Women in Science poll responses

Mark Camara Mark.Camara at Helsinki.fi
Wed Oct 2 20:02:43 EST 1996

Hannah Dvorak wrote:

> I do not see how
> "de-emphasizing gender," as Mark puts it, translates to "deny[ing]
> our femininity," as Mer puts it.  If anything, to me, de-emphasizing
> gender would mean moving _beyond_ the idea that there is only one (male)
> way of doing science.
> I think there's a difference between "deny" (Mer's word) and
> "de-emphasize" (Mark's word).

Thank you Hannah for clarifying my post.  My use of "de-emphasize" was
meant to mean that gender-based biases in either direction are
disadvantagewous to us all as individuals and to Sceince with a capital
S.  First, I don't think any of us want to be evaluated in a
gender-specific manner.  This would be either discriminatory or
patronizing depending on the direction of the bias. Secondly, Science,
as a process, is intended to seek truth by comparing theories and
perceptions against external facts.  Hopefully, if there are undesirable
gender-biases in either our reasoning or our ways of testing it, then
they will be exposed when compared to the data, and the truth will
emerge.  Finally, if men and women do, in fact, work differently, who
really cares?  Isn't there room in academia for lone rangers (mostly
men?) and cooperators (mostly women?)? Both approaches have their
advantages and disadvantages.  Science by committee can attack complex
problems from many sides simultaneously, but isn't usually terribly
innovative. Truly radical and imaginative ideas usually come from rogue
individualists who could care less about consensus, but can't fully
explore their implications alone because they don't have enough time,
energy, resources, expertise, etc.

I do realize that the fact that there have been and still are more men
in powerful positions means that women are more often required to work
in an environment designed and controlled by men, and that this is a
problem.  It probably also accounts for Mer's bitterness.  But while she
and I would both be offended by porno in the fume hood, or being booted
from the lab, I would have objected, or probably even have acted by
ripping down the photos or going to the chair or the ombudperson in the
same situations.  Maybe this reflects a difference in how men and women
are raised from the get-go, but I would argue that if her advisor is
such a Neanderthal that he does this, he should be first gently
re-educated, and, if that fails strongly reprimanded, and would set the
process in motion with or without backup.  Mer, however, would probably
need more support and this may be gender-specific.  Unfortunately, these
situations put me, Mer, and ANY  "subordinate" in conflict with their
"superiors" in a delicate position, but it is always necessary that
victims of abuse at least report it if wrongs are to be righted or
punished.  So it is not really an issue of gender as much as an issue of
victims rights (and responsibilities). Finally, even though it is none
of Mer's business how much exposure I have had to women scientists, she
guessed badly.  My Ph.D. advisor is a woman.  We often disagreed, and
some of these were, no doubt due to gender differences, but we are both
thoughtful and reasonable and found ways to make things work despite
occasional friction, and I would like to think that we both learned a
lot in the process.

Back to the poll results, I have been having an off-line exchange with
another participant that has been very enlightening.  I hadn't realized
the extent to which many women find it comforting that others share the
same problems (personally, I find it depressing), and maybe this was
more the point of the poll than to demonstrate a pattern of problems. 
If so, however, the conclusion drawn by the pollsters that there are
still problems seems out of place.  I also cautioned that there was no
simple relationship between the respondents' perceptions of
discrimination and discrimination itself.  I stand by that not because I
want to deny that there are problems, but becaue I don't think that they
can be demonstrated by opinion polls.  A majority of Americans believe
in God, but to a scientist that information cannot be used to support or
refute the hypothesis that He exists.  It's simply not relevant. 
However, I have to admit that these perceptions have roots somewhere,
and that it is worth investigating them.  One thing that has been clear
in my off line exchange is that for cultural reasons, women generally
feel less powerful to stand up to wrongs and to change things around
themselves.  Given this, it is not likely that women are more prone to
feel victimized than men in exactly analagous circumstances?  Could this
contribute to the poll results?  Could this be one reason why men and
women have trouble agreeing on the extent of the problem? To what extent
would changing attitudes among women in ways that allow them to stand up
for themselves help to alleviate this perception AND to expose the
offenders who can now hide behind their victims' reluctance to speak
out?  To what extent would increased sensitivity on the part of men
accomplish the same goals?

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