Tag Archives: women in science

Quick hit: “A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings”

Plenty of us have scanned down the list of speakers at a conference and wondered why there appeared to be so few women, but when Jonathan Eisen saw the numbers at Q-BIO, he started by taking note: “Q-Bio conference in Hawaii, bring your surfboard & your Y chromosome b/c they don’t take a XX” [1]:

That is a 25:1 ratio. Pathetic. Embarrassing. The sponsors – UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences and BioCircuits Institute, San Diego Center for Systems Biology, the University of Hawaii and the Office of Naval Research – should all be ashamed.

He notes in a previous post that the ratio of men and women in biology is close to 1:1, so a ratio so far off that suggests something could use some work. But for Q-BIO, he’s taken it a step further and submitted a very appropriate abstract.

UPDATE – I have now submitted an abstract to the meeting. The abstract I submitted is available here and posted below

The probability of having one out of twenty six participants at a scientific meeting be female
A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings
Jonathan A. Eisen
University of California, Davis

(Note – new title suggested by John Hogenesch)

The title alone made me laugh. You can read the full abstract at his blog, including equations and graphs!

[1] See Tim’s comment below

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

How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

There Is Another Linkspam (4 September 2012)

  • So Long, Barbie Dreamhouse: Roominate Gets Girls Excited About Architecture and Engineering: “When Jennifer Kessler, Alice Brooks, and Bettina Chen were first-year masters students at Stanford, they couldn’t help but notice a striking absence of women in their math and science classes. Wanting to inspire an enthusiasm for the hard sciences in younger generations of girls, the women created Roominate, a buildable toy dollhouse that teaches kids about subjects like architecture and engineering, their website reports. Roominate is a stackable set of dollhouse rooms, made for girls ages 6-10. Each set includes build-your-own furniture, circuit boards, color-coded wires and a mini-motor to operate lights, fans and buzzers. Once girls decide on an overall structure for their houses, they can choose to wire each room for light or electronics, take apart and reassemble the customizable furniture, and even change the wallpaper as they see fit.”
  • Amazon Customers Go Rogue, Hilariously Review Bic’s Idiotic Pen for Women: “We’ve discussed the ridiculousness of Bic for Her — the pen specially marketed towards women, which, no, does not mean that they’re branded with the face of Betty Friedan — in the past, but it seems that consumers have now taken the mocking of the product into their own hands via Amazon UK, a site where you can now find page after page of brilliant and hilarious fake product reviews from clever users who are alternately thrilled that there’s finally a tool that women can write with, confused because they’ve never seen a pen before or concerned about the dangerous path that allowing women to write will inevitably lead us down.”
  • A Challenger Appears for the Fake Geek Girl Meme: “But if there’s one we wouldn’t mind eradicating from the internet, it’d be the Idiot Nerd Girl Advice Animal meme. It’s emblematic of the persisting idea that tells people it’s ok to nastily call women out for not being “authentically geeky” enough… Dark Horse Comics editor Rachel Edidin, however, had the idea to try and turn that around a week ago, by creating a sort of anti-meme that, instead of presuming that the pictured girl is pretending to like nerdy things in order to get attention, presumes that the girl actually knows her stuff and is tired of people assuming she doesn’t because of her gender. And a week later? A quick check of QuickMeme is about half full with defiant nerd girls.”
  • [Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence] Study Says: Television With Powerful Female Characters Causes People To Have Higher Opinions Of Women: “The idea that a powerful female character outweighs violence against women so much that women actually find those shows more reassuring than shows without violence at all is pretty amazing. The idea that the men in the study found shows with sexual violence against passive women to be the most comforting is less so.”
  • [Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence] Joss Whedon Is The Tim Wise of Sci-Fi: “He includes ~strong female characters~, feminist characters, queer characters in his work. Great, I’m in. But then he proceeds to do really gross things to them. He undermines them, tears them down, places them into incredibly misogynist and abusive frameworks and then frames their heroism as clawing their way up out of that (if it doesn’t kill them) without adding anything new to the discussion. Then he proceeds to collect praise for confronting issues when he’s not really confronting them so much as using them as cheap narrative devices.”

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.

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)


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.


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.


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.