Author Archives: Jessamyn Fairfield

About Jessamyn Fairfield

I'm a physicist who just wrapped up a Ph.D. in nanoscale electronics. I love to talk and write about science, because to paraphrase Feynman, everything is interesting if you look deeply enough.

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mildred Dresselhaus

This post is based on a piece which originally appeared at Let’s Talk About Science.

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging about women in science, I wanted to tell you all about Mildred Dresselhaus, the MIT physics professor and giant of nanoscience sometimes known as ‘the queen of carbon’. For the last twenty years or so, materials made from carbon have been getting exponentially more and more attention. Carbon is an essential building block in many of the chemicals that are important for life, but there are also huge differences between materials made from carbon depending on how the carbon is bonded. Diamonds and coal are both forms of carbon, but with wildly different crystal structure. So many of the hot carbon materials from recent years have come from new ways that the carbon atoms can be arranged. For example, carbon nanotubes are like rolled up sheets of carbon, and graphene is a sheet of carbon that’s only one atom thick. Both carbon nanotubes and graphene have very high mechanical strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, and low permeability for their size. And there are a lot of other ways carbon can be nanostructured, collectively referred to as allotropes of carbon.

But Dresselhaus was into carbon before it was cool, and has been a professor at MIT since the 60s studying the physics of carbon materials. Her work has focused on the thermal and electrical properties of nanomaterials, and the way in which energy dissipation is different in nanostructured carbon. Her early work focused on difficult experimental studies of the electronic band structure of carbon materials and the effects of nanoscale confinement. And she was able to theoretically predict the existence of carbon nanotubes, some of their electronic properties, and the properties of graphene, years before either of these materials were prepared and measured. Her scientific achievements are extremely impressive, and she has gotten a lot of honors accordingly.

And as you can imagine, things have changed a lot for women in science over the course of her career. When she began at MIT, less than 5% of students were female, and these days it’s more like 40%. But of course, it helps female students quite a bit to see female role models, like Dresselhaus. She discusses the importance of mentoring in her career in this interview:

Hunter High School was a real turning point for me. I found out about its existence through the music school. Nobody I knew had gone to one of these special high schools, and my teachers didn’t think it was possible to get in. But Hunter sent me a practice exam, and I studied what I needed to know to pass the exam. It was an excellent school with excellent teachers.

By the end you were already known as a science and math whiz. Yet you didn’t think a science career was possible.

At that time there were only three kinds of jobs commonly open to women: teaching, nursing and secretarial work. I went on to Hunter College thinking I would be an elementary schoolteacher.

But then you met Rosalyn Yalow, the future Nobel laureate.

I took her class in elementary nuclear physics. It was a tiny class, maybe 3 students, maybe 10. She was a real leader and a very domineering person. You met her and she said, “You’re going to do this.” She told me I should focus on science. She left the exact science unspecified but said I should do something at the forefront of some area. After that, she was always in my life, writing letters of recommendation for me, keeping up with my progress.

And for more about Mildred Dresselhaus’ scientific achievements, you can read this citation of her work from winning the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012.

It’s Not Just About Delaying Gratification

When talking about the psychology of success, one experiment that comes up pretty frequently is the marshmallow task. Children around 4 years old were placed in front of an edible treat of some sort, and told that if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating the treat in front of them, they would get a second treat. The children were observed and timed for how long they could go without eating the present treat, and about a third of them made it the whole fifteen minutes to the reward. The experiment was conceived to study self-control, but there have been several follow-up studies that seemed to indicate correlations between how long the children could hold out on the marshmallow task and their subsequent competence, SAT scores, and brain activity in regions related to control and addiction. In short, people often refer to the marshmallow task study to support claims that willpower at a young age predicts success later in life.

But the assumption there is that waiting is the optimal, if most difficult, strategy. Because sure, waiting for an additional reward could show self-control and the ability to look ahead, when the children think they can trust their environment. A new follow-up study explores this concept further:

While volunteering years ago at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, Calif., [study author Celeste Kidd] realized that all the kids around her would eat their marshmallows straight away, living as they did in an environment where anything they had could be taken away at any time. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered,” Kidd says.

