Tag Archives: women in science

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.

Pillar covered by colourful advertising bills

Linkspam: It’s a Girl Thing! (29th, June 2012)

There were so many links shared about the European Commission’s Science: It’s a girl thing! video, that it got its own linkspam.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

How Science-Geek Culture Discourages Female Science-Geeks

The majority of commenters agreed that women could not excel in math, due to biology and evolution. In Slashdot Science, the commenters were mostly grown men with science degrees. I was a nineteen-year-old girl with only a high school diploma and a love of science. They were more educated than me, and I wanted to learn from them.

Whenever I encountered a Slashdot article about science and gender, I read the comments, trying to learn more about myself. I felt sick to my stomach each time. I used mental gymnastics to reconcile my love of science with science-credentialed, male elders proclaiming with certainty that female brains were unfit for math and science. They were the experts, after all. I was only a young, female science student.

Math and science are hard. I worried that when I found something challenging in math or science, it was because I was a girl and lacked the mental machinery to understand it. (I thought of myself as a “girl”, because I was still technically a teenager.) I accepted evolution. Many times, I had panick attacks over the possibility that I had innate, hard-wired mental limitations. Before graduating with a science degree, I was unproven. There was no proof that I could be a science person, but I already saw mountains of scientific evidence suggesting that I could not be a science person. Unproven male geeks don’t struggle with science research telling them that they can’t do science when they start to try.

Only after I graduated with a science degree did I feel I had the authority to challenge Slashdotters. Only after I graduated did I feel like a real adult. After I graduated, I was livid, knowing that Slashdot commenters were merely conjecturing casually about my mental limitations, unwittingly crushing the self-esteem of my younger geek self.

Sexism on the Internet—especially discussion websites about science, computers, and math—are like guided missiles targeting and damaging the self-esteem of young female geeks. Female geeks are most likely to see male geeks discuss our alleged mental inferiority in math and science. Non-geek women are unlikely to see these comments, because they are not the ones reading Slashdot, Digg, reddit, Hacker News, techcrunch, or Ars Technica.

For many male geeks, conjecturing about women’s mental and career potential is just an intellectual exercise, and stating personal and scientific hypotheses about women as if they are scientific facts is harmless. For us, it is personal and disturbing.

The word LINKS spelt out in clips (safety pins)

All that and a bag of linkspam (8th June, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspammers of Catan (first fortnight of April linkspam)

Enjoy!

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

wall-mosaic

The Gap and the Wall

Last week APM’s radio program, Marketplace, did a story with Freakonomics about the patent gap between men and women. Women are responsible for only about 7.5% of patents in the US. That doesn’t surprise me. What is interesting about this story is that the presenter points to research that shows that when women compete with men they tend to perform worse (not just in comparison with men) than when they compete with women only. He casually recommends that companies like Google allow or encourage women to segregate themselves so that they can attain their full potential without being affected by the gender interaction.

Does this sound familiar? This is the case being made for sex segregated education. Women passionately defend girl’s schools and women’s colleges as safe and nurturing spaces for young women to learn and grow, and I am sure that they often are. My concern is, specifically, with engineering. To my knowledge, there is no women’s college in the US which grants a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I know that some women’s colleges cooperate with a neighboring university so that their students can attend engineering classes, but when women students attend classes at a coed school, they are no longer participating in a women only program. Women may perform better when they are segregated, but the truth is that the real world isn’t segregated and I don’t want it to be. Sooner or later men and women are going to have to work together. I would prefer we change the things that contribute to poor performance by women when working in the presence of men instead of removing all the men.

Do you think you would do better work if you could work in Lady-Land without the Male Gaze? If we are open to segregation why not also look at quotas? Both systems are interfering with “supposed” pure merit systems in an effort to even the playing field.

If you accept that the composition of the community affects the performance of the individual members and you are willing to change the composition of the community to allow some members to perform better then why not move the community to parity as opposed to segregation? Why not require that women need to make up a certain percentage of management and the workforce? I would like to see how women perform when they are represented equally at all levels of an organization.

railway-museum-lamp

Prepping for April Fool’s Day linkspam

The photo has nothing to do with the title, except that we are the lamp of knowledge and truth and anti-sexism shining into the dark corners of ignorance! Or maybe not. Anyway, linkspam:

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Cells shown on a microscope slide

Wednesday Geek Woman: Esther Orozco, cell biologist and politician

This is a guest post by Cecilia Vargas, a retired software developer living in Vancouver, Canada.

