From among our most German friends, I found this article on WeiterGen on women in science that led to an article by one of my favorite scientists, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, that I found rather disappointing.
She describes her experiences as a woman in science of a previous generation, in which the discrimination was much more overt. She experienced seeing her work given to the credit of her male peers, of working under bosses who told her that women couldn’t do as well in science, and of working to the top of her profession to find a paucity of female colleagues and to find herself as the exception that proves the rule. You’ve got to admire her for overcoming all that to achieve far more than most of us privileged males.
The end of the article is also good, in which she urges men to be more aware of gender issues, and points out that there are persistent differences in women’s roles in society that we need to actively overcome; I’m also impressed that she’s putting her money where her mouth is and has founded the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, which provides fellowships to women scientists specifically to help them balance conventional family obligations with research.
There’s a part in the middle that bugs me, though. She’s arguing that it’s OK that we don’t necessarily get that perfect 50:50 ratio in every field, and I agree with that … I just find why she thinks that should be so to be troubling.
women are different by nature, not
only because of their education or
the roles traditionally ascribed to
them by society. Of course, I do not
think that women are in any way
less intelligent than men or do not
have the capacity to do excellent
science in principle. It is not a matter
of skills or talent, but according
to my observations the strengths,
aims and interests of women differ
from those of many of their male
contemporaries, at least on average.
I know many women who share
my disgust for the personal pride,
vanity and narrow focus of some
successful male colleagues and in
turn appreciate the more considerate,
broad-minded way some female
colleagues do their science. I
understand women who hate to push
themselves forward, or who are not
willing to narrow down their spectrum
of interests, including family and
friends. I have often experienced
that women in my family — much
more so than men — have a hard
time understanding my passion
for science, while they are more
interested in social issues, art and
Men and women are different, obviously, and there may well be intrinsic differences that will steer the sexes in different directions. That’s not a problem. But you know, claiming that women have a “more considerate, broad-minded” approach to science really isn’t that much different from a Larry Summers claiming that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. It’s not necessarily true, even in average or in natural inclination, and it perpetuates a stereotype.
An individual woman ought be able to be ambitious, pushy, vain, and focused and succeed in science without her approach being considered in conflict with her gender. It isn’t. Similarly, an individual male researcher can be considerate and giving and helpful without betraying his sex. I want women to succeed in science because I don’t want anyone to be hindered in their careers by the imposition of stereotypes, and let’s not have women graduate students walk into a lab under the shadow of an expectation that they have to be the liberal nurturers of the research group, the ones who’ll be interested in art and music more than the nerdy males. It’s a nice reputation to have, I’m sure, but it’s also an imposition of an unfair expectation on women that we don’t place on men.