Biology in the News Explained

It’s not about genetics

I have a kid’s book, “What Makes a Rainbow,” in which a juvenile rabbit asks various creatures what colors make a rainbow. Curiously, every female animal is addressed without an honorific: Little Chick, Bluebird, Ladybug, and Butterfly, while the male animals are addressed as Mr. Fox and Mr. Grasshopper. Is it petty to suspect that this sends the message that men are to be addressed (and perhaps treated) in a more respectful manner than women? Does it matter that the creators of this book were all women?

No doubt there are those, including women, who would answer “yes” to both questions, but to me they are answered with a clear “no.” From birth, girls and boys are given many subtle messages that males are more important than females, that clearly outweigh messages of equality. And those messages of equality sometimes feel forced. Why? Because we do not yet assume equality as second nature.

We have dealt with overt discrimination through legislation probably as best as we can. Only in Orwellian or Vonnegutian worlds have attempts been made to deal with the policing of thought, because in a just and free society this is simply not tenable (even if it were possible). But the question remains, why does sexism by both men and women continue to exist, a generation after we thought we had solved the problem?

This is a question beyond the scope of Linley Erin Hall’s new book, “Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie?: The Challenges Facing Women in Science and Technology”*, which attempts only to document that discrimination still does exist, even though many people in power (such as the infamous Larry Summers) deny that it does. This book is necessary, because the current fad of using genetics to explain every possible personality and behavioral trait has ushered in a new dominating ideology that there is nothing more we can do to increase women’s success in the workplace, because success now only has to do with the choices that women make freely.

Hopefully this book will shatter these ivory-tower illusions, and help usher in a new era in which we start thinking about real institutional change, rather than just having another “sensitivity training” session and forgetting about the problem. Hall very clearly and correctly points out multiple times that a bad professional climate for women is a bad professional climate for men as well, and that the long hours and grant/publication stress required to establish a productive scientific career in the U.S. are psychologically damaging for most people, regardless of gender. But the book focuses on women because, as bad as the long slog through the meat grinder of graduate school, postdocs, job search and promotion is for men, it is significantly more difficult for women for a number of reasons. (Hall does not point out, however, that other countries have shown that scientists can be productive with reasonable hours. Dutch researchers, for example, have been leaders in entomology, while working 40-hour weeks – which I can attest to based on the hours I spent alone doing research in a lab at a major university in Holland.)

One of the root reasons was touched on above: scientists are often viewed as authority figures, and both women and men still tend to assume that women are not authority figures. Hall’s examples, both anecdotal and from published studies, are numerous. For example, when men and women work on a project together in an academic or industrial setting, it is usually assumed by their superiors that the men did the bulk of the work while the women merely assisted. Many superiors assign better projects to men in the first place, and then turn around and deny women promotions because their work does not stand out as much.

One of the biggest problems is how women view themselves. Many never get into science or drop out early because they don’t have the self-confidence to proceed. I used to blame these women for their decisions, which can be made despite lack of overt sexism. As my career and life has progressed, however, I have reached a better understanding of how many subtle negative signals about a female’s scientific ability over time can eat away at that self-confidence, leading one to take the easy way out, rather than continuing to fight for every achievement. The mainstream media call this “opting out,” as if men and women are now on equal footing when they make the decision to quit.

On the other hand, men receive the constant signal that quitting their career makes them a failure, because they are brought up to believe that they are supposed to be the bread winners. So, men are much more likely to stick out unpleasant work environments, because “real men” can handle the stress. Is this really the way for science to be efficient and productive? Does it make sense simply to weed out all those who aren’t competitive enough in their class work and research, and make a good proportion of the rest miserable with stress? Yet this is the American system.

The solution to problems caused by ingrained attitudes is elusive, but research Hall describes supports actively addressing hostile work climates. For example, science departments with positive leadership that addresses problems of sexism and harassment as they come up were shown to have much higher graduation rates by women than those departments in which complaints are downplayed or ignored. Women’s graduation rates were also correlated with strong student-advisor relationships, which of course benefit men as well. Those departments with few successful women projected the attitude that those who do not like the environment need to “adapt to it (or get out).”

There is also no logic to support the current system of grant and paper reviews that are single-blind only – the reviewers are anonymous, but know who they are reviewing (and thus the reviewee’s gender). Arguments that reviewers could still often figure out the author of a paper or proposal based on its content are specious; although that may be true, the process still reduces bias overall. Making reviews double-blind would promote fairness and be an easy policy shift for journals – publishers need simply to provide papers to reviewers without a cover sheet.

Grants are more complex because the granting institution wants to be assured that the awardee has the professional experience to complete the work, but it would certainly be possible to reduce even unconscious bias involved, much of which results in women automatically given less benefit of the doubt as to their abilities. Grants could be evaluated first by the panel for the intellectual content, with biographical sketches of the principal investigators removed. It is clear now that many grants are awarded to people, not projects, and those people review each others’ grants in a tit-for-tat system that often excludes women, because there are so few women within the ranks of established researchers. A panel could recommend funding based on the research proposal only, and afterwards evaluate the skills of the researcher. Huge granting institutions such as NSF and NIH could have strict guidelines making it difficult to reject a highly rated grant based on a biographical sketch. Frankly, it is rare that anyone submits a well thought-out project proposal that they are then incapable of implementing, and yet this excuse is used on rejections.

It would be naive to suggest that stricter evaluation procedures would remove bias completely, but they certainly would do a lot to level the playing field for women scientists. Then perhaps women will have a better chance of receiving the grant that might allow them to circumvent the glass ceiling that still persists. Read the book if you still believe it’s all about genetics.

* Disclaimer: I was one of the subjects interviewed in this book. However, I receive no benefit, financial or otherwise, tied to the success or failure of the book.

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