Pwning David Barton »« Mighty fine lawyers down there in Kentucky

Need more paleontological women

The latest issue of Priscum, the newsletter of the Paleontological Society (pdf), has an interesting focus: where are the women in paleontology? They have a problem, in that only 23% of their membership are women, and I hate to say it, but the stereotype of a paleontologist is Roy Chapman Andrews — most people don’t imagine a woman when they hear the word paleontologist (unjustly, I know!)

On the other hand, 37% of the paleontology presentations at the GSA were by women. They’re there, but they aren’t getting far up the ladder of success. They’re not achieving high status positions within the society at the same rate as men, and then there’s this skewed distribution:

genderdisparity

So women are over-represented in the student category, but under-represented in the professional category. The optimistic way to look at that is that there is an opportunity for change, and maybe that wave of current students will move on up and change the distribution ten years from now. More pessimistically, it suggests that there could be barriers that preferentially block the advancement of women in the field; if the distribution doesn’t change in the next decade, that says that there were more frustrated women who left the discipline than men.

So why would women experience greater barriers to advancement? It isn’t about evil men keeping the women down, and I wish we could clear away the resentment some men express when they hear that there are greater obstacles to women’s progress — too often I hear angry responses to accusations of academic sexism taken personally, as if it were a statement of personal criminality. It’s a product of the system, and men and women mostly contribute to it by neglect and an unwillingness to change the status quo.

What I most often see is statements of fact that I don’t disagree with, such as that women on average have lower publication rates than men, but the problem is that these advocates of blaming the inherent properties of women for their failure don’t think it through. Why do women have lower publication rates? Are there structural/cultural/professional properties that conflict and cause problems that men don’t see? And most importantly, if there are, what can we do to correct those institutional biases? Just saying that “women publish less” begs the question.

This article had a very helpful diagram illustrating the contributing factors, taken from a paper discussing a similar problems among evolutionary biologists.

womeninscicycle

Right there in the center is issue of lower publication rates in women, but it looks deeper at consequences and causes. Follow the arrows. I’ve seen similar charts before — it looks a heck of a lot like an extinction vortex, a self-perpetuating cycle of defeat.

Another article in the same newsletter describes the distribution of the leadership of the Paleontological Society. It shows steady improvement in the proportion of women in the society leadership, but still, most of the executive positions have been held by women less than 10% of the time. The more recently the position was created, the higher the proportion of women. I also noticed one outlier: 67% of the Education and Outreach Coordinators (a very new position) have been women. That’s another stereotype, too, that women are better suited to teaching. Look at the diagram above: going into teaching is also one of the factors that hurts research productivity, and as long as research is more highly valued than teaching, and teaching is considered ‘women’s work’, it’s going to skew representation of the sexes.

They have a proposal to correct the imbalance. Notice that it doesn’t involve simply declaring that they have equality of opportunity (which they don’t!) and doing nothing. Correcting these kinds of biases requires active intervention.

Societies are strengthened by incorporating diversity (of gender, of ethnicity, of abilities, of ideas, and of disciplines). As a society, we need to be aware of equity issues and take intentional steps to counteract imbalances. The recommendations below relate to increasing ALL types of diversity. So far, we have data on gender equity, but there are many other types of diversity we should work to improve. This set of recommendations applies to all of them.

Intentional nominations. Think about the excellent female colleagues you have. Now nominate at least one of them for a leadership position (we have several open this year!) or a society award. All Society positions are open nominations, so please share your ideas!

Mentoring. Establish professional relationships with young women in paleontology (students and early career professionals). Spend some extra time at poster sessions meeting some of our student members. Encourage women to submit abstracts for oral presentations. Established women, share your career stories and experiences.

New initiatives. PS Council is dedicated to increasing equity for all types of diversity in our membership. Please share any ideas you may have for initiatives with [the author] or other council members—now and in the future.

Comments

  1. says

    When I think of paleontologists, the first name that pops into my mind is Mary Leakey (the seond being her husband, Louis. For some reason, in my mind it is always “Mary and Louis”, not the other way around.) Not only is she an amazing and accomplished scientists in her own right, she has passed her talent, experience and enthusiasm to her son Richard and Richard’s daughter, Louise, who are also noted paleontologists.

