Don’t mention the war

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Over at Livejournal, angelbob is gathering anecdata:

A friend recently said… that as a woman working in technology, she wouldn’t recommend that other women enter the field. She’s a system administrator… I’m not going to repeat her reasons here. Rather, I’d be very curious whether other women working in technical fields, especially system administration and/or programming, felt the same way. Anybody care to comment?

I find this is a bit of an elephant in the room in “women in technology” discussions, and so I (bravely! like John Tierney, no doubt) want to talk about it. It probably applies to “women in science” discussions and so on, I just don’t follow them as much.

There are women, quite a few in fact, in technology careers who suggest other women don’t enter them. They usually find this is a unpopular opinion in the harming the community direction. Often some of their major critics are other women, especially women who are running recruitment and outreach for the field. The argument generally goes like this: the major thing that will fix sexism in this field is more women! So if we stay silent and take the sexism bad with the geeky good for long enough, sexism will solve itself. By encouraging women to stay out, you are basically furthering sexism in this field. QED.

Let’s pick this apart. First, purely as a practical matter, even in the forthcoming geek feminist utopia, some women will be talented programmers or engineers or mathematicians but will choose to spend most or all of their life in a different field. The human endeavour is not a zero sum game, we have not “lost” someone when she becomes a nurse or a musician.

Second, we don’t want to be denying women’s experiences. If a geek career was hard, unpleasant and not ultimately worth it for her, she should say this, and if it was related to her being a woman, it makes sense to recommend against it for other women. It’s hard to hear this if you are among the women who passionately love their geek work and want to share the good news, but those of us who are more in the advocate line surely do not want to spread the message that if women so much as hear negative experiences about geekdom they’ll all flee. If women’s interest in geekdom comes at the expense of lying to them and denying other women’s negative experiences, then the cause of women in geek careers isn’t worth it. Women can listen to passionate detractors, passionate advocates and people somewhere in between, consider their own experiences, and make up their own minds.

And lastly, women do not in fact bear the responsibility of ending geekdom’s sexism, and even if we did, we couldn’t. It is, in fact, ultimately down to the most powerful people to bear the bulk of the burden for changing the social environment. Having a field become 50 or 75% women has some effect on the stereotype effect, but it is not a magic de-sexist-itising measure.

How about you? If you left a geekdom or a geek career, or are a passionate critic of it (and aren’t we all, since pretty much any criticism is subject to the tone argument) have you been told not to discourage women, or that you are undermining the work of advocate women?

The latest essentialism go-round: do we dare to discuss?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Showing up on our Linkspam radar this week is John Tierney’s article for The New York Times, Daring to Discuss Women in Science, which is another round of “I am going to challenge the groupthink and be the one person who dares to make gender essentialist arguments about women in technical fields [well, me and that army over there]”. It argues from a finding among very high performing high school students, the top 0.01 percent of the population as sorted by the SAT and ACT standardised tests in the US, from which the researchers concluded that there’s distinct gender differences among students with that sort of performance.

Tierney writes:

The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

Here’s a roundup of feminist/women-in-science-o-sphere responses, many via SKM at Shakesville:

  • Anna N., 3 Problems With The “Women In Science” Debate: If boys and girls, men and women had truly equal opportunities, we might be able to conclude something about their “innate abilities” ”” or at least stop worrying about gender inequality in various fields. But we’re still very far from that point. Tierney finds fault with programs to eliminate bias at the university level, and says, female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants. But girls may be implicitly or explicitly discouraged from pursuing science long before they actually become scientists…
  • Caroline Simard, “Daring to Discuss Women in Science:” A Response to John Tierney: The problem with the biology argument that “boys are just more likely to be born good at math and science” isn’t that it’s not “politically correct” — it’s that it assumes that we can take away the power of societal influences, which have much more solid evidence than the biology hypothesis. Tierney makes the point himself in his article…
  • Christina Agapakis, Adventures of Women in Science: The irony here being that this article is a very clear example of some of the social biases women in science face every day, just one of the countless attacks and indignities that make it that much harder for women to get up and go to lab every day, to achieve great things in math and science.
  • Janet D. Stemwedel, John Tierney thinks he’s being daring: On the general subject of claims for which there does not does not exist relevant empirical evidence, are there any published studies (or any research projects currently underway) to explore the connection Tierney, Summers, et al. seem to assume between being in the extreme right tail of laboratory measures of mathematical and scientific aptitude (like the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and having the chops to to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university?
  • SKM, Daring to Discuss Women and… *Yawn*, which also includes several links from the Larry Summers debate and earlier: For that matter, I think the “daring” idea that women are innately inferior to men at various Important Things–and indeed the preposterous notion that the idea is “daring” to begin with–has been answered quite competently in the past
  • Gretchen Keller, Women in Science: 2+2=?: …one of my least favorite, yet thought-provoking questions is “How does it feel to be a woman in science?”. Usually I reply that it feels the same as it does for a man: frustrating, time-consuming, invigorating and mostly like a bird flying repeatedly into a window desperately hoping that one of these times that pane of glass will turn into thin air.
  • Amy E. Slaton, Erring on the Side of…Exclusion: I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive. So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences.
  • Clara Raubertas, “daring” to draw unscientific conclusions from statistics: Of course, his conclusions aren’t very scientific. Here are a few of the unfounded assumptions he has to make to draw the conclusions he draws… The assumption that science is so hard that it’s really only suited for people with extremely high scores (in the top fraction of a percent among a group of students who are already in the top fraction of a percent among their peers)
  • Melissa, The never-ending discussion: biology or bias?: What I find most frustrating is that there are myriads of studies, and everyone can cite their favorite study to support their viewpoint ”” be it that bias is the dominant factor keeping women out of sciences or that biology accounts for the paucity of women… I found what may currently be the best, though still imperfect, antidote to the never-ending, go-nowhere discussion of this topic, namely Stephen Ceci and Wendy William’s book, The Mathematics of Sex: How biology and society conspire to limit talented women and girls.
  • FemaleScienceProfessor, But I Don’t Want to Write about John Tierney Again: Thanks for all the e-mails and comments with links to the New York Times commentary by John Tierney, but what he wrote is just more of the same of what he’s written before: i.e., many women don’t want to be scientists or engineers, others can’t because they aren’t as good at math as the guys. Oh yeah, and Larry Summers made some reasonable statements in a speech that was misunderstood by hysterical females.
  • Hannah (in reply to FemaleScienceProfessor), Daring to Discuss: While I do understand this fear, how else are we going to convince the scientific establishment, many of whom likely share Tierney’s views, that gender bias is real and actually does keep women from succeeding in science careers? Clearly, just waiting for the old guard to pass on isn’t working, because I’ve met plenty of young male scientists who are just as biased as the old ones: they just hide it better.