Esther Orozco is a Mexican cell biologist, winner of the 1997 Pasteur medal, and a 2006 laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science.

Esther Orozco was born and raised in a small rural town in northern Mexico, where she became a school teacher. I admire her because she overcame all the social expectations for women that exist in such conservative environments and became a successful scientist. She also found time to raise 2 kids. In 1998 she ran for governor of Chihuahua state, Mexico. Last year she became president of the Autonomous University of Mexico City.

The UNESCO/Pasteur medal is awarded by UNESCO and the Paster Institute for “outstanding research contributing to a beneficial impact on human health and to the advancement of scientific knowledge in related fields such as medicine, fermentations, agriculture and food.”

Orozco received the L’Oréal-UNESCO award for her discovery of the mechanisms and control of infections by amoebas in the tropics.

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Wednesday Geek Woman: Virginia Satir, ground-breaking family therapist

This is a guest post by Sheila Addison. Dr. Sheila Addison, LMFT, is a family therapist who currently teaches in an accredited Master’s program at Capella University and is passionate about GLBT clients, Fat Acceptance/Health at Every Size, family systems, and 21st century privacy/public life concerns for therapists.

In 1972, the journal Family Process held its quadrennial meeting of editors, which featured a “face-off” titled “Is Virginia Satir Dangerous for Family Therapy?” Satir and her “second,” another woman, were pitted against the legendary family therapist Salvadore Minuchin and his (male) “second” in a debate over the validity of her work. Such a spectacle had never been (and would never be) held in order to question the work of any of the men in the field of family therapy, and afterwards, Satir never attended another major family therapy conference, turning her attention to work outside the United States.

Family therapy, which broke away from psychology in the 1950s and 60s, was a movement descended from psychiatry and mostly made up of male psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Satir, on the other hand, was originally trained as a teacher and social worker, professions which, then as now, were regarded as “women’s work.” Later in life, Satir described the prejudice she experienced in her graduate program at Northwestern due to being married – in the 1930s, married women were not meant to continue to pursue education, but were to stay home and care for their husband and family.

“Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.”
Virginia Satir

Against the odds, she found her way to the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California to work with anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Bateson’s protégé Jay Haley, psychoanalyst Paul Watzlawick, psychiatrist John Weakland, and psychiatrist Don Jackson. Working with principles from cybernetics, the study of regulatory sytems (integral to information theory, engineering, neuroscience, and other “hard sciences”) the MRI team had previously developed the theory of the “double bind” as an explanation of schizophrenic symptoms, and was using concepts from the fields of constructivism and communication theory to understand the inner workings of families. In 1962, Satir was hired as the Director of Training of the first federally-funded family therapy training program, and wrote her first book, “Conjoint Family Therapy,” based off of the training manual she developed for students. This book, heavily based in communications theory, provided the foundation for her work that would eventually develop in a more experiential, emotional direction, but provided concrete guidance for students of this newly emerging discipline at a crucial time in its infancy.

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.
Virginia Satir

From the cold, mechanistic language of cybernetics preferred by her male colleagues (who talked about “feedback loops” and “homeostasis,”), she developed a feeling vocabulary for family therapy, writing about “love” and “nurturance” and “self esteem,” concepts ignored or rejected by many family therapists who saw them as unscientific or touchy-feely. While the men of MRI sat behind one-way mirrors and gave deliberately confusing “paradoxical directives” to clients from a position of expertise as a part of their strategic therapy approach, Satir stood wives and children on chairs so they could be at eye level with their husbands or parents and talk to them as equals. She prescribed hugging and other forms of loving touch at a time when the prevailing wisdom in child rearing was still influenced by Cold War Era norms that counseled a hands-off approach, to avoid “coddling” children (ideas now thoroughly refuted by empirical research on infant and child attachment).

