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Posts Tagged ‘women in science’

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Aug. 6, 2014.

Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry spoke about gender bias in science at the July 30 Fermilab Colloquium. Photo: Lauren Biron

Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry spoke about gender bias in science at the July 30 Fermilab Colloquium. Photo: Lauren Biron

Both men and women need to improve how they evaluate women in the sciences to help eliminate bias, says Meg Urry, who spoke at last week’s Fermilab Colloquium. People of either gender fall victim to unconscious prejudices that affect who succeeds, particularly in physics.

“Less than 20 percent of the Ph.D.s in physics go to women,” Urry noted, a figure that has barely crept up even while fields such as medicine have approached parity.

Urry, a professor at Yale University and president of the American Astronomical Society, unleashed a torrent of studies demonstrating bias during her talk, “Women in Physics: Why So Few? And How to Move Toward Normal.”

In one example, letters of recommendation for men were more likely to include powerful adjectives and contain specifics, while those for women were often shorter, included hints of doubt or made explicit mention of gender.

Another study found that in jobs that were perceived as masculine, both men and women tended to award the position to the man even when the woman was the qualified individual.

Other data showed that women are less likely to be perceived as the leader in mixed-gender scenarios, Urry said. When small numbers of women are present, they can become an “other” that stands in for the whole gender, magnifying perceived mistakes and potentially confirming a bias that women are less proficient in physics.

“You need a large enough group that people stop thinking of them as the woman and start thinking of them as the scientist,” Urry said.

Urry advised the many young women in the audience to own their ambition, prep their elevator speeches, get male allies who will stand up if female voices are ignored, practice confidence and network. Above all, she said, work hard, do interesting work, and don’t be discouraged if things get rough.

Meanwhile, Urry said, leaders need to learn about bias, actively look for diverse candidates rather than wait for applications, mentor and prevalidate women, such as when introducing a speaker.

Urry worked hard to debunk the myth that hiring more women means lowering the bar for diversity’s sake.

“When you hire a diverse group of scientists, you are improving your quality, not lowering your standards,” Urry said, echoing sentiments from her lunchtime talk with 40 women. “We should be aspiring to diversity of thought to enrich science.”

Lauren Biron

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This originally appeared in Fermilab Today on Jan. 23, 2014.

Fermilab docent Toni Mueller shows students a model of a beamline. The Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics coordinators offered participants a tour of Fermilab or Argonne. Photo: Amanda Solliday

Fermilab docent Toni Mueller shows students a model of a beamline. The Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics coordinators offered participants a tour of Fermilab or Argonne. Photo: Amanda Solliday

Seventy female college students in hard hats descended into the MINOS cavern, walked through the Tevatron tunnel and explored the Linac beamline as part of the Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics Friday, Jan. 17.

“The first time I toured Fermilab, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, even after two years of college-level physics,” said Savannah Thais, a senior physics major at The University of Chicago. “I had no idea what it was like to do science all day, every day.”

Thais attended the 2013 conference and this year volunteered for the local organizing committee. She hopes participants will see the scientists and engineers at national laboratories as potential role models. The conference organizers also aim to provide female physics students a chance to connect with each other.

“Many times, especially at smaller colleges and universities, there are not many women in physics departments. You might be the only girl in your classes,” Thais said. “So we hope the participants can meet other female undergrads who share some of the same goals as they do.”

Sahar Jalal, a senior math and physics double major at Grinnell College, says she enjoys learning about the large-scale research projects.

“I didn’t know there were so many international collaborations at Fermilab,” Jalal said during lunch at Wilson Hall.

In between tour stops, 28 Fermilab scientists, engineers, science writers and docents met with students over the noon meal.

The Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics rotate each year to different sites nationwide. The University of Chicago hosted this year’s Midwest conference, partnering with other area universities and institutions.

The location allowed organizers to offer a Fermilab tour for the first time. The 250 Midwest participants could also choose to visit Argonne, while students at the other regional conferences visited Berkeley, Brookhaven and Livermore national laboratories.

Particle physicists play a particularly active role in the conferences, said Kevin Pitts, a physics professor at the University of Illinois. He notes the two national co-chairs and three Midwest organizing committee members work in particle physics.

Sam Zeller, a Fermilab staff scientist on the local committee, welcomed the chance to offer young scientists a glimpse into the life of a researcher.

“Seeing a national laboratory was a big thing for me as an undergraduate,” Zeller said. “It made me think about physics as a career, so it’s nice to give that opportunity back to the next generation of students.”

