Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gender parity in the Geosciences

I recently received my free, complimentary issue of Nature Geoscience (Vol. 1, No. 2), the new earth-science flavored journal from Nature. I’ve always enjoyed reading through journals like Nature and Science (at the library, since they’re a little on the ridiculously expensive side), since they often have a large number of articles and editorials about scientific culture, in addition to their science content. Anyway, they seem to be keeping with that trend in this specialty journal, where there was an interesting article on gender disparity within the Geosciences (“Gender Imbalance in US Geoscience Academia” by Holmes, O’Connell, Frey, and Ongley, pg. 79-82.)

I think everyone in the geosciences is aware of the VERY low diversity (both racial and gender) in our field. In fact, according to the paper (and works cited therein), the Earth Sciences have the LOWEST ethnic and racial diversity of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. As for gender disparity, we are only better than the physics and engineering communities, and considerably worse than the chemistry and biology folks. The authors of this article are interested in why this disparity has persisted, and how members of the geosciences view the causes and consequences of this problem.

I’ve scanned and posted Fig. 1 from Holmes et al. (2008; pg. 79) below. The authors point out that the retention of women in a PhD program is the same as the retention of men in programs (so more women aren’t being driven out mid-grad school), which apparently is not the case for other fields.

The disturbing statistics, however, are seen in the numbers for academic employment (the blue portion of the graph). Only 14% of tenured faculty are women, and ONLY 8%(!!!!) are full professors. These are pretty startling numbers; I think most of us knew it was bad, but didn’t know it was THAT bad. So how do Earth Scientists explain this imbalance? The authors polled a group of 40 women and 39 men, at various levels of their academic career (from dewy young students to hoary old profs), and found three broad themes that the respondents fell into:

1) Structural Issues related to academia (for instance, family leave policies)
2) The “Pipeline” (a historical contingency related to low numbers of women PhD’s from the 70’s)
3) Intrinsic female attributes (including, apparently, comments from respondents that included views such as “women lack self-confidence or the toughness necessary to succeed in academia”

The answers given showed a strong correlation to the responder’s gender (surprise, surprise). Before I give it away, I’ll give you a minute to make your own prediction.

Done? Okay, below is Fig. 2 (pg. 81) from Holmes et al. (2008), scanned by me.

As shown above, men and women felt equally that there were structural issues within the academic world that made it more difficult for women to enter academics, while fewer women thought that the pipeline issue was of real importance. The third issue, which I shall re-term “womeny-ness”, was identified as an issue by ten men and only one woman. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess (warning: Ad Hominem attack comin’ on-line) that these respondents thought women were too touchy-feely for the work; they probably also think Mexicans are lazy and Poles are stupid. On a serious note, maybe the disparity in issue three explains why people identified issue one (structural issues) as important.

Apparently, the responders’ quotes on issue three included such gems as “females in general prefer to teach”; “females lack self-confidence”; “females in general have a low interest in the subject matter”; and my favorite “females don’t like field work”.

Also problematic is how the solution to the disparity problem is viewed. Apparently, a majority of men think that we just have to sit back and wait for the problem to sort itself out, which sounds a lot like my strategy for cleaning my office. I don’t know what the answer is (although I’m sure lots of folks have given this very problem some serious thought), but I’m pretty sure the solution isn’t going to include a “do nothing and wait” option.

The fact of the matter is, we need to take a very serious look at the problems of racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in our field. First and foremost, it ain’t the 1880’s anymore. Women can vote, lynching is illegal, and we can’t send kids into the lead mines to work anymore; we should fix this problem because it needs to be fixed.

Secondly, no matter what we think of ourselves and our intellectual chops, science is a communal endeavor. The more people playing the game, the more stuff gets done. From a purely scientific standpoint, we all KNOW that having people with lots of different backgrounds and experiences lets us attack our geological problems with more success. We need to come together as a scientific community and seriously address where we have failed to allow a broader range of individuals to get into the Earth Sciences.


jrepka said...

The invited speaker at my graduation (BA) was a female igneous petrologist who had earned her PhD at my institution and was then a tenured professor at a nearby university. Her talk was about women in geosciences, and what has stuck with me after (has it really been) 17 years was how she said she was treated by the faculty, not during her candidacy, but during her job search.

She was openly told not to apply for positions at top-tier schools because (1) she would not be hired, (2) she would not be promoted, and (3) she would not be able to compete for funding (she apparently was able to accomplish all three.

I have issues with the "structural" argument, the primary one being that we would expect to see similar gender disparities in all academic disciplines (geoscience departments don't set and enforce their own family leave policies, for instance).

The positive spin to the pipeline explanation is that the issue is not the dearth of women PhDs in the past, it's the number of male dinosaurs on hiring and tenure committees. At the institutions I am familiar with (admittedly not a huge sample) a younger faculty is a more gender disparate faculty.

I don't know that this is true, I would imagine that there are other structural issues as well, but the "dinosaur" hypothesis is the only one that seems to be applicable specifically to geoscience departments; I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of Kim, Sax, Maria, et al.

C W Magee said...

I'm surprised they didn't look at the possibility of academic inbreeding. As a fairly small discipline (especially compared to, say biology), the degrees or separation are very small, so things like personal contacts, letters of recommendation, and bar room gossip may be more significant than for sciences where everyone doesn't know everyone else.

The various feminist bloggers have stated many times that personal recommendations are an area where unsupportable bias appears in the hiring process.

This would also explain why the disparity appears at the hiring stage, and not the dropout stage.

Kim said...

Since Jim asked, I've responded:

Gender and the geoscience pipeline.

(I had way too much to say to put in a comment, so I took it to my own blog. But thanks, Eric, for bringing it up.)

Jeannette said...

I had a lot to say so I posted…

Gender and the geosciences