Satir dared to touch clients during their family sessions, holding their hand while they cried or offering them a hug at the end, breaking the rules about “neutrality” and “detachment” prescribed by psychoanalysis. She shared her own feelings with clients, telling them about feeling sad or caring or “soft” towards them, as a way of reducing the hierarchy between therapist and client and modeling for clients her genuine, congruent self. She celebrated differences of all kinds, and identified gender, racial, and sexual differences as opportunities for learning and celebration.

The Satir Growth Model identified communication patterns, coping strategies, family roles, and intergenerational patterns that led to problems in self-esteem, authentic communication, the nurturance of children, and responsible behavior in relationships inside and outside the family. “The New Peoplemaking,” originally published in 1972 as “Peoplemaking” and later revised and re-issued, sold over a million copies and has been translated into at least 12 languages. It has been adopted as a tool for assisting in the growth of communities, schools, and businesses, as well as families.

“The family is a microcosm. By knowing how to heal the family, I know how to heal the world”.
Virginia Satir

Eventually, Satir’s work moved out of the therapy room and into meeting rooms and lecture halls, as she worked to bring her ideas to a global audience. She founded training programs around the world to teach her methods. She helped to found the International Family Therapy Association, and founded several other international organizations including the International Human Learning Resources Network, and the Avanta Network, later renamed the Virginia Satir Network. Her goal was always to improve relationships within families, but she connected to the larger global peace movement as a way of spreading her message.

Today, Satir is dismissed in textbooks as having a “disinclination to theorize” or “an encounter group for relatives” despite the fact that she wrote or co-authored at least 10 books (both professional and popular) on family systems and family therapy, and founded an international network of training programs devoted to her techniques. The MRI website contains “In Memoriam” entries for Jackson, Watzlawick, and Haley, but none for Satir, who is also left almost completely out of each man’s biography (and Wikipedia article). By daring to talk about emotions, in words parents and children could understand, she challenged the idea that mental health was a discipline that only highly-trained experts could understand. She brought family therapy to the families themselves, and in doing so, was declared “dangerous” to the field, which continued to strive for equality with “hard” sciences in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, focusing on easily-tested behavioral models and insurance-friendly brief interventions, relegating experiential family therapy to the dusty bookshelves of family therapy history. Her work has only recently been “rediscovered” and given grudging recognition as contemporary experiential approaches, such as Johnson and Greenberg’s Emotionally Focused Therapy, have proven tremendously successful in traditional outcome research studies. Satir’s life-long belief, that authentic contact with one another is what people crave, seems to finally have been validated by science.

The social sciences may not be considered “suitably geeky”, as counseling/mental health has become a female-dominated profession (with the corresponding drop in wages that comes with pink collar-dom), although it is still male-dominated in its top echelons of academia and national leadership. But the divide between hard and soft sciences mimics other gendered divisions – between art and crafts, between cooking/cuisine (the domain of primarily-male chefs) and baking (done primarily by women, even in restaurants), between teaching in universities and teaching in public schools. If a geek is someone who is passionately devoted to an area of special interest or knowledge, who has extraordinary skill in their specialization, and who lives and breathes their passion despite the technical demands and social obstacles placed before them, then Virginia Satir was a true geek.

Satir died in 1998 of pancreatic cancer, at age 72. She had always said she would live to be 100.

I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen, heard, understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and touch another person. When this is done, I feel contact has been made.
Virginia Satir

The Virginia Satir Global Netwok and their biography of Satir.
Satir Institute of the Southeast: Biography of Satir
Wikipedia: Virginia Satir

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Trees with yellow and orange leaves, Jenny Jump State Forest

Wednesday Geek Woman: E. Lucy Braun, ecologist and expert on deciduous forests

This is a guest post by Jacquelyn Gill, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, where I research climate change, ecology, and biogeography at the end of the last ice age in order to help address future global change concerns. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Emma Lucy Braun was born in 1889 to rather strict and controlling parents; much of her early education was at home, as her mother was a teacher. She and her older sister, Annette, were fond of the outdoors, and Lucy began pressing plants in high school. Lucy went on to study geology and botany in college, becoming the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in 1914 (Annette, with a PhD in Entomology, was first). Dr. Braun ultimately become a professor of Plant Ecology at the University of Cincinnati, training 13 MS and 1 PhD student (nine of whom were women) before retiring from teaching to focus on her research. This was highly unusual for women professors at the time, as most focused on teaching, rather than graduate mentoring and publishing original research.