Amanda Solliday

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On March 27, three young women from CERN participated via a video link in the UN Economic and Social Council “Youth Forum”, delivering a series of recommendations to improve the situation for women in science. During this all-day event held in New York, young people were invited to contribute ideas on how to improve our world, no less.

ECOSOC is still seeking input from young people ahead of its 1 July meeting where governments will meet in Geneva to address the important topics of Science, Technology, Innovation and Culture. They will adopt a Ministerial Declaration for scaling up actions in this field.

At the start of the meeting, the United Nations Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon asked the young audience if the UN was doing enough for youth. A resounding “No” came back from the audience but he got the opposite answer when he said “Could the UN do more for the world’s youth?”

This ECOSOC meeting provided CERN with its first opportunity to engage directly with a UN organization since it was granted Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly last December.

Three graduate students currently based at CERN were speaking during the “Women in Science” session on behalf of a larger group of young women scientists who had gathered to draft a series of recommendations aiming at improving the situation of women in science.

Kate Pachal, a young Canadian woman currently enrolled in a PhD program at Oxford, discussed what could be done to attract more women into science. Her three points were:

 

  • Fight gender stereotypes at all levels. Improve the representation of women in textbooks, including in the phrasing of problems; Use gender-neutral language when referring to scientists; Increase the visibility of women scientists in the general culture by providing more female contacts for the media.
  • Help young people build a strong “physics identity”: Students who do not feel good at maths or science do not pursue a career in it. Encouragements from peers, teachers and family help young girls believe in their own ability. Classroom activities such as having discussions on cutting-edge physics topics, being encouraged to ask questions or teaching peers all contribute to build a strong  “physics identity”. Having discussions on why fewer women are in science also helps young women see the problem does not come from them but has social roots.
  • Provide role models and mentors for young women. Do it at all stages. Hold career fairs to reinforce girls’ self-esteem and provide a context where they can discuss with other girls facing similar challenges. Provide places where young women can talk with peers and find support.

Sarah seif el Nasr, an Egyptian-Canadian doctoral student at CERN, delivered three recommendations to hire more women in physics and science in general:

  • Implement anonymous job application processes. The applicant’s gender should be hidden during the job application process to avoid gender bias since a study revealed that both men and women discriminate against women. The number of female musicians tripled at five major orchestras once job applicants performed behind a curtain.
  • Implement equitable parental leaves. Both men and women should be given parental leaves and men strongly encouraged to take them. Young women of child-bearing age would then be less likely to be disfavored in hiring if both parents had to share the weight more equally. Shared or split positions would also allow both parents to participate equally in child responsibilities.
  • Add spousal considerations to hiring processes. Institutions should recognize the existence of the dual-career situation and choose to deal with it since half the women with a PhD in physics have a spouse with similar education level (as opposed to only 20% for men). Institutions should take action before beginning a search to provide assistance for spouses and consider split/shared positions. This would help young women find positions without taxing their relationships.

 

Finally, Barbara Millan Mejias, a Venezuelan graduate student at University of Zurich, explained what can be done to retain women in science:

  • Provide mentors for young women starting their careers. The mentor should be different from their boss or supervisor and have proper institutional support. The mentor could for example make sure the young woman progresses properly, that she is given adequate funding and support, that she gets to attend meetings and give talks at various conferences. The mentor should be able to advise the young women on academic and professional issues.

 

  • Have broad discussions about gender issues at large scientific meetings. Men are often unaware of the situation faced by women in science and lack opportunities to discuss this situation, even though they are most often open to it. Men often unconsciously discriminate against women. Education would improve the situation.
  • Hold scientific meetings for women where young women could see how valuable women’s work is, find positive reinforcement, get to talk with peers and get support. This would also provide a place for discussions on issues facing young women as well as opportunities to share experiences and support each other.
  • Implement equitable parental leaves. This point is crucial not only at hiring time but also to retain young women in science.

Let’s hope the voice of these young women will be heard and that laboratories like CERN and universities will make all possible efforts to implement these recommendations.

Pauline Gagnon

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Dedicated to Johanna[1]

There are two observations about women in physics and mathematics that are at odds with each other. The first is that there are relatively few women in science. In a typical seminar or conference presentation I have counted that just over ten percent of the audience is female. The second is that, despite the relatively few women, they are by no means second-rate scholars. The first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes was a woman–Marie Curie (1867–1924). But I do not have to go far-far away and long-long ago to find first rate women scientists. I just have to go down the corridor, well actually down the corridor and up a flight of stairs since my office is in the ground floor administrative ghetto while the real work gets done on the second floor.  Since women are demonstratively capable, why are there so few of them in the mathematical sciences?