Although previous marshmallow-type studies have acknowledged that external factors might influence kids’ ability to wait for the bigger reward, none had directly tested for those factors’ effects. So Kidd and her colleagues ran a study in which they manipulated the reliability of their young participants’ environment. A researcher gave children with an average age of four years some poor-quality art materials and told them if they could wait, she would return with better supplies. In a “reliable” condition, she did exactly that, but in an “unreliable” condition, she returned to explain she did not have any better materials after all. A marshmallow test followed. Those in the reliable condition lasted an average of 12 minutes, whereas those in the unreliable condition lasted only three.

So in fact, the marshmallow task isn’t necessarily a measure of willpower, but also a measure of environmental stability, which ties into socioeconomical status, parenting type, and many other things, and it may be these variables that are contributing to success later in life. Hopefully this message about the inherent classism of the earlier interpretations filters through to psychology popularizers as well as the scientific community.

Science Gender Gap Data by Country

There’s a great interactive feature up at the New York Times displaying the science gender gap, as measured by a science exam given to 15-year-olds, and how that varies across several global regions and 60+ developed countries. The US is one of the countries where boys do the best comparatively, but it’s interesting to see the many countries and regions where girls actually come out ahead. And the global average actually sees girls outperforming boys on this specific science test! But aptitude at a young age doesn’t necessarily translate to closing the gender gap at higher career levels if there is a strong cultural prejudice, and of course the country-by-country variation implies that culture is an important component here.

Researchers say these cultural forces are strong in the United States, Britain and Canada but far less pervasive in Russia, Asia and the Middle East, which have a much higher proportion of women in science and engineering. In Jordan, for example, girls score more than 8 percent better in science than boys do.

“For girls in some Arab countries, education is the only way to move up the social structure,” Mr. Schleicher said. “It is one way to earn social mobility.”

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Being Visible

Being a member of an under-represented group in a technical field can be very isolating. There is often pressure to be the best possible representative of your group, so that others like you are given a chance down the line. And when networking occurs through channels you aren’t privy to, discussions include background you don’t share, and other people’s best-intentioned advice assumes you are just like them, it can get very lonely very quickly.

But there’s a weird corollary to this, which is once a workplace, department, or project realizes it doesn’t have as many women/minorities/outsiders as it perhaps ought to, there is often a push to make the under-represented groups more visible. This might be for recruitment purposes, when a workplace reasons that maybe if they show that there are women already present, they will be able to attract more. Or, to create more inclusive management practices, maybe if an executive committee makes decisions for a department, its racial makeup should reflect that of the department. And the intention—to give the under-represented group more sway or more face time—is laudable; while it’s not the only needed step, it can help significantly. However, if most group members are white and male, these efforts mean that women and minorities may be tapped disproportionately to do outreach and governance work.

On the one hand, this can be great if outreach and governance are things you, the individual group member, are interested in doing. There certainly is a kind of soft power there, to shape your project environment, or to affect the sort of people attracted to it. But often, those tasks aren’t directly rewarded as much as the same time spent doing the actual project work would be. This means that the people asked to do more of what is effectively volunteer work are at a disadvantage for actual job advancement. Even if you want one woman on every governance committee, asking the same one or two women to shoulder that burden when it outstrips the burdens of their male colleagues is unfair. In fact, it’s especially unfair considering that women are already pressured to set fewer boundaries on their time and be more available to volunteer work for free than men are.

What’s more, there is a peculiar disparity in being the only minority in the room for most meetings, while being almost omnipresent in publicity videos and images. If the makeup of an organization is 90% white men, but they tune their outreach to imply otherwise, what does that say? Is it likely to help draw under-represented groups into technical fields, even though it does nothing to address the pipeline or the experiences of those who are already there? Is it misleading, since it doesn’t represent the actual state of the organization or the environment that new recruits enter into? Or is it an acceptable deception to tweak the numbers so that people realize that white men are not the only scientists, programmers, or engineers out there?

It’s good when an organization is aware of representation issues and cares enough to make efforts to address them. However, these efforts sometimes cause issues for the individual members of under-represented groups, by placing extra demands on their time and by asking them to be more visible than everyone else. And not everyone wants to be visible in the first place! But for those who do, the key is to give the time you have to spare while guarding the rest. And if you know of other women or minorities who may be willing to contribute to outreach or governance, you can see if they’ll help split the load. It can be isolating in technical fields when you are thrust into the spotlight, but you aren’t necessarily alone.

Open pipes gushing water

Re-post: Pipeline Guilt

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 9, 2012.