    But yes, it would be nice to see more of the women students go into the field professionally. At the very least, the different life experiences of women would add depth to theories about what is found.

  2. says

    We seem to be suffering that extinction spiral in computer science, where the gender ratios at all levels have gotten significantly worse since the late 80s, when I was a graduate student. That’s not good for the field. And worse, and moreso than with paleontology, it obstructs professional opportunity for young women today.

    Sigh.

  3. says

    >>So women are over-represented in the student category, but under-represented in the professional category. <<

    Shouldn't that be "women are less under-represented in the student category, but more under-represented in the professional category” ? 147 student members being women and 206 student members being men is still a significant disparity.

    We have a similar mismatch between the relative numbers of women and men in astronomy and planetary science programs and in astronomy and planetary science faculty positions, which probably is due to similar factors.

  4. ChasCPeterson says

    They left out the arrow from ‘lower grant success’ to ‘not promoted’. Woman or otherwise, that’s the new reality.
    (bitter? well, yes. yes I am.)

  5. says

    I don’t expect too much from my gender. Women in any such scenario should cooperate to change it by beating the men at their own game. Promote women over men, gain control of funding agencies, yada yada.

  6. unbound says

    Importantly, what is the trend? Is it getting better or worse or holding steady?

    Actions to be taken tend to hinge on the understanding of the trend:
    – if things are getting better, actions taken in the past should be continued and reinforced
    – if things are holding steady, new actions should be thought out and undertaken
    – if things are getting worse, then current actions may be having the opposite effect

  7. travisrm89 says

    Actually, thanks to Jurassic Park, I always think of a woman when I hear the word paleontologist.

  8. carlie says

    Women are quite well represented in paleobotany, however.

    One major factor that spans academic disciplines is the amount of committee/service work that ends up falling on women predominantly; the work needs to be done, the guys have no problem saying they’re too busy, and then the women look like bad team players if they don’t step up (there’s also the added understated pressure that the women are the ones who leave at the drop of a hat for a sick child etc., so have to “make up” for it). What suffers is research time. I’ve had to make a point out of NOT volunteering to take notes at meetings, especially if I’m the only woman there; you wouldn’t believe how long the stand-off can get when the only woman in the room doesn’t immediately say “sure, I”ll take notes”.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Why does that flow chart list “attention to detail” among/as a consequence of/as a cause of negative factors?

    Do women paleontologists take thoroughness to self-defeating extremes?

  10. blitzgal says

    Oh hey, Andrews went to my school. I knew there was a reason I recognized the name, and it wasn’t from the Indiana Jones connection.

  11. says

    Hey, bitterness? I got a big grant at my last position, and didn’t get tenure because I was too focused on teaching.

    Fortunately, I then got a job where my fondness for teaching was actually the preferred mode. So bitterness faded. Those jobs where the needs of the position so precisely match one’s preferences are sadly uncommon.

  12. ronjaaddams-moring says

    Chiming in with Gregory: Mary Leakey was also an important role model for Jane Goodall, IIRC.

  13. Caveat Imperator says

    I wonder if major universities’ disproportionate focus on publication instead of teaching plays a role. According to the article (and your graphic above), one reason women don’t publish as much is because they are railroaded into teaching roles, partially due to direct pressure from universities and partially societal pressure that teaching is “women’s work”. If universities respected teaching accomplishments more, how much would the gender disparity be reduced? It wouldn’t reduce the cultural meme that teaching is a job for women, but it would reduce the entrenchment of the old boys’ club. Probably.

  14. Richard Smith says

    Perhaps a clue to the problem is in the first pie chart, “Distribution of male members”…?

  15. David Marjanović says

    They have a problem, in that only 23% of their membership are women

    That sounds very low. I wonder about the numbers of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (international, but easily half the membership is from the US), the Palaeontological Association (British) or the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists (small, perhaps too small for statistics).

    Not saying the problem isn’t real; this just sounds even worse than my experience.

