By Guest Author 17/10/2018


Nancy Longnecker

The well-written article entitled ‘Why men don’t believe the data on gender bias in science’ by Alison Coil stimulated this post. Coil points out that gender disparity is about much more than a numbers game and is not necessarily the result of the overt sexual harassment that is at long last being exposed in some industries.

While gender is a predictive factor, implicit bias is far more complex. There are talented men who are humble and supportive of others and who do not reach their potential in terms of promotions because they are not perceived as ‘strong’. There are many talented men and women of colour who must ‘prove’ themselves to be far more than capable in order to be considered for opportunities. I am disturbed (not surprised) to see the US rolling back measures that aim to mitigate implicit racial bias in university entrance. My own experience as a privileged white woman who has had access to quality education in science means that I know more about the situation for women in science. That is my focus here.

Nancy Longnecker and students.

It frustrates me to hear the noble argument that more girls should be encouraged into STEM subjects to even out gender disparity. I do not argue against programs to encourage underrepresented people into fields where they have a talent. I have worked on such programs myself. But if increasing entry level numbers is all that is done, it will not result in a level playing field in anything quicker than a geological timeframe, if at all. If applied on its own, feeding the pipeline to fix persistent gender disparity reinforces the myth that once there are more qualified women in a field, those qualified women will be promoted and have parity with equally qualified men. That approach is like giving a patient a blood transfusion without dealing with their haemorrhage.

Unfortunately encouraging girls to study and work where there is implicit bias can lead to frustration. It can result in talented women leaving jobs prematurely after years of hard work, possibly not achieving what they set out to achieve. This results from varying degrees of frustration and in some extreme cases, bullying and humiliation. Would their time, efforts and significant talents have been better spent elsewhere? Perhaps not. Perhaps that is the price individuals have to pay in order for society to move forward.

When I was a graduate student at Cornell University, the first woman to ever study for a PhD in that department was still there, finishing up. That was decades ago, not centuries. I have been lucky to not have personally experienced overt sexual harassment in my workplaces, at least not the extreme kind recently being exposed in some industries. I naively believed that if I studied hard, worked hard and was productive, that I would land a tenured job in academia, that glorious place where people are objective, are open minded and search for truths. Forty years later, I have a good job for which I am grateful. I have been continuously employed and received promotions. But I am not currently tenured and was on soft money for the majority of my career.

I was a good student, recognised for academic success and rewarded with prizes and scholarships. At Cornell, that did not make me particularly outstanding. It eventually dawned on me over the many years that I lingered in that stimulating environment that I was seeing many gifted graduate students and postdocs making career choices that included manual labour, teaching in secondary schools and other reasonable activities which did not require their qualifications. There is certainly nothing wrong with manual labour. And my hat goes off to anyone who chooses to teach high school. I would find that a very hard way to make a living and have great respect for those who chose this. My question is this: Is it a good thing for people to go into teaching not because they are passionate about it but because they consider it a last resort? PhDs being employed outside of academia is a good thing. But is it a good thing for people to work hard, study hard, make sacrifices and then not be employed in a job that will use their expertise? Is this a good investment by either the individual or by society?

Having lived through the 1960s I thought society had arrived at a doorway into the future. As a young, ambitious, well-educated graduate student in the last century, I believed in progress, that things would continue to get ‘better’. Belief in progress is one reason some study and work as scientists. To solve problems. To help make the world a better place. I thought I wouldn’t experience the gender bias that had kept my great-aunt in a low-level position while men with less experience and qualifications were promoted around and above her. That I wouldn’t experience the overt bias that kept my aunt from graduating with a geology degree because a male professor would not pass a woman in a core subject. How could a woman have what it takes to study rocks?

Now I think that history is about cycles as much as about progress. Many societies around the world are on a rapid regressive trajectory. Currently in New Zealand, there is room for hope and optimism among progressives. I cling to hope that society cycles in a spiral rather than a circle. That even when societies spiral downhill, they end up in a slightly higher resting place. While it is understandable to succumb to depression given world events in 2018, it is crucial not to succumb to the inertia that depression can lead to. There is progress in the world to celebrate and there are challenges and opportunities to work towards.

NB: Another good read is Nicola Gaston’s book, Why Science is Sexist.

Nancy Longnecker is a Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago. This post was originally published on Linkedin.