Meg Urry was on the senior scientific staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which runs the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. That's no surprise to people outside the government-funded research world, women have been doing quality science work forever - heck, Marie Curie got two Nobel prizes and she was living in France at the beginning of the 20th century, you don't get more misogynistic and biased than what she had to endure.
Yet it may be a surprise for you to learn that in 2001 Urry became the first tenured female faculty member ever in Yale's physics department, and then in 2007 she was elected the first woman Chair of the Department of Physics at Yale, 104 years after Curie became a Nobel laureate.
What's the story with liberal academic science? Why is it so far behind the corporate world?
In our 2008 interview with her, Urry said that it wasn't discrimination that held back most women, it was that we generally turn people off of physics in college. She had an interesting take on the matter; she believed women did not go into physics more because many young women want to help people and physics is regarded as an 'ivory tower' field that doesn't do much to directly help society. So women may go into fields like medicine a lot and physics less, not so much because of externally applied bias but because the fields are what they are - or at least perceived to be. There may not be much we can do about perception, we already spend billions of dollars on STEM outreach despite the fact that we produce 6X as many PhDs as there are jobs in academia, and we can't change physics to be more like what more women want it to be, any more than we can change psychology, which has the same inequality regarding men that physics has with women, to appeal to more men.
But one issue can be solved; the difference in pay and how academics treat families. The pay issue is not a big factor in the corporate world; women in engineering, considered a conservative, male-dominated profession, have the highest parity in gender income of any field, whereas fields like non-profit environmentalism have more females yet pay women quite poorly compared to men. There is a pay difference in academia too. Part of the issue is that science functions best as a meritocracy - the best people succeed, even when government controls who gets funding and what gets researched - but women, the best or not, tend to ask for less money than men, social science experiments have found. Invoking a fixed pay scale, like the US military has, will likely discourage a lot more people from going into academia than would be gained by forced income equality but it may be worth studying. Unionizing PhDs seems like a bad idea but unions would certainly love to increase their power at the university level so that has its advocates as well.
Something will be done. Every science membership bureaucracy and every university and every government science agency has a committee devoted to boosting the number of women. The NIH is trying to 'reform' also but critics insist the problem is that academia will not pay 'market cost' unless forced, an issue the private sector does not have. What is that market cost? No one knows, it is just more than what post-docs get now. So they want to establish a minimum wage that will be quite high, instead of new post-docs being treated like cheap labor. Yet that can't happen as long as a glut of post-docs remain and we keep on doing STEM outreach to encourage more PhDs (while we won't give work visas to foreign PhDs who come here to learn because of job protectionism regarding American ones).
It's also a problem of academia's own creation; the latest generation of academic scientists have been steeped in the public relations idea that only academic research is legitimate, that running a lab funded by government is the Holy Grail and only failures will go into corporate science and abandon the 'pure' research that universities offer. Of course, it's a complete myth. If you don't believe administration politics picks and chooses what science you will work on, try to get a job working on SCNT with federal money some time. Forcing a minimum wage means even more PhDs will end up going into jobs they do not want.
And culture is hard to change even if income parity is forced. Medical school is grueling and difficult and so is raising a family working the hours doctors work, yet women do it and become doctors with no extraordinary issue, at least no more extraordinary than women everywhere. In academia, principal investigators rightly argue, laboratory groups are much smaller and thus no one can 'take your shift', so anyone being out for any reason can be a real setback for a project.
It isn't just physics or even men doing the discrimination, as Urry notes in a 2012 CNN piece. In psychology peer review, a study found papers rated higher if the author was male - and psychology is 70% women. It's also been noted many times that if female students are being told in high school that they can't do math and science, they are being told so by female teachers. The overwhelming majority of educators are women. And the same complaint about female representation in liberal academic physics is heard about liberal journalism; does white male privilege rule there too? Or are liberals just able to take a more honest look at their fields? Or do they just need something to complain about?