  16. Roy G says

    More often than not, when I see a documentary about archaeology, there are lots of women doing the field work and such.
    Does archaeology have the same problem as palaeontology, that most of those are students and they don’t end up in archaeological careers? Because more often than not there’s a man leading the dig…

  17. otrame says

    @ Roy,

    Yeah, but it is not nearly as bad as many field sciences. There are and always have been women in the forefront of archaeology (look up Frederica de Laguna in the 30s and 40s). But it is true that there are fewer women in major roles even today. And yes, there is a pretty strong tendency to hire a man over a woman for a supervisory position, unless the woman is really, really more qualified (sometimes even if she is, unfortunately). Archaeologists live is this culture just like everyone else. But it has never been as skewed as in many other professions. If the demographics continue as they are now, things are definitely going to change. There are far more women students than men.

    My own example is not typical. I didn’t bother to get a Ph.D. because I could do what I wanted (field work plus my speciality analyzing faunal remains from archaeological sites) without the extra degree, plus I started my career late, in my early 40s, and was not particularly ambitious. I just loved field work and working on the puzzles of analysis and getting a Ph.D. would have ended up with me in an office too much.

  18. otrame says

    P.S. I had to pretty much flip a coin in deciding to go archaeology or paleontology and though I have loved what I decided, I sometimes get a little wistful.

  19. dianne says

    Sigh. Am there, doing that. (Not in paleontology, but same principle.) More or less resigned to never making a significant contribution to the field.

  20. katiemarshall says

    PZ, have you seen this study? http://www.universityaffairs.ca/new-study-uncovers-several-reasons-for-gender-disparities-in-science.aspx

    I saw Shelley give a talk on this just before this paper came out. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Her explanation is that the issue is how we have structured scientific training–that the point at which the biggest competition occurs is just when us womenz want to have babies. I don’t think that explanation is totally sufficient, but I do like her comparison to medicine.

  21. Genius Loci says

    Actually, thanks to Jurassic Park, I always think of a woman when I hear the word paleontologist.

    Me too. And Julianne Moore’s character in The Lost World, as well. But don’t forget, in Jurassic Park III Dern’s character has apparently left paleontology to marry a boring guy with a white-collar job and become a stay at home mommy, because, according to Hollywood, in their heart of hearts that’s what all successful female scientists really want out of life.

    From reading the article, however, it wasn’t clear to me whether the authors believed the problem lay with the field of paleontology as a whole or with the Society itself. Is the Paleo Society to paleontology what the AAS is to astronomy, IEEE is to computer science/engineering, or the MLA is to the humanities, in that the set of paleontologists and the set of Paleo Society members are roughly congruent? Or is it more rarefied? If the society is male-dominated, with higher offices and awards given almost exclusively to males, but the field itself has more balanced proportions, it could be an internal cultural issue within the Paleo Society.

    And out of curiosity, do these numbers include people who remain in the field but take a non-faculty track, like museum work–creating exhibits, working with major institutional collections? Do these positions tend to have lower publication rates (or less publish-or-perish expectation)?

    This could have to do with having children, and it could also have to do with the two-body problem. Ten years ago when my husband got his tenure-track position, I decided to be the flexible one for a variety of reasons, but I suspect that down in there somewhere was the unexamined assumption that his work would always be more important than mine. (Not that I really regret my decision at all, considering what is happening to English departments all over the country–feel like I dodged a bullet there. But it would be a terrible shame if women in science were, after all this time, still unconsciously allowing this assumption to influence their decisions.)

    Whatever the case, good for the Society for coming up with some kind of plan for addressing the problem. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Paleontologist Barbie.

  22. acrasis says

    In my field, as salaries and prestige have plummeted, fewer men have entered the field, and we women have more opportunities. However, the vast majority of the jobs women are filling are technical positions. I’ve been trying to hire a technician, and it is horrifying to see how many women with Ph.Ds are applying for a really low level position. The most heartbreaking thing for me is that I don’t know what to say when I talk with female students- do I advise them to go on with a career in science, or do I try to scare them off? My male post doc told me that he would never have put up with what I’ve had to do to stay a scientist.

  23. carlie says

    Genius Loci – all good questions. Another factor is how splintered paleontology is, after a fashion – it spans several scientific fields, and people in paleontology tend to gravitate towards one society or another, because it’s difficult to keep up well with several*; since it’s a small field to begin with, simply having a small n could lead to one society being male-dominated.

    *there are some paleontologists who prefer to be a subset of organizations based in extant plants/animals/fungi/algae, those who prefer to be in their own, different societies for each kingdom of organisms, geology-based organizations, national organizations, international organizations, etc.