One of the most common metaphors for discussing retention problems for women in science is the leaky pipeline, which paints a picture of women slipping out of the track to the upper echelons of scientific research. The idea is that for, say, the track to being a professor in the sciences, even if you start with a large proportion of undergraduate women studying some field, if some leave before graduate school, before doing postdoctoral research, before landing tenure-track jobs, before landing tenure, or really at any point before becoming department chair and Nobel laureate, that is A Problem. The pipeline that was supposed to shuttle women to the top is leaking. And you can see how the same idea could apply to women reaching any position of power that involves many steps to get to: if you lose women at each step in larger numbers than you lose men, those at the top will be mostly men.

The pipeline metaphor is a useful one for encouraging people to think about the many career stages and how women’s choices are constrained differently at each one. For example, the fact that women are assumed to shoulder more of the burden of child-rearing, as well as the physical tasks of pregnancy and childbirth, affects the work situations of women of parenting age far more than men. And as women get older, they are less likely to receive cultural support for their voices as voices of authority, whereas for men the opposite is true. It’s important for these issues to be discussed among policy makers and hiring officers if women’s experience in the workplace is to be normalized, in order to increase their representation at later career stages, and in this sense the ‘leaky pipeline’ is an apt description of the problem.

But there is another effect of this idea that I’ve observed among women in science that is far less helpful: pipeline guilt.

One of the most natural reactions for women working in a field where women are under-represented, who have heard about the leaky pipeline and want to be an advocate for women in that field, is the desire not to contribute to the leaks. Knowing that women leaving a career progression early precludes women from occupying positions of power at the end of that progression, it can be pretty difficult to change your own path. This is related to the idea of a model minority, and wanting to be the most successful representation of your minority group possible to show that your group can do X, whatever X may be. And even people who embrace alternate models of success for others can have a difficult time accepting those models in their own lives; it is easier to tell someone else that leaving academia to write books is a valid choice than it is to make that choice yourself. It’s a heavy burden to want to be the best example for women in your field, at the expense of your own happiness. And it’s easy to hear about the leaky pipeline and see it as prescriptive, implying that individual women have to choose to stay in the pipeline in order to help solve the problem.

However, I think that there are other ways to look at the prospect of leaving the pipeline. I’ll stick to the sciences as an example, but this analysis can apply to many other fields.

For one, leaving research science and its prestigious end-pipeline positions does not necessarily mean ceasing to be an ambassador for women in science. Science communicators, science writers, science teachers, and science policy makers all serve as faces and voices of science, and having women in these roles does quite a bit of good. People in science outreach and education can also help get young people into science, which adds to the number of women entering the pipeline. People in policy and activism roles can provide support for women still in the pipeline, and work to promote cultural and institutional acceptance of women in science. In fact, it’s really important to show that these support and outreach roles matter, since they are routinely undervalued and dismissed. And even those people who choose careers or life paths completely unrelated to science are still scientifically literate citizens, perhaps raising their children to enjoy science, perhaps raising their voices in support of science during discussions with friends and family, perhaps throwing their vote behind scientifically literate candidates. Most parts of the world have a problem with public understanding of and support for science, but change can start small, on the individual level. And I for one would enjoy having more musicians, novelists, and lawyers who know anything about science, just as I enjoy finding scientists who know the slightest thing about art, business, or history.

Thinking about the leaky pipeline can definitely be helpful in identifying when underrepresented groups leave career paths that seem stacked against them. But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world. Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.

Open pipes gushing water

Pipeline Guilt

One of the most common metaphors for discussing retention problems for women in science is the leaky pipeline, which paints a picture of women slipping out of the track to the upper echelons of scientific research. The idea is that for, say, the track to being a professor in the sciences, even if you start with a large proportion of undergraduate women studying some field, if some leave before graduate school, before doing postdoctoral research, before landing tenure-track jobs, before landing tenure, or really at any point before becoming department chair and Nobel laureate, that is A Problem. The pipeline that was supposed to shuttle women to the top is leaking. And you can see how the same idea could apply to women reaching any position of power that involves many steps to get to: if you lose women at each step in larger numbers than you lose men, those at the top will be mostly men.

The pipeline metaphor is a useful one for encouraging people to think about the many career stages and how women’s choices are constrained differently at each one. For example, the fact that women are assumed to shoulder more of the burden of child-rearing, as well as the physical tasks of pregnancy and childbirth, affects the work situations of women of parenting age far more than men. And as women get older, they are less likely to receive cultural support for their voices as voices of authority, whereas for men the opposite is true. It’s important for these issues to be discussed among policy makers and hiring officers if women’s experience in the workplace is to be normalized, in order to increase their representation at later career stages, and in this sense the ‘leaky pipeline’ is an apt description of the problem.

