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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Institutions Hinder Women in Academia

From New York Times:

Old-fashioned institutional structures present an obstacle to women in science and engineering. This was the conclusion of an expert panel, assembled by the National Academy of Sciences. The conclusion appeared in the report "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering".

The panel reports that the lack of women in academic jobs in science and engineering is due to pervasive biases in academic institutions and "arbitrary and subjective" evaluation procedures. The panel recommends that universities change their procedures for hiring and tenure.

Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard, claimed last year that the lack of women in top science programs is best explained on the assumption that women are born intellectually deficient. The expert panel dismissed this idea. New York Times reports that they attempted to reach Lawrence H. Summers for comments but his spokesman reported that he was out of town.

The expert panel also dismissed the idea that women drop out of science programs or fail to get hired by top universities because they are less prolific than men or spend too much time away from academia.

Though it is difficult to say how philosophy compares to science and engineering, a good guess is that institutional structures present an even greater obstacle to women in philosophy. How great an obstacle remains to be seen. I hope the American Philosophical Association will assemble an expert panel of its own to investigate the issue.


Waz said...

Hey Brit,

It is strange to read in this day and age that women are still being belittled by narrow minded old school boys... I was understanding that it is both a sign of ignorance of the belittler(? is that a word?) and that it was actually illegal to discriminate based on gender.

As for science and engineering and their relationship to philosophy, have you forgotten about Aristotle and all the other early greeks... most of them were both philosophers and scientists. In fact science, as we know it, was considered a "branch" of philosophy until about the middle ages - when the church decided science was scariligous (gees, I wish I could spell :) )

nice post all the same, I would have like to read more about how YOU felt about the findings of the panel and the idiotic statements of Summers.


TerraPraeta said...

I think there is a real gender disparity that needs to be addressed in this discussion: a simple biological issue that no amount of political correctness can address.

If a woman wants to compete fully with her male counterparts, she has to be willing to give up having children. Regardless of other issues, it is a simple fact that a woman bears (apologies :-)) the responsibility of pregnancy and birthing, so there will be some time in her life that is affected by that process. Men, on the other hand, can have as many children as they want without that complication.

It is true that some women can function at full capacity for the majority of thier pregnancy, and that they can share responsibilities after birth -- but I don't think that anyone can assume that this will be the case for themselves, nor that they will find themselves to be willing to leave thier child for the greater part of the day after birth.

This leaves women in a difficult position: why should they be willing to do this? And if they are not, is it 'right' to ask it of them? If it is not 'right' then how does acadamia address the physical limitation?

Its one thing to say that it shouldn't be the case, another to figure out a way to make it not the case.


Brit Brogaard said...

Waz: You are absolutely right. I guess I thought it was needless to say that I think Summers' statements are pathetic.

How could anyone possibly think that a person is intellectually deficient simply because she happens to be female?

I suspect things are no better in philosophy, unfortunately. But there appears to be a lack of interest in finding out, surprisingly.

Brit Brogaard said...

terrapraeta: yes, the issues you raise are important. I guess in academia women can often maintain a relatively high level of activity during pregnancy, because they can structure their own day.

The bigger problem is that many universities in the states are unwilling to grant maternity leaves to women after the birth of their child. Women are entitled to 6 weeks "sick leave" and that's it. And then they have used up all their sick days, which means that they will be in big trouble if they get sick that same year.

TerraPraeta said...

Hi Brit --

That's absurd. Things like Maternity leave are simple issues that simply NEED to be addressed.

What concerns me more, however, are the systemic problems. How does one address issues such as:

A woman being unable to compete on a level playing field for grants because she is in the midst of becommig a mother when the money is up for grabs?

Or a woman publishing 'too late' (beaten to the punch) because she is on maternity leave?

Or a woman being unable to gain tenure because she wants to have children?

How do you solve problems that are not 'problems' so much as 'features'?


Brit said...

I guess "institutions" will need to be more flexible: post-pone tenure decisions if necessary, allow later submissions of grant proposals, and so on.

Ron Amos said...

Perhaps it's the academic model itself that is the problem as it's really
a damn shame to lose out on the abstract thinking abilities of half of
the human race due to bological differences and the accompanying gender

So many current models of social organization owe their origin in the
factory model of production, which in turn is based on a presumed
intellectual hierarchy which has it's source in monocrop totalitarian
agricutlural production.

The Boss, teacher, preacher, political leader etc. sits or stands at
the front of the room and everyone else lines up in ranks. "What can
be more deadly, if you sit at the back of the room then you get less
attention from the presiding head of the entreprize." This situation
stands no matter what gender you are or how you genitles are shaped,
or what you biological function in society..

Think about how knowledge is organized.. it too is a function of
this primary organizing style, rank and file just like your friendly
neighborhood military unit.

I think things would work much differently if organized according to
a different set of principles, perhaps along the lines of the
multi-tasking that mothers with small children are required to use
in dealing with the home and neighborhood environment.

Bean said...

I really hope I don't upset anyone here but I was wondering if it has been examined whether anything at all is hindering women in academia? Perhaps there are just fewer women who want to be academics in those fields. Of course not because they are intellectually deficient or believe themselves to be intellectually deficient, but because their interests lie elsewhere?

In 8 years of programming I only ever worked directly with one other woman in a high level technical position. However, the companies I worked for often gave *perference* to women for technical positions because they tend to perform better in jobs that require a lot of analysis (particularly big picture thinking). They were crying out for female applicants and the recruiters couldn't find any. I realise that the corporate world is not the same as academia but perhaps the same applies. Women simply aren't showing enough interest (or perhaps commitment) to those positions.

I think sometimes it's very easy to hold culture and institutions responsible for the lack of women in particular industries and positions but when I look around me I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in the lack of interest shown by my gender sometimes :(

I'm sorry if I sound ignorant, I guess my perspective may be a bit skewed by my experiences.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Ron
But I think that women are worse off than men in this regard. Admittedly, men are no better off than women in terms of overcoming pedigree-biases, and so on. But women must overcome additional institutional biases.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Bean,
I think you are right that we need to find out whether the lack of women in academic positions (particularly in science and philosophy) is due to a lack of interest or to old-fashioned institutional structures and prejudices. I suspect that "lack of interest" won't be the whole explanation.

Ron Amos said...

I agree with you Brit, women are worse off under the present system but either way the benefit is lost of any thinking that doesn't follow the present model.

Bean, one of my wives was a pioneer computer programer, did some original work for the IRS in the state where we lived and was also one of the very first programers to work for A.C. Neilson the TV ratings company.. I used to go into the office late at night and just sit down with my back to the mainframe listening to the clattering of the printers as they did the daily returns. I guess it was my affection for her that taught me to love computers.

This was in the mid 1960's, I felt like "Manny my only friend" from Heinlein's novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."