  24. Genius Loci says

    Acrasis, are there opportunities to do science outside your academic field that your students could pursue…or are those low-paying positions the best they can expect pretty much anywhere? How awful.

    I know, though, that there’s kind of a psychological barrier to leaving academia for a lot of students, and the attitudes rampant in the general culture don’t help…funding is drying up in my husband’s field, too, and so although he has excellent students who do good work he still tries to prepare them for the possibility that they won’t get to do that particular kind of science after they graduate…and to communicate to them that leaving the field for a well-paying, fulfilling, enjoyable job doing something else, to which a Ph.D. might have opened the door, does not mean one has in any way “failed”.

  25. inertial dampener says

    First time commenter, LONG time lurker.

    My experience was pretty much outright sexism. I spoke to some bigwigs at a paleontological conference at my university, and was SLAMMED down. I observed that when male students spoke to them, it was fuzziness and light. Being a much less confrontational and confident person then, I backed down, and stopped pursuing paleontology, much to my eternal regret. I have to mention that one of the stinkers was Simon Conway Morris, who gets points for blech in whole other areas.

    Also, I know that women get radically overworked in geology departments. There were only three female professors in the department at the time I was there. Since there were so few women, and any given committee wanted its token female, that meant that the women were in at least twice as many committees than the men. I heard complaints about this all the time.

  26. says

    My 5yo daughter is dinosaur mad. One of my proudest moments is when she said to me “When I was a three I wanted to be a princess, but now I am a five I want to be a dinosaur scientist!” I thought, I WIN.

    She was also delighted that the Usborne Big Book of Big Dinosaurs includes women amongst the cartoon paleontologists looking at the dinosaurs. “I like the girl dinosaur scientist!” she said excitedly. Putting casual role models where little girls can just trip over them may be helpful.

  27. Genius Loci says

    Putting casual role models where little girls can just trip over them may be helpful.

    Parents decorate nurseries for little boys with dinosaurs and dress them in clothes with dinosaurs on them. But have they been as likely to do so for little girls, I wonder?

    Your daughter would make an awesome girl dinosaur scientist, I can just tell.

  28. says

    She was introduced to dinosaurs because we got a box of stuff from the illustrious Paul T. Riddell that included a beanie baby parasaurolophus, which she loved, so her mum got her a bigger one which is her favourite cuddly toy, and a cuddly stegosaurus and a cuddly velociraptor (with feathers) and another cuddly parasaurolophus and … so yeah, it’s Paul’s fault. Though I expect an equally dinosaur-mad mother helped :-)

  29. says

    And I told her about paleontologists going to China and going out into the desert in the heat to look for dinosaur fossils, and she got all excited. So yes!

  30. Cyranothe2nd, ladyporn afficianado says

    I notice that Lee Coye is studiously avoiding this thread. Probably because it rips his stupid gender essentialism to shreds.

  31. gillt says

    So why would women experience greater barriers to advancement? It isn’t about evil men keeping the women down, and I wish we could clear away the resentment some men express when they hear that there are greater obstacles to women’s progress — too often I hear angry responses to accusations of academic sexism taken personally, as if it were a statement of personal criminality. It’s a product of the system, and men and women mostly contribute to it by neglect and an unwillingness to change the status quo.

    I’m not a paleo person but this problem extends into other fields of biology, where women don’t equally contribute to the status quo as you imply here. The failure in the system is one of guys binning all women colleagues as either objects of desire, scary crazies, or, resentfully, as delicate flowers, thus creating, in the best of times, a low-grade, hostile environment for all but their own gender–this starts in graduate school to whenever women tap-out, oftentimes before they get a faculty position. This post paints far too rosy a picture of what actually goes on….in my observations as a guy in the sciences.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Is the Paleo Society to paleontology what the AAS is to astronomy, IEEE is to computer science/engineering, or the MLA is to the humanities, in that the set of paleontologists and the set of Paleo Society members are roughly congruent?

    Nope. It’s much smaller, definitely not more international than the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (note the US spelling of both), and publishes the excruciatingly slow Journal of Paleontology.

    I have to mention that one of the stinkers was Simon Conway Morris

    …Now that is interesting. Not necessarily surprising, but interesting.