Gender and Science in the News: Should We Have Grant Quotas For Women?
OK, I'm about to dive into an issue I probably shouldn't be talking about on a blog, at least if I have any hope of convincing a hiring committee to consider me, but I'm going to dumbly rush ahead. John Tierney at the NY Times has been looking into the issue of whether Congress is considering "Title IX'ing" science, by requiring some sort of gender quota in funding decisions by federal science agencies. Tierney argues that in this day and age, it is less a matter of discrimination and more a matter of which subjects women choose to pursue: "The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s." Check the links in the comments for some good, and sometimes not-so-good discussion of the issue. I have no clue about the quality of the evidence Tierney is talking about, but I think gender-quotas in funding decisions would be horrible. That kind of policy would certainly make women second-class citizens in science, because they could never be judged on their own merit. And merit they have. Perhaps mine is a generational view: I'm a younger scientist (male, in case it wasn't clear) who has had outstanding senior women scientists as role models, and outstanding younger ones as fellow students and colleagues. My personal, anecdotal view is that discrimination is on its way out: these days, it tends to mostly take the form of some older professors who had tenure while the baby-boom generation was still in grad school. Yes, these old boys still wield a lot of power, make sexist comments in seminars, and have caused serious anguish to the previous generation of women scientists who had to build their careers in an adverse environment. But women are entering science in ever larger numbers, and I hope that as this younger generation works its way up the career ladder, the number of women in tenured faculty positions will go up. My female peers can successfully compete on their own, and something like gender grant quotas would undermine the reputation that this generation of women scientists is building. If there is one thing that needs to be done to help promote women in science, it's better support for those who choose to have a family. Having children is obviously more of a burden on women than on men in most cases, and we need an environment where having children is not a career terminator. Talented women can go on maternity leave (long or short), and come back and be excellent scientists, but they have to work against a funding and promotion system that is stacked against them in that case. There is one more major pet peeve of mine in these discussions: inevitably, someone makes the claim that women go for the soft sciences, while men go for the hard ones, meaning women go for biology, and men go for chemistry and physics. Let's get one thing straight: biology is not a soft science. If you take 'hard' to mean quantitative, then consider that genetics and biochemistry have always been quantitative sciences (and have long had women working in them: two US Postage stamps honor a female geneticist (Barbara McClintock) and a female biochemist (Gerty Cori), both Nobel Prize winners). But all of biology now is 'hard': there is almost always a quantitative aspect to biology experiments these days, and moreover, if hard is defined to mean a field in which you can formulate unambiguous hypotheses and perform definitive, rigorous tests against nature, then biology is a hard science. Biology may not involve the same kind of mathematical thinking required in theoretical physics, but the thinking has to be equally rigorous in delineating alternate hypotheses and devising clever experiments to distinguish them - something that tends to set the natural sciences off from the social sciences. And anyway, biology is where it's at these days, so it's where any young scientist, male or female should be going. Biology today is what physics was in the 1960's and 70's, the place where some of the most exciting questions in science are.