocking down a strawman, which nobody on this thread was arguing for.

Phoebe said...

"The point of the original article which Phoebe was criticizing, let us recall, was that on average women do do most of the child-rearing and that this is for very good reasons."

No, that's *your* argument.

MacDonald wrote: "But the fertility clock and women’s greater involvement with their babies are not chauvinist plots; they are biological realities."

To classify "women's greater involvement with their babies" as a "biological reality" in the same way fertility clocks are biological realities is, if nothing else, a stretch. That older women, along with all men, cannot give birth hasn't a thing to do with 'the patriarchy' but is indeed a biological reality. This is true of *all women* and *all men*, without exception. That's a reality. Whereas the fact (if it even is a fact) that even married men are on average less involved in raising their babies is clearly so influenced by cultural factors that to pin the whole thing on a hormone, one of many factors in a complex situation involving people, not apes, is to miss the point.

Andrew Stevens said...

So what do you imagine MacDonald's actual argument was? Your point that men are not physically constrained from spending as much time with their children as women is so obvious that you surely don't believe that MacDonald believes the opposite. So what do you think MacDonald meant?

Petey said...

I'll note that I finally just clicked-thru to the NYTimes article on the support group for the poor women hooked up to failed investment bankers.

That's some tasty stuff.

Moral of the story: Phoebe's argument may be a bit muddled, but she provides good links.

Phoebe said...

"So what do you think MacDonald meant?"

I think she cleverly slipped in the part about women wanting to spend extra time with babies under the rubric of "biological reality," alongside "fertility clocks," which do point to something undeniable and basic, so as to further her political point.

alex said...

"Whereas the fact (if it even is a fact) that even married men are on average less involved in raising their babies..."

It is a fact. Recall that earlier in the thread I posted a link to this paper - see table 2 for some hard data on this subject.

"... is clearly so influenced by cultural factors that to pin the whole thing on a hormone, one of many factors in a complex situation involving people, not apes, is to miss the point."

See the same table 2 for evidence that this fact is true universally, across almost all cultures.

I could make a grand statement along the lines of, when something is true across so many differing social arrangements, then to pin it on our own culture is clearly to miss the point. Actually, I personally would like a lot more evidence before declaring the matter settled. It seems undeniable to me, though, that a plausible case for biology can be made (as I outlined just now), and I can't understand how you manage to be so certain that primarily biological explanations miss the point.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think she cleverly slipped in the part about women wanting to spend extra time with babies under the rubric of "biological reality," alongside "fertility clocks," which do point to something undeniable and basic, so as to further her political point.

In philosophy, the principle of charity is an approach to understanding an argument where you render the best, strongest possible interpretation of an argument's meaning. In this way, various fallacies such as ad hominem and straw man are avoided. Perhaps you're right and MacDonald was engaging in deceptive tactics and rhetoric in order to make her political point. I don't know.