Where Are the Female Instrumentalists?


Today is Blog Against Sexism Day. Which is not really a part of my usual repetroire, because there are a limited number of hours in the day. But I'll make an exception for good-cause groupthink, and talk about an issue that I do know a thing or two about. And because it's not just a bloggy thing; today actually is International Women's Day 2006

There's plenty of ongoing debate about the point at which women leave the hard sciences, but given that college classes start out about 50/50 and Ph.D. recipients are three quarters male, one can take a guess. Going by the stories told by women who've spent time at other institutions, we have a comparatively healthy environment. Nevertheless, it stands out that of the eight grad students who've worked in this lab while I've been here, all were male, while two of our four current undergrads are female.

Matters are not so stark if I expand the sweep to encompass the whole building, i.e. the entire School of Physics and Astronomy. Not that I have a tremendous amount of contact with the upper level science undergraduates, but my impression is that they are a fairly evenly distributed population. My fellow grad students, with whom I of course have routine contact, are not, by a ratio of perhaps 2/3. Even granted that only a small proportion of baccelaureate science graduates go on to grad school, this is significant attrition that can't be dismissed as noise on the margins. The question, which I think nobody has fully answered, is why women more often decide against a graduate degree (a decision, I hasten to point out, that I would not hold against anyone).

On a schematic level, one could place the blame on college advising, graduate recruiting, or extra-academic social factors, and I'll unabashedly neglect the Larry Summers Hypothesis. Although Larry Summers himself I would probably categorize as bad recruiting. Or more colloquially, "They won't want you," "We don't want you," and "You shouldn't want that."

"They won't want you" is what the prestigious college professor is implicitly saying to everyone else when he or she singles out the bright young go-getter to join the important research group. But whether our prof is hidebound and just expects the go-getter to be male, or is still in touch with his inner geek and is shy talking to girls, I strongly suspect you'd see a skew were one to ask college professors who they'd consider their top student, or who they'd recruit. Bias can similarly creep in when advisors are helping students pick an academic track, or deciding which ones to push to apply to selective schools or fellowships.

Anyone who gets the small envelope from a potential graduate department or the short email from a fellowship committee has heard "we don't want you" loud and clear. A great many women, though, pick up the message in more subtle ways before the applications are even mailed. It will be emphasized that she'll be working in a mostly male environment, that she'll constantly have to be standing up for herself to ensure that she's recognized and valued. That it will be an enormous ordeal and that hopefully she's up for it but maybe it's not worth the bother.

At some point her friends and family will all have wondered aloud why on Earth she wants to put herself through this, suggested that "you shouldn't want that." Men and women alike, for sure, take some flack for pursuing hellish hours for small stipends instead of getting a real job. But for women, it's still Western civilization out there. How will they ever have time to get married and have kids if they can't realistically count on being able to settle down until their mid-thirties? Don't for a minute think that our culture is entirely comfortable with permanently single, independent women. Large chunks of it can't stand the idea; note that South Dakota recently made sex a crime probabilistically punishable by forced pregnancy and single motherhood. But it's the little things, too. Even a woman in grad school is expected to keep a reasonably tidy house, to style her hair and put on makeup; a (bachelor) male grad student is, axiomatically, a slob. Ultimately a women facing grad school has to devise a personal revolution in establishing how to live, while a man in the same position is handed a ready-made, cool and acceptable bohemian lifestyle.

Maybe I've gotten a few things wrong, and I'd appreciate it if my readers would help me out on that point. Even so, pretty clearly we've got a patriarchal culture and an academic system chock full of hidden biases and weird chicken-and-egg imbalances, and as a result there are maybe two women for every three men attending grad school in my building. But here's the real puzzler for me: of those women I know several observers (in astronomy) and theorists, but for the life of me I can only think of two in the entire program who build experimental hardware.

Where are the female instrumentalists?

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We are trying VERY hard with our two daughters (6 y/o) to capitalize on their interest in science and technology. They love the MN Sscience Museum. They love "Zoom" and "Dragonfly TV." They love their Legos, train set, and any activity that involves mixing and measuring. And one of their best friend's Mom (who they're exposed to fairly often) is a STEM faculty member.

But then the other day in a discussion I happened to mention "science" specifically and they both wrinkled up their noses and said they "don't like science"! When I asked them why, they said it was "too hard" and "for boys."

Apparently they were not making the connection between the activities and interests and this thing called "science."

So now, we're back to the drawing board trying to figure this out...

nope, all of that sounds pretty much right.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on March 8, 2006 7:53 PM.

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