Women’s Work

Two unrelated articles in separate periodicals got me thinking about gender inequality in our society. First, the NYTimes science section ran an article this week discussing a piece of legislation that has been passed by the House designed to address gender disparities in the sciences. The legislation proposes a series of workshops aimed to discuss:

methods that minimize the effects of gender bias in evaluation of Federal research grants and in the related academic advancement of actual and potential recipients of these grants, including hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for any honor based in part on the recipient’s research record.

How they are going to address all of this in a workshop, I would love to know. The other story that caught my eye was on the front page of the Metro the other morning: Sexism in the world of startup business. (Hey, don’t judge, I have a long commute and why not read the free paper handed out at the opening of the subway?) The article highlighted the disparities between women and men in business. According to the Metro—who credits Sen. John Kerry and Catalyst Report as their sources—40% of our nation’s private business are owned by women. An impressive number; however, of the $17.6 billion in private investments given to startups last year, only 9.4% went to women.

As a female who is a product of modern society I am of two minds when considering issues of gender inequities. I want to believe the American Dream, which tells us that we live in a meritocracy where hard work, no matter what your race, creed, or sex, will pay off. On the other hand, here is another statistic for you from a study published in the EMBO Journal:

Women constitute approximately 45% of the postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences at universities and research institutions in the USA, but a much lower percentage of women hold faculty positions. In the US National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, MD) Intramural Research Program, for example, women make up only 29% of the tenure-track investigators and hold just 19% of the tenured senior investigator appointments.

Women are in going to school, but they are not occupying academic jobs. Women are running businesses, but they are not getting funds to help them run businesses. It seems pretty clear that disparities exist. What is not clear is why, and therefore addressing the disparities is that much more difficult.

The rest of the NYTimes article went on to discuss and defend statements made by Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, who in 2005 reasoned that one of the mechanisms promoting gender inequality in the sciences is that females are less likely to be geniuses at math and science than are men. His speech is here, and while his scholarship is crude, I recognize that the media and the public interpretation of his statements at the time may have been slightly inaccurate. His main problem in invoking (and I will perpetuate the caricature of his words here) the old “girls are bad at math” generalization is that he was discussing an outcome measure that is notoriously difficult to evaluate and we still know so little about what influences it: intelligence.

The biologist part of me is also of two minds when considering issues of gender inequities in our society. I have learned from my study of our neuro-endocrine system that, absolutely, there are biological differences between the sexes. In fact I spent the last decade investigating those differences as they pertain to hormones and behavior. Men and women have differing biology, but, like many of the other primates, our behavior is influenced by a force that is as significant as physiology: society. Let me stick with comfortable ground for the moment and talk about hormones. From my favorite textbook, An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology:

One outdated model of hormone-behavior interactions… [is] analogous to a faucet: for example, if the “androgen [or testosterone] spigot” was turned on, then male mating behavior or aggression ensued. But the hormone-behavior interactions are far more complex than suggested by this model. About half the readers of this sentence have significant concentrations of androgens in their blood, yet they are reading, not copulating.

This is because hormones change the probability that a particular behavior will be expressed and it is largely constrained by context. Are there mating partners available? If so, are they accessible and cooperative? If so, is there a lion nearby that will eat you if you diminish your vigilance by mating? Social and environmental context is an important variable when thinking about biological drivers and differences.

But I am not expressing any new concept here. The nature vs. nurture argument was thrown out the window ages ago. We now know that when trying to measure an outcome of any nature or nurture influence you can usually guarantee that the other will augment, reduce, swamp out, interact with, feed-back upon, and generally complicate out understanding of the predicted effect. The point of bringing this up in a skeptical forum is to urge everyone to remember that there are complexities involved when we demand that science must inform the structure of society. If we need to decide whether a treatment works or does not, scientific evidence is usually more than sufficient, but if we want to decide on policy so that everyone who wants or needs that treatment can have access to it, scientific evidence alone is rarely sufficient.

Just something that has been rattling around in my noggin.

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2 comments to Women’s Work

  • A fantastic response by women scientists to the NYTimes article. http://www.boingboing.net/2010/06/11/women-scientists-on.html#more

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    I’m interested in the business statistics – private investments given to start ups. Is there information on how many applicants were women? It seems to me that women are more protective of their credit rating, and therefore less willing to try and borrow money, unless they are certain they will be able to pay it back (just a theory based on the number of men I know who have ruined their credit vs the number of women).

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