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Rui Dai

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Women in Science

Posted: 10/02/2012 5:56 pm

Gender inequality is inherently unfair. More importantly, it also discourages young girls from pursuing dreams that could one day change the world. It dashes potential revolutions before they can even begin. Appointing females to more important positions and actively mentoring female students in scientific research will not only generate new ideas, but also have reverberating effects on culture in general.

Recently in PNAS, researchers from Yale University published an inherently simple finding that asked scientists to review fake applications from a student aspiring to become a scientist. All the applications were identical except for one factor: gender. Half of the applications indicated that the applicant was male, the other half female. The results indicated that scientists, both male and female, were less willing to mentor the female applicant than her male counterpart. Despite the fact that women are earning more degrees in biology than men, this indicates a continual bias against women in science.

There are many reasons why this bias continues to exist. It is not the first study of its kind. There are dozens, if not hundreds of articles that document the gender inequality in academia. Between 1995 and 1996, a large-scale study published in 2004 surveyed 1814 full-time medical school professionals and found that female medical faculty were paid less and were less likely to be full professors in comparison to male faculty with similar professional roles and achievement. Similar finding have been reported with numerous variations in different articles at different times. Recently in June of 2012, the Journal of American Medical Association published an article that found that there was a distinct pay gap between male and female physicians.

Many people believe that the gender bias is a result of the inherent differences between men and women. Because of demands of the job, women simply didn't want to become research scientists. However, a report by the National Academies of Science in 2006 found that belief to be unsubstantiated. Many female scientists tended to continue to pursue careers in academia even when their pursuits seemed to significantly conflict with their roles as parents. This is however often not recognized as tremendous dedication to their careers, but a weakness. Women are believed to be a bad investment because they have to worry about children. However, the report found that men also tend to have to worry about familial issues, but it is just less obvious. Opposed to maternity leaves, men tended to take more sick leaves. In general, the report found that there is not a lack of women willing to go into academia, and nor is there a lack of dedication from female scientists. Yet there remains a large gender bias in academia.

This is truly troubling. But it is not surprising. Flip through any scientific textbook and most of the scientists featured will be men. Walk through any hospital, and in all probability, the majority of physicians honored on wooden panels will be men. When we think of scientists or physicians, we do not picture in our minds a woman, but instead the stereotypical white male.

Once I attended an information session for students with identified potential for careers in scientific research. The male moderator, with a panel of female scientists, promptly informed us at the beginning of the session that he was there to represent academic research (the rest of the panel were representatives of other possible careers) and that "women tend to not last in academia."

I do not believe that the gender bias in academia is intentional. Though what the moderator said during the information session angered me, I do not think that he was intentionally misogynistic. But the fact that it is not intentional reveals a much deeper problem within academia and our society in general. The moderator had believed that women tended not to last in academia, because academia was a rat race and women were too nice for the competition. I think this is a dangerous assumption. Across our society, not only in academia, women are touted as more caring and more empathetic. It is supposed to be an advantage. Even women commentators have suggested that this is an inherent difference between men and women. Yet this very excuse carries with it a connotation that women are not competitive enough. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. It seems like empathy is a trait that society has given women because men didn't want it.

This is not the kind of atmosphere we want in academia. It eliminates potentially groundbreaking ideas and ambitions before they can even start. With this perspective, no wonder the PNAS study found that both men and women professors prefer to mentor male students than female students.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once mentioned during a testimony before Congress that the reason why NASA is important is not because of immediate possibilities of what we might do with rocks that we find on Mars. Instead, NASA is a cultural phenomenon that inspires students to achieve the best in science. It is an engine for innovation in indirect ways by influencing our culture. Our investment in women today is similarly positioned. Professors might not want to mentor female students because of fears that the students might disappear after becoming pregnant. But not every female student will run off and not every female student will place family above everything else. Professors must intentionally mentor female students so that women can rise in academia and the culture can be changed.

We need more women in the top of the ranks of academia not because of short terms effects what discoveries they might find, but because of the reverberating effects that it will have on culture. Marie Curie inspires me to this day, even though she worked in a field completely different from mine. Just as NASA serves as a nucleus of aspiration for future scientists, famous women in science will do the same for young girls.

 
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