Friday, June 29, 2007

Women science bloggers could use a little cheering up--and some thoughts on the science "pipeline"

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

In the system of academic science, students are channeled through what many deem the "science pipeline." It's common for women to "leak" out of this pipeline for a number of reasons: academic fatigue, sexism in the classroom and lab, and family responsibilities, for example.

The science pipeline has been in my thoughts recently as I've followed along the journey with several women scientists who blog.

Yami of Green Gabbro declares herself to be leaked. She's decided to write a Master's thesis instead of a doctoral dissertation. Why? She doesn't seem sure:
I don’t feel I have experienced any visible sexism*, but it has not escaped my notice that in my department, more women than men seem to have trouble with their qualifying exams (this is based on numbers I’ve gathered by talking to older grad students; it is not a statistically significant difference). My suspicion is that this is largely mediated by self-confidence, which is gendered both in terms of who has it and in terms of how it is perceived by others. I started grad school with a great deal of self-confidence, and though I retain the core belief that I am the raw material of a very good scientist (among other things), I’m not quite sure what happened to the rest of it.

I can’t point to a villain. Perhaps I should be pointing to a hero/ine for giving me the courage to leave a situation that isn’t right for me, but I can’t do that either. Regardless, even though I’ll never have more than statistical fuzz and a hunch to back this up, I don’t think I would be leaving if I were a man.

Am I a Woman Scientist? rethinks her desire to be in academia:
Seeing the crappy situation for women academics here (god, and we had another week of controversy regarding a temporary lecturer hire... 1 man and 6 women applied for the job, and guess who got it? Yeah...), and hearing about things not being that much better back in the States, I am rethinking my desire to be in academia. It seems that I want to focus on my research more than I want to bash my head against the academic system, trying to force my way in and stay in (i.e., tenure). In a way, it feels like I've failed... I've argued so long and so hard for more equal representation of women in academia, and here I am seriously considering goverment versus industry in my job search.

She's Such a Geek comments on the recent announcement that there were once again no women among the National Medal of Science recipients. Lots of comments on the controversy may be found at this post at Thus Spake Zuska.

Absinthe writes about the retention of women in American physics. Her conclusion?
Over 95% of physics BSc's are awarded to US citizens. But only around 50% of physics PhD's are awarded to US citizens. When we run a simulation that predicts how many US females should be getting PhD's and compare it to the actual number of US female citizens getting PhD's, we find that American females are under-represented at the doctoral level by between 25% to 30% below the expected relative fraction per year.

To summarize, the only reason the physics pipeline for females in America appears not to leak is because foreign women are entering the pipeline at the doctoral level.

While we're talking pipeline, may I just say how problematic I find that metaphor? On the one hand, it's true: women do leave academic science at relatively predictable intervals. And, much as drops of escaped water are unlikely to flow back into a pipeline, it is difficult to reenter the field once you've been out of the research loop for a few years. But thinking of the scientific professions as a leaky pipeline refuses to admit the possibility that women can and do return to science after a hiatus, or move to other disciplines.

Let's refuse to be leaks. Let's think instead about the scientific research community as a web in which women can reinforce one another's positions through some solid networking and the sticky connections of mutual support. It's much harder to fall out of a web than it is to leak out of a pipeline.

Please share some good women-in-science news in the comments.

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