A cynic could say they are too bright to waste their time on such dead end fields but as a physicist I could never admit the validity of that premise. So why are there so few women in physics and mathematics? It is certainly true that in the past these subjects were considered too hard or inappropriate for women. Despite her accomplishments and two Nobel prizes, Madam Curie was never elected to the French Academy of Sciences. Since she was Polish as well as a woman the reason may have been as much due to xenophobia as misogyny.

Another interesting example of a successful woman scientist is Caroline Herschel (1750–1848). While not as famous as her brother William (1738–1822), she still made important discoveries in astronomy including eight comets and three nebulae. The comment from Wikipedia is in many ways typical: Caroline was struck with typhus, which stunted her growth and she never grew past four foot three. Due to this deformation, her family assumed that she would never marry and that it was best for her to remain a house servant. Instead she became a significant astronomer in collaboration with William. Not attractive enough to marry and not wanting to be a servant she made lasting contributions to astronomy.  If she had been considered beautiful we would probably never have heard of her! Sad.

Sophie Germain (1776–1831) is another interesting example. She overcame family opposition to study mathematics. Not being allowed to attend the lectures of Joseph Lagrange (1736–1813) she obtained copies of his lecture notes from other students and submitted assignments under an assumed male name. Lagrange, to his credit, became her mentor when he found out that the outstanding student was a woman. She also used a pseudonym in her correspondence with Carl Gauss[2] (1777–1855). After her death, Gauss made the comment: [Germain] proved to the world that even a woman can accomplish something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of the sciences and for that reason would well have deserved an honorary degree. High praise from someone like Gauss, but why: even a woman? It reminds one of the quote from Voltaire (1694–1778) regarding the mathematician Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749): a great man whose only fault was being a woman. Fault? And so it goes. Even outstanding women are not allowed to stand on their own merits but are denigrated for being women.

But what about today, does this negative perception still continue? While I have observed that roughly ten percent of attendees at physics lectures tend to be female, the distribution is not uniform. There tend to be more women from countries like Italy and France. I once asked a German colleague if she thought Marie Curie as a role model played a role in the larger (or is that less small) number of female physicists from those counties. She said no, that it was more to do with physics not being as prestigious in those counties. Cynical but probably true; through prejudice and convention women are delegated to roles of less prestige rather than those reflecting their interests and abilities.

My mother is probably an example of that. The only outlet she had for her mathematical ability was tutoring hers and the neighbour’s children, and filling out the family income tax forms. From my vantage point, she was probably as good at mathematics as many of my colleagues. One wonders how far she could have gone given the opportunity, a B. Sc., a Ph. D? One will never know. The social conventions and financial considerations made it impossible. Her sisters became school teachers while she married a small time farmer and raised five children. It is a good thing she did because otherwise I would not exist.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] A fellow graduate student who died many years ago of breast cancer.

[2] Probably the greatest mathematician that ever existed.

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The Boy Scientist

Friday, December 21st, 2012

I’m back home in Southern California for the holidays, and have been enjoying the sunshine in December, filling up on cheap tacos, sushi, avocados, and doing all the things I miss when living in Switzerfrance (to be fair, the day I get back to CERN I’ll probably be filling up on wine, cheese, go for a walk by the lake and do all the things I miss after a prolonged visit to the US). A few days ago was a special treat—I went for a visit with my college buddy to the California Science Center to see the Endeavour Space Shuttle installation.

A computer scientist and a particle physicist visit the Endeavour Space Shuttle

Last October, winding its way through Los Angeles, the Endeavour was towed slowly past familiar landmarks and ultimately to its last resting place in Exposition Park just south of Downtown. I watched a lot of it from Switzerland, feeling nostalgic, and remembered watching lift-offs from Cape Canaveral on the television when I was still just a small kid. Even as a scientist now, it’s still inexplicably mind-blowing to think we live in a period of history when we can send humans into space.

Of course at the end of the day, after playing around with all the other exhibits, we headed into the gift store to check out all the cool science toys. In the books section, I happened to see this:

Turning to the forward, the last sentence read “So turn the page and begin your experimenting here with the fantastic projects and exciting, new discoveries every boy scientist should know.”

me: “huh. That’s weird. [puzzled]. Maybe they ran out of ‘The Girl Scientist’”
friend: “What would be the difference?”