But there is another effect of this idea that I’ve observed among women in science that is far less helpful: pipeline guilt.

One of the most natural reactions for women working in a field where women are under-represented, who have heard about the leaky pipeline and want to be an advocate for women in that field, is the desire not to contribute to the leaks. Knowing that women leaving a career progression early precludes women from occupying positions of power at the end of that progression, it can be pretty difficult to change your own path. This is related to the idea of a model minority, and wanting to be the most successful representation of your minority group possible to show that your group can do X, whatever X may be. And even people who embrace alternate models of success for others can have a difficult time accepting those models in their own lives; it is easier to tell someone else that leaving academia to write books is a valid choice than it is to make that choice yourself. It’s a heavy burden to want to be the best example for women in your field, at the expense of your own happiness. And it’s easy to hear about the leaky pipeline and see it as prescriptive, implying that individual women have to choose to stay in the pipeline in order to help solve the problem.

However, I think that there are other ways to look at the prospect of leaving the pipeline. I’ll stick to the sciences as an example, but this analysis can apply to many other fields.

For one, leaving research science and its prestigious end-pipeline positions does not necessarily mean ceasing to be an ambassador for women in science. Science communicators, science writers, science teachers, and science policy makers all serve as faces and voices of science, and having women in these roles does quite a bit of good. People in science outreach and education can also help get young people into science, which adds to the number of women entering the pipeline. People in policy and activism roles can provide support for women still in the pipeline, and work to promote cultural and institutional acceptance of women in science. In fact, it’s really important to show that these support and outreach roles matter, since they are routinely undervalued and dismissed. And even those people who choose careers or life paths completely unrelated to science are still scientifically literate citizens, perhaps raising their children to enjoy science, perhaps raising their voices in support of science during discussions with friends and family, perhaps throwing their vote behind scientifically literate candidates. Most parts of the world have a problem with public understanding of and support for science, but change can start small, on the individual level. And I for one would enjoy having more musicians, novelists, and lawyers who know anything about science, just as I enjoy finding scientists who know the slightest thing about art, business, or history.

Thinking about the leaky pipeline can definitely be helpful in identifying when underrepresented groups leave career paths that seem stacked against them. But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world. Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.

Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

Cultural Forces in Geek Inspiration

An interesting survey by an Indiana University science education researcher and Scientific American reported the following about what sparks people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields:

Based on data from a randomized sample of universities and online volunteers who completed a survey, men and women who pursue STEM degrees tend to become interested in science in elementary school. When asked which people and experiences helped to spark their interest, women were more likely than men to select a teacher, a class at school, solving math problems and spending time outdoors, whereas men were more influenced by tinkering, building and reading. As men and women enter college, passion for the field far outweighs all other influences as the main reason for their persistence.

They have some nice graphical representations of their results as well, but it’s worth adding a bit of cultural context here.

“Tinkering” and “building” represent a broad class of activities that boys are pushed toward and girls are pushed away from. These activities can not only provide inspiration for STEM degrees, but also function as practice for laboratory work and problem solving, which is to say as practice for STEM degrees and careers. When Lego sets aimed at boys encourage more creativity and agency than Lego sets aimed at girls, there are real consequences down the line. It is great that so many men are lead to STEM degrees from tinkering and building. But unless we accept the lone tinkerer as an archetype for any gender, this path to a geeky career will be less likely for most women.

Two of the stronger factors for women entering STEM degrees, “a teacher” and “a class at school”, comprise structural external encouragement. It makes perfect sense that this would be more important for the under-represented gender in any field. If a girl doesn’t see people like her in a certain career, she may not consider it seriously as an option, unless she is directed there by something external like a class or a teacher. The good news here is that external factors can make a difference in bringing people to STEM careers, especially under-represented groups.

The largest percentage of respondents (38%) said that the drive to be in STEM came from “self”, and by the time college rolls around, “passion for the field” is the most popular reason to persist (three times as popular as the next three reasons). But still, these self-directed passionate scientists add up to less than half the total! For the rest of the group, and if we want to increase the number of women in STEM fields, it’s critical to have a culture that values science and mentors that seek out and encourage potential scientists.