Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Missing Women in Science

Carleton has a nearly legendary reputation for the relative gender-balance in our math and science programs. Our active, tenure or tenure-track Chemistry department is more than half female (five to four men), which is virtually unheard of. The Geology department is three men and two women. Physics is five/three, Biology is seven/three, and Math is six/four.

Most places are not like Carleton in this respect. Indeed, normally in professional math, science, and engineering settings, women are outnumbered by men by a 3:1 ratio. And studies cited in a recent Scientific Daily article show how this imbalance can seriously effect the performance of women who are so marginalized in these environments.
Murphy and colleagues showed a group of advanced MSE undergraduates a gender balanced or unbalanced video depicting a potential MSE summer leadership conference. To assess identity threat, the researchers measured the participant’s physiological arousal during the video, cognitive vigilance, sense of belonging and desire to participate in the conference.

The results are telling. The women who watched the gender unbalanced video- where women were outnumbered by men in a 3 to 1 ratio- experienced faster heart rates, higher skin conductance (sweating), and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference.

They also found that women were more vigilant to their physical environment when they watched the video in which women were outnumbered. Throughout the testing room, Murphy planted cues related to Math, Science, and Engineering such as magazines like Science, Scientific American, and Nature on the coffee table and a portrait of Einstein and the periodic table on the walls. Women were able to recall more details about the video and the test room, indicating that they paid more attention to the identity-relevant items in order to assess the likelihood of encountering identity threat. “It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward MSE-related cues,” write the authors. Thus, it is likely that this kind of attention allocation would interfere with performance and might help explain the performance gap between men and women in these fields.

While men, in either condition, showed no significant difference in physiological arousal, cognitive vigilance, or sense of belonging, both men and women expressed more desire to attend the conference when the ratio of men to women was balanced. Murphy says that while it’s interesting that both men and women want to be where the women are, the motivations of men and women for wanting to be there are probably quite different. “Women probably feel more identity-safe in the environment where there are more women- they feel that they really could belong there- while men might simply be attracted by the unusual number of women in these settings. Men just aren’t used to seeing that many women in these settings, because the numbers in real Math, Science, and Engineering settings are so unbalanced.”

I think it's a little too cheap to say the only reason men prefer gender-balanced conferences is because of the novelty of it (this seems to play more than a little on "geek guys can't get girls" stereotypes), though I don't think it's wrong to discount it either. But regardless, the point is that everybody seems to be happier, and a significant chunk of the population more comfortable (and thus presumably more productive) when there isn't a notable, gaping imbalance among the genders at these conferences. Carleton is a great pipeline for female science graduates in part simply because women here are very visible in these departments. It isn't weird, it isn't out of the ordinary, there's very little sense that one is "trailblazing" or entering a terrain dominated by men (though I hasten to add that I imagine female math and science majors are certainly aware of those tropes in broader society, and will still have to deal with them there). This indicates that simply having a few familiar and friendly faces can do wonders for expanding the pool of qualified, competent, and comfortable science graduates, and provides yet more reason for colleges and universities across the country to try and adjust their departments accordingly.

Hat tip to the lovely Kawaii Kid, whose scientific exploits (Physics, I believe?) I have not been particularly supportive of (but only because I believe it's a waste of her debating talent!).

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