So I came home and googled “The Boy Scientist” to see what this series was all about. Turns out there isn’t even book for girl scientists. They do have a book entitled “The Girl Mechanic”, with this blurb on Amazon.com:

“Classic girl power is finally here! Females of all ages will celebrate the first just-for-girls entry in the Popular Mechanics classic activity series. Like its predecessors, The Girl Mechanic presents time-tested projects that build skills, enhance creativity, and provide hours of pleasure. We’ve featured choice ideas for crafts, toys, furniture, sports, and games. The standout items include doll houses (one has an actual working elevator!), jewelry boxes, picture frames, playhouses, Christmas cards, and so much more. Some activities a child can do alone, others require a parent’s help, but all of them offer a charming glimpse at the handy world of our past—and give girls essential knowledge that will last a lifetime.”

Way to go, Popular Mechanics, finally publishing classic girl power in 2009! I didn’t have this book growing up, and admittedly, I feel lacking in essential doll-house- and jewelry-box-building knowledge. What do Boy Mechanics learn?

(from Amazon.com) “It’s vintage boyhood and a miscellany of marvelous ideas: from kites and toboggans to workbenches and birdhouses, this collection of projects from Popular Mechanics’ issues of long ago captures all the appeal of American ingenuity at the start of the last century.

With the rawest of materials, a minimum of technology, and a maximum of ingenuity, men and boys in the early 1900s dedicated themselves to crafting wonderful items, both practical and fanciful. It was a highly valued skill that revealed the measure of a man, and Popular Mechanics honored it and led the way in instructing these handy creators. Take a look back at those simpler, good old days—and at what we may have lost in our high-tech era—through these engaging projects, all published in the magazine during the first two decades of the 20th century. The range is simply amazing, and bound to appeal to woodworkers who love classic ideas. They include tools, like T-squares and sawhorses; an animal-proof gate latch and a birdhouse made from an old straw hat; household gadgets and handcrafted furniture; camping gear (including a screen door for a tent); and toys and games. And many of these appealing trellises, decoys, puzzles, and tents are quite doable today. Inveterate do-it-yourselfers will be astonished at the resourcefulness required to build a stove for a canoe and even a houseboat.”

(also here's a fun sociological experiment: try to google-image search "the boy mechanic" and then "the girl mechanic")

Well gee, that sounds like waay more fun…to me anyway. Digging further in to see what Popular Mechanics was all about, I had a look at the editors page:

Well, OK, everyone knows this is a magazine by men, for men. This doesn’t bother me…there are plenty of magazines targeted just to the women demographic. On their site, they write: “Our typical reader is male, about 37 years old, married with a couple of kids, owns his own home and several cars, makes a good salary and probably works in a technically oriented profession.”

But this one book in the California Science Center really irked me…what makes something a “boy” project or a “girl” project? Blue vs pink?

One of the first toys I remember having as a small child was a paper model of the solar system that I could lay out on the floor and learn the order of the planets. Later I had legos, a chemistry set and build-it-yourself robot kits. My dad let me use all the tools in his garage workbench, and when I was old enough, he taught me how to use power tools. My mom took me to summer classes at the Youth Science Center, a local K-8 extracurricular program, where I got to hold snakes and tarantulas, make a working electromagnet and a flashlight, built a model rocket and launched it…and the list goes on. Never once was I labeled as a “girl scientist”. I was always just a scientist.

Emily the JPL rocket scientist, Halloween, age ~10.

A popular explanation for why there aren’t enough women in science cites the lack of role models, but I don’t think this is the fundamental problem. There have been many successful women in science (not saying there shouldn’t be more!): Marie Currie, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Sally Ride, just to name a few off the top of my head. And also let’s not forget our ATLAS Spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti, runner up of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year!

I really think the solution to the gender gap in science and technology disciplines lies with early childhood development. We need more parents inspiring their children like mine did, and as a society, need to admit that there is no place for gender labels which are destructive and backwards-thinking. The Boy Scientist. While standing in the gift shop, I tried to imagine myself as a child seeing that book sitting next to The Girl Mechanic with the doll bed, and I wondered if some small kernel of doubt would have risen up, with my robotics kits and model rockets, that I was not being the pink-loving girl I was supposed to be.

So I still can’t imagine why the California Science Center Explorastore would carry such a book, by editors who while selling “vintage boyhood” are reinforcing vintage gender stereotypes. Isn’t inspiring the next generation of scientists of all genders, races, or backgrounds what a science museum is supposed to be all about? Why take a chance that a young girl on her first trip to see the Endeavour space shuttle could see “The Boy Scientist” and wonder if science is just for the boys, even if only subconsciously planting these kinds of labels in her mind? What would Sally Ride say?

(from www.smbc-comics.com)

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