How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I’ve seen a couple of ways of observing Ada Lovelace Day that seem to be missing the point a little. Here’s what it would be great if Ada Lovelace Day ended with: the end of invisibility of women in science and technology. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of us. And yet, when people are asked to name prominent scientists and technologists, many are capable of coming up with a list entirely of men’s names, and even when asked especially for women’s names some people draw a blank. A blank. From hundreds of thousands of possibilities.

There are a few examples of posts that don’t help with this, and which in fact contribute to the invisibility of women by suggesting that the author couldn’t think of even one specific woman and the work that she does:

  • a general non-specific celebration of women: “I want to salute all women in science and technology! Yeah!”;
  • doing no more than naming a woman and highlighting her as a woman you’ve heard of in science or technology; no hint of what she does or why you admire or remember her in particular; or
  • highlighting a woman or several women for facilitating your own work in tech with their non-technical activities. The most obvious example is “thanks to my significant other, for allowing me to spend time on technical hobbies.” It’s absolutely good to acknowledge the shoulders your own work stands on, but it doesn’t advance the goal of ending the invisibility problem if you choose to use Ada Lovelace Day to do it.

Ada Lovelace Day is about women’s own work in science and technology. Contribute to women’s visibility with specific names and with examples of work you admire deeply or use every day or can’t imagine how to do in such an elegant way as she did.

Let’s spin this around! Commenters, which woman in science or technology is more visible to you today as a result of someone else’s Ada Lovelace Day entry? Did you discover a new heroine? Or find that someone’s achievements were twice as big as you’d ever heard? Link us up!

Quick hit: Ada Yonath

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Per Meli in comments, with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year another women laureate has been named: Ada Yonath, with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”. I didn’t know that the announcements were staggered, my apologises for implying that Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider were the only women laureates. Thanks for the update Meli.

Women in Science has a profile of Yonath, here’s an excerpt:

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degree in biochemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she entered the laboratory of Wolfie Traub at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She earned her Ph.D. for X-ray crystallographic studies of collagen in 1968. After brief postdocs at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, she returned to the Weizmann Institute to establish the country’s first protein crystallography laboratory in Israel.

Despite her expertise in X-ray crystallography, many scientists were skeptical that the technique could be used to determine ribosome structure, only they apparently didn’t express it quite so tactfully.

[…] she was able to count on the support of “a few individuals, including several distinguished scientists and my own group of young and highly motivated students. They encouraged me even when my project met with rigorous skepticism from most prominent scientists all over the world, even when I was called ‘a dreamer,’ ‘crazy’ or the ‘Village Fool.'”

Even her initial successes weren’t immediately recognized by her colleagues:

[…] with the techniques then available, it took Yonath months of trying different solutions and crystallization procedures to get tiny crystals of the larger, or 50S, subunit of the ribosome from a Bacillus bacterium, and more than a year to get the first very fuzzy x-ray crystallographic images. But when she showed colleagues her results at an August 1980 meeting, “everyone laughed at me,” Yonath recalls.

Quick hit: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A couple of days ago Skud linked to the Women in Science introduction to women potentially eligible for Nobel Prizes. Now the awards have been announced and there are two female laureates this year: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider. They, with Jack Szostak, are sharing the Physiology or Medicine prize “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”.

Blackburn is Australian and so has received a lot of Australian press. Here’s an excerpt of a Sydney Morning Herald story:

Professor Blackburn, 60, who now works in San Francisco, pioneered the study of telomeres, caps that protect chromosomes in cells, and is a discoverer of telomerase, an enzyme that does the protecting.

… Professor Blackburn is a vocal advocate of independent scientific thought who fell out with the Bush administration over cloning and stem cells.

She was dropped from George Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 after questioning its bias.

A colleague and friend, Melbourne University’s dean of science, Rob Saint, said Professor Blackburn, who graduated in 1971, chose her career when women were starting to become more involved in the sciences.

“I think she would be representative of a change in that gender balance,” Professor Saint said. “It’s wonderful that here we’re seeing the fruits of opening up the system.

Dr Blackburn’s career path wasn’t easy. Early in her tertiary education, she returned to her birthplace, Hobart, where according to her biography a family friend said: “What’s a nice girl like you doing studying science?”

Her interest had been sparked by a likeable chemistry teacher at Launceston’s Broadland school. There, biographer Catherine Brady said, she used the new chemistry lab to try to make touch powder fireworks.

She completed her schooling at Melbourne University High School, topping the state in three matriculation subjects, before completing a biochemistry masters, and moving on to Cambridge and Yale.

Women in Science has an extensive introduction to the work of both Blackburn and Greider.