The Braun sisters never married, but lived together in their Victorian home in the Ohio valley until Lucy’s death in 1971. They bought an automobile in 1930, taking extensive trips throughout the Appalachians to map, record and photograph the flora. Often, they had to contend with the dangers of moonshiners in the Kentucky mountains, but two sisters traveling alone weren’t typically considered a threat (and they never reported the mountain stills), so they often befriended the locals who would then direct them to the best mountain trails.

Trees with yellow and orange leaves, Jenny Jump State Forest

Ablaze: Jenny Jump State Forest by Nicholas_T on flickr

Dr. Braun published 180 articles in 20 journals during her career, but is perhaps most widely remembered for her 1950 book Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, which was the culmination of 25 years of fieldwork and 65,000 miles traveled for field excursions. This book is a classic reference in ecology that is still widely used today. She was the first to identify the mixed mesophytic forest as a distinct system, identified several new species and varieties, and worked tirelessly to promote conservation and preservation in her home state of Ohio. Her work on glacial refugia and postglacial plant migrations provided some of the early foundations for North American paleoecology (though many of her hypotheses were later disproved by paleo-reconstructions from pollen data). Unlike many early women in science, Dr. Braun was recognized by her peers for her contributions; she was included in the 50 most outstanding botanists by the American Botanical Society in 1956, was the first woman officer of the Ecological Society of America (vice president) and elected the first female president of ESA in 1950 (ESA also has an award in her name).

One of the things that I find most interesting about Lucy is not just the fact that she was an influential and well-respected botanist in a male-dominated field, but she is so often described in terms of her strong will (one male colleague called her a “woman of steel”) and confrontational nature. A former student described Lucy as embodying “four D’s”: she was dedicated, determined, dominating (Lucy was rather controlling of her sister Annette and their finances), and demanding of her students. Others described her as confident, with a strong self-image. These were not particularly desirable traits in women in the first half of the last century (they’re still typically frowned upon)! In a remembrance published in the Ohio Biological Survey’s Biology Notes, her former student relates an anecdote about Lucy:

“The Kenneth Casters of the University of Cincinnati tell about an incident when a micropaleontologist came to lecture in the Geology Department. Because this lecture was after Lucy’s retirement, the newer students in attendance knew nothing of E. Lucy Braun. To them the two white-haired sisters appeared like two characters out of Alice and Wonderland. As the lecture continued, challenging Dr. Braun’s origins of the mixed mesophytic forest, Lucy’s lips grew tighter and tighter. When the speaker sat down she rose to battle and made a ferocious attack upon him which was follwed by a vast silence which filled the room. Finally, the speaker arose and said, “Thank you, Dr. Braun, I wanted to hear your opinion.”

So, the next time someone asks you if you can name a famous woman scientist, you can name Emma Lucy Braun, which is better than 65% of Americans and 66% of UK residents can do. And, because it’s equally important to highlight the accomplishments of current women in science, I’ll leave you with a few women paleoscientists you should know: paleontologist Dr. Liz Hadly at Stanford, paleoecosystem ecologist Dr. Kendra McLauchlan at Kansas State, paleoclimatologist and diatomist Dr. Sheri Fritz at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, paleofire ecologist Dr. Cathy Whitlock at Montana State University, and biogeographer Dr. Felisa Smith at the University of New Mexico.

For more information on Dr. E. Lucy Braun and other women in ecology, check out:

Damschen, Ellen, Kristen Rosenfeld, Mary Wyer, Deena Murphey-Medley, Thomas Wentworth, & Nick Haddad. 2005. Visibility matters: increasing knowledge of women’s contributions to ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3 (4): 212-219.

Durelle, Lucile. 1981. Memories of E. Lucy Braun. Ohio Biol. Surv. Biol. Notes No. 15. Stuckey & Reese, Eds.

Langenheim, Jean. 1996. Early history and progress of women ecologists: Emphasis upon recent contributions. Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics 27: 1-53.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.