G is for ‘gosh that’s a tough one’

By Kelly

G is also for gender, a word that makes lots of people cringe, run for the door, or at worst, discontinue reading. I’m back on the topic of gender in science. It’s a prickly issue that feels as though it has been discussed ad nauseum, but are we getting somewhere? Last week there was a symposium held at the ANU which looked at this exact issue, called Women in Science: From high school expectations to academic career pathways. (See Flyer) So where are we at?

Research shows that the choices females make as early as high school are still very much aligned with identity, and unfortunately maths and the physical sciences are still often viewed as masculine choices. So while young women now have the opportunity, and apparently don’t suffer from the perceptions of inadequacy that is often touted, they still don’t choose physical sciences in the same numbers as they do the biological sciences. A senior member of the physics department actually opened the seminar by relating a story of his travels to the former Yugoslavia many years back. He was astonished to see that half the audience in the nuclear physics lecture were female. When he asked where all the women came from, his perplexed colleague replied ‘but they are half the population?’ In communist countries there is usually no choice but to study advanced mathematics and physics throughout high school, and this is reflected in women’s career choices. So should we be forcing our students to continue in maths? Well that is one way…..or perhaps maths teachers could be forced to wear nice shoes?

What I found very interesting was the discussion about opportunity for women, and unconscious bias that occurs even in the most liberal of work places. There is no doubt that even in the physical sciences (including Earth Sciences) the numbers of women ascending the ranks is rising. Associate Professor Marion Stevens-Kalceff from the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales gave an excellent synopsis of a commissioned study that she conducted to evaluate her own department. Her results surprised the entire institute. While the numbers of women were not on par with men, all staff interviewed believed that the allocation of teaching hours was transparent and the division of labour fair. However, on closer inspection it turned out that juniour women covered all of the large “service” subjects (as in general physics that catered to people studying general science rather specifically physics). These classes had far greater numbers of students, and not necessarily the ones likely to go on as potential research students. This, in both instances, kept the juniour staff from being able to concentrate on establishing their research presence. On hearing this, a very senior male immediately offered to give up one of his second year pure physics courses….to the one woman who happened to be a Laureate Fellow. A very kind gesture yes, but a Laureate Fellow is not exactly starting out, and ALL the women were equally capable to teach the second year course.

Apparently there has been a large effort to market physics to the masses, with a number of very well-known text books altered during reprinting to suit a more diverse audience. In a rather hilarious, and one hopes not misogynistic gesture, one particular example was changed to include a woman rather than a man.  So instead of reading ‘a man drops a ball off a building, calculate the velocity of the falling ball considering the dent left in the ground’, the piece read as ‘a woman falls off a building, and although not hurt she leaves a dent in the ground. At what velocity….’ Hmmmmm, not quite.

Unconscious bias occurs in many, many different forms with all sorts of consequences. I read about a study recently that discussed the qualities that are more often highlighted in reference letters for women; compassion, teaching and mentoring ability, community engagement, involvement in campus life etc. All are outstanding qualities no doubt, but not necessarily the clincher when it comes to being chosen to lead a research group. For interests sake I took a look at some of my own references. I had always thought that they were so glowing, which they were, but it was absolutely true that my commitment to outreach, science communication and mentoring were discussed in far greater detail than my academic ability…and it got me thinking, maybe I don’t have any academic ability??????

Which brings me back to the seminar and a very helpful piece of advice given by the ANU’s own Laureate Fellow, Professor Mahananda (Nanda) Dasgupta. When  discussing how women often don’t apply for promotions or awards she said:

Don’t judge yourself, let others be the judge of your abilities!

Wise words, from a wise woman. Thanks must go to the ANU’s Gender Institute for putting on such an interesting seminar, and to our very own director Professor Ian Jackson for attending and participating in the lively discussion.

2 responses to “G is for ‘gosh that’s a tough one’

  1. I remember in the physics department in my undergraduate university, they had only one female professor, out of a faculty of about 20. Out of all the physics professors I had classes with, I think she was the best one. I think there is still quite a long time before things even out, just because of the turnover of faculty members.

    The observation that it starts at high school is a good one. There needs to be stricter rules on the entrance requirements for universities that students take at least one of the physical sciences in high school. In my high school, out of our grade of 80 students, only 10-12 took physics, and I think I was the only one to go into the physical sciences in post secondary education. I think the focus in high school needs to change to become more topical. Although learning mechanics and electromagnetism (the two main topics we went into in high school) are very valuable (especially for those who want to do engineering), it ignores covering fields that may be of more contemporary interest, like earth physics.

  2. I couldn’t agree more; that a background in fundamental maths and physical science is soooooo important. When looking at the attrition of women in the physical sciences it can get complicated (well the whole issue is complicated) that you want effective and inspirational role models but you don’t want to burden said inspirational figure with a workload that ultimately doesn’t help their own career. I was horrified once to have a staff member tell me that the whole issue was just a bit tricky to deal with….since when was that a good excuse to back away from a problem!?!

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