Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gender Bias in Science

Like any opinionated adult, I'm drawn to gender bias discussions like a moth to a flame.

Two interesting articles came across my desk a while back. Why Can't a Woman Be More Like A Man? by Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute and Women in science -- passion and prejudice, by Nobel Prize Winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, in Current Biology.

Both are carefully reasoned articles. Both attempt to dissect the issues surrounding gender bias in science. I have a left wing knee jerk liberal bias against anything that comes out of the AEI and a corresponding pro bias against anything a Nobel Prize Laureate has to say. The AEI article has been represented as anti-women and the Current Biology article as pro-women. What's interesting to me is how similar both articles are.

Both articles make the assertion that top drawer science is an obsessive occupation, often consuming personal resources that would otherwise go to home and family regardless of the scientist's sex. Both articles suggest there is, in part, a biological component in vocation choice of women and men. Both articles suggest that vocation choice is at root the real reason women are under represented in science-- to quote the AEI article quoting Hillary Clinton, "women comprise 43% of the workforce but only 23% of scientists and engineers". The AEI article points out that while women now occupy the majority position in undergraduate and graduate schools and are the majority of graduated Ph.D's, the majority of those Ph.D's are not in "hard" science: physics, engineering, etc. Life sciences are grouped outside of "hard" sciences-- something I don't understand. There's a lot of physics in biochemistry.

The conclusion of the Current Biology article is that we are not yet "at a stage where women have the same opportunities as men to turn their passion for science into a successful career". The conclusion of the AEI article is against using a Title IX approach to science, saying "Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive and less time-consuming produce anything like [current] results?"

I suspect there is some gender bias in science. Overcoming such things takes a generational time frame and not a political time frame. The generation time of science is long with professors often teaching or directing well into their seventies or eighties. This means if you have a student that gets his Ph.D in 1973 (the year Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard finished her thesis), with all of the sexism at the time, it's highly likely the resulting professor will be running his own lab or directing an institution thirty-five years later. Or, as is just as likely, the student gets his Ph.D in 1959 at age 30, he'll be 79 in 2008. I know several researches at or around that age.

This means that for sexism to change in science it is not sufficient to wait around for the previous generation to die off. Unlike politicians and CEOs, scientists last. The scientific governing structure must change itself.

Which it has. The AIE article points out that forty years ago that 23% number was 4%-- a six fold improvement.

Are there biases against women in science? Absolutely, as demonstrated by the attitudes espoused by Larry Summers when, as President of Harvard University, he suggested one reason for the disparity between men and women in science was a difference in intelligence. One can ask why the President of Harvard University might think this was a wise and expedient thing to say regardless of whether he believed it-- perhaps Summers is in the lower intelligence group. It is interesting to note that both Summers and Nüsslein-Volhard have said that intelligence is not the deciding factor.

For my own part, I expect there is a cognitive difference between men and women-- note I said cognition and not intelligence. If you look at hunter-gatherer cultures there is a difference in roles. If you look at chimps, there's a difference in roles. There's enough selection in chimps to generate a difference in body size, for example. It's unreasonable to expect that evolution of cognition isn't open to natural selection as any other phenotypic trait.

It is interesting that when one examines the animal models of cognition-- chimps-- there's not much cognitive difference shown between males and females except a suggestion that females are smarter than males. But how significant could that be?

Regardless of the possibility of cognitive differences, and this is the important part so don't look away, they are not relevant to modern society. By "modern society" I mean when we left hunter gatherer cultures and moved to agriculture. Very few hunter gatherer qualities are useful today. Like all evolutionary systems, we've taken what we used for one purpose and reuse it in a new context. Therefore, any cognitive differences between men and women that arose a hundred thousand years ago are irrelevant in the society we live in now. Sure, women probably think differently than men. They've had different selection pressures put on them.

So what? Men and women today both have to solve completely new problems that have no connection to the problems those purported cognitive differences evolved to solve. The cognitive differences are just not relevant.

Differences in bodies-- i.e., women bear and nurse children and men don't-- are more significant.

Though the bias undoubtedly exists, I'm loathe to attack the issue in a political way. Title IX has opened sports to a lot of girls-- an unequivocally good thing. But by the Law of Unintended Consequences, it also killed a lot of sports programs. For example, take a Big 10 University sports program that is required match sports funds with its female students. Is it going to reduce the football program? Hm. Biggest revenue source for the University. Biggest draw for alumni donations. I don't think so. Then, where's the money come from? It comes from lesser men's programs. This isn't right or good but that's the way it is in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free. Money talks.

Not to mention in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free, where money talks, raising children is penalized since it does not directly create wages. As long as that's true we're going to have problems. Why not pay women (or families) to rear children? It is by far the most important job in the country. Yet we regularly penalize those that do it. The tax incentive method we now employ is embarrassingly inadequate.

But I digress.

Frankly, I don't care all that much about sports programs. I think Americans are far too sports conscious at the cost of academic programs. Not so about science. This country has a love/hate relationship with science. We love science when it's spiffy and neat and does good things for us. We hate science when it comes up with things that poke at our preconceptions. Note the issues with evolution and global warming. To inject forced quotas into a system that is already beleaguered is likely a recipe for disaster.

I have no clear answer at to any solution to bias. Women bear and largely rear our children. It's unlikely we're able to completely abandon our mammalian biology. Therefore, it's unlikely we're ever going to have complete numerical parity in any professions. There is always going to be a significant population of women that would prefer to (or are forced to) engage in the rearing of their children instead of attacking tough scientific problems. There are always going to be fewer men than women that would have the same preference. I have no idea where the percentages fall once all the other impediments are handled but expecting 50/50 is probably unreasonable.

But if that's true, where's the end state of the problem? When will we reach it? If we do reach it, will we be able to tell? Legislation and institutions outlive the purposes for which they were created. If we create an institution to enforce "equality", will it be smart enough to disassemble itself when the job is over? Few other institutions have this ability, will this institution be any smarter? If we screw up a generation or two of athletes, so what? But if we screw up a generation or two of the cognitive elite, men and women, we're in hot water.

There are some generational problems that may just be better handled generationally.

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