Like in 2008, Urry still isn't buying that family issues are the obstacle but she says there may be a social science issue at play; men are considered better 'leaders'. Well, maybe, but academics in hard sciences, like people everywhere, tend to give the same credibility to PhDs outside their field as they do those inside, and we all generally don't think as critically about fields we are not experts in. So while Urry might read a popular physics writer like Prof. Brian Cox and see flaws in his overviews of physics (or not, he is pretty darn good), when it comes to sociology she doesn't know enough to see the weaknesses in their studies; she regards the Harvard Project Implicit test as legitimate even though it will find racism in all people - which means their definition of racism is too broad to be meaningful, unless we are to believe 100% of liberal academics would not have let black people play baseball with whites. She believes sociology findings because she is motivated to believe them in a way she is not motivated to believe an arXiv paper on time travel.
So a bias test in the hands of sociologists is more like 'gotcha journalism' in the hands of schlock writers than it is science. Everyone is biased by experience and intelligent people spend their lives trying to factor out bias that has no value, so we can't assume smart, liberal people in academia are unconsciously biased. if I open my garage door tomorrow morning and a tiger is staring at me, I am going to close my garage door. Yes, that makes me biased, but it is a smart bias; there is little chance of a meaningful positive encounter and at least some chance the tiger will attack me.
But I don't care what that tiger thinks about that, it is not in my social sphere; in modern science academia, though, what people think matters, there is no room for maverick outsiders, you cannot get ahead bucking the system because the bulk of academic science is funded by a committee and those are picked by government appointees who have learned to play the game. It is an inherently conservative system and therefore you have to care what other people think and you have to learn the system. The system is not going to get better by establishing a gender quota.
There is a part of the equation Urry leaves out, though she surely knows it exists better than most; things move slowly in academia. She got the job in 2007 because a job opened up, not because a man was fired to make room for her and improve gender equality at Yale. People get fired all of the time in the corporate sector but once you have tenure at a school you are likely staying. When academia decided to throw off perceptions of gender bias they did not fire men so that women could immediately have 50% of the top jobs, they simply wanted to make sure there was no bias in choosing future jobs. Thus, it will take a while for more equality to kick in, women will remain the minority because all people are living longer and continuing to do quality research at a much later age. We're not going to be biased against old people - including the old men who instituted the fairness that broke down barriers for women - just to benefit younger women, any more than we would fire Democrats to try and close the modern Republican representation gap, which shows a lot more evidence for bias in academia than gender numbers do.
So, what is the answer? In 2008, Urry's message was you have to be networked in, regardless of gender. In 2012, she says we have to overcome the perception that only men are leaders in science. Both ideas are right - but what will be most important for young researchers is realizing that change is not going to happen 'from the top', no matter how many committees decide it should be changed.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Research Finds Social Influence Can Prompt Healthier Eating Choices
- Are Primary Stroke Centers Associated With Lower Fatality?
- A Federal Origin Of Stone Age Farming
- The Colon Is Defended From Bacteria By A Self-sacrificing Sentinel Cell
- Marijuana Exposure In Kids Rose After Recreational Use Legalized In Colorado
- LUX Dark Matter Experiment Ends With No WIMPs Found
- Gaining A Better Understanding Of The Way We Taste
- "You have a point. I grew up on an organic farm long before those were cool - it was called being..."
- "The same argument applies to all and any possible dates. Ask them which constellation it is in..."
- "No, because the whole thing is smoke and mirrors, it's impossible. If anyone says there's a planet..."
- "There was that recent NYT piece that showed we passed peak CSA too. It's perfectly fine to hand..."
- "Is nibru coming in July???..."
- Opercular index score: A novel approach for determining clinical outcomes in stroke
- Cataclysm at Meteor Crater: Crystal sheds light on Earth, moon, Mars
- Workforce processes prior to mechanical thrombectomy vary widely, new study finds
- Male frogs have sex on land to keep competitors away
- Cord blood outperforms matched, unrelated donor in bone marrow transplant