In a May 22 post, Jeff Goldstein rightly slams an absurd proposal to use Title IX (which prohibits gender discimination in higher education) to go after science programs that fail to satisfy feminist criteria of gender parity. It comes, not from a political activist, but from Richard N. Zare, chair of the department of chemistry at Stanford University.
Zare, who offers a Cultural Revolution-style confession of his own sins of unconscious racism and sexism, argues that women in science are still held back by subtle discrimination. As proof, he cites a 1997 Swedish study showing that female applicants for postdoctoral positions are rated less favorably than male applicants. Says Zare:
Many regard Sweden to be a progressive country and the behavior of committees in 1997 to be not much different from what might be expected today. The conclusions that discrimination exists and is entrenched in our judgments seem hard to deny.
But maybe Sweden is a little too progressive. The generous parental leave policies and other support structures that enable women to stay in the workforce but drastically curtail their work commitments once they have children create a situation in which many women are no doubt viewed as suspect when it comes to their future productivity. (Many of these programs are also available to Swedish men, but they are far more likely to remain employed full-time while raising a family.) Can we universalize from the Swedish findings? A few years ago, a British study — which admittedly measured different things — found no evidence of discrimination against women scientists in the awarding of research grants and postdoctoral fellowships. The study did find that women scientists who had young children, or had taken a break from their careers for family reasons, were considerably less likely to apply for grants.
So, once again, this brings us to the work-family conundrum. And Zare actually acknowledges this, noting that the slow progress in achieving gender parity on the faculties of leading science departments has to do with
the failure to take into account the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and child care as well as elder care, and the failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle. … Currently, the reward structure of the academic rat race in science, engineering, and mathematics presents a real barrier to women choosing a career in academics. We must dispel the notion that working day and night equates to productivity. Many of us know coworkers with limited time available who nevertheless make outstanding contributions to the success of a research project.
In my 2001 Salon.com article on women in science, I commented on somewhat similar proposals:
A 1993 article in Science on women’s attrition from scientific fields deplored such “outmoded stereotypes” as “an emphasis on scientific knowledge independent of real-world uses and an image of scientists as obsessed with science to the exclusion of other human endeavors.”
But what if trying to jettison these “stereotypes” results in the loss of something essential to scientific pursuit at the highest level?
It seems fairly indisputable to me that by and large, if two people are equally talented, smart, and hardworking, the one who gives 80% of herself to her work is going to achieve more than the one who gives 50%. I’m all for changing societal norms to make it easier for ambitious and talented women to relegate the role of primary caregiver and homemaker to their husbands. But lowering the standards so women can succed is not an answer, it’s an insult — to both science and women.