I’ve been making up for my prolific posting during the National Association of Science Writers conference by not posting for days on end. Life is busy for geekgirls nowadays, what can I say? But this tidbit just came across my desk — a new website for young women interested in science that sounds really neat. It’ll have lots of links related to women and science, social networking, a blog, and more.  A lot of the site is still being populated with content, but this could be a great resource in the future.  The question for women scientists to answer this week is “What got you hooked on science?”  Soon there will be a wealth of great stories on this site, a really nice resource for girls interested in science.  When you register, you’re able to make connections with others on the site — sort of a LinkedIn for women in science.utm_headerleft

Here is the press release on the site:

The Women Writing Science project, a multi-faceted initiative to involve young women in science and to encourage them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), announces the launch of the website Underthemicroscope.com

Sponsored by and developed with IBM, Underthemicroscope.com offers a wealth of continually updated information, including input from visitors to the web site. Currently the site provides the opportunity to post personal stories, feature and guest blogging, news about science, and links to related resources. Within the year the site will include more social networking opportunities, tips on careers, tips for parents, expanded links to science-related sites, and mentoring. Ultimately the site will provide information about internships and scholarships as well as serialized chapters of Women Writing Science publications that can be downloaded free of charge and an online book club.

“Underthemicroscope.com with IBM’s help combines new technology, like social networking, with traditional publishing to better communicate with young women in science, develop new content for stories and serve as a place of learning and inspiration,” said Gloria Jacobs, Executive Director of the Feminist Press.

Initiated by The Feminist Press at The City University of New York with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Women Writing Science will publish books of biography, fiction, history, career profiles, and how-to-survive guides presenting women as both scientists and as writers about science. Women Writing Science will also provide free teacher guides describing lesson plans and strategies for using the books in science curricula. These materials will be easily downloaded from Underthemicroscope.com .

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Advice for a girl..

Girl studying

Girl studying

One of the students in my Adopt a Physicist class just asked me:

Hi! Lately I’ve had to think about what I want a career in and what I would like to study in college. The two choices that have always interested me most are either being a physician or an engineer. Women are a minority in these fields, as they are in the one you work in. Do you find yourself effected by the fact that you are a woman in a male-dominated field? Do you have any advice for girls who want to pursue a career in male-dominated fields?

Wow. There’s a tough question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Here’s my reply to her.

I was the only woman in my undergrad physics classes. I think this had something to do with me changing majors. Not because I felt discriminated against, but because the men in my classes just worked differently than I did. Maybe you know the type — self-confident, giving cursory answers to my questions, working alone on the homework and having this certain geek-in-crowd flavor to their interactions. I decided that I wasn’t very good at physics based on those social interactions and for that, and many other reasons, changed to psychology. I later found out that my shaky self-esteem in physics was unfounded, and that I was one of the best students in the class. If only my (male) professor had told me that earlier.

So, the way that being a woman in science has affected me is in subtle ways like that — the people around me are different from me — rather than that I’m obviously discriminated against. It is hard sometimes being one of few women in the room, because then you feel that whatever you do is going to be taken as indicative of “what women do” or “what women think”, like you’re representative of your entire gender.

There are definitely challenges to being a woman in a male dominated field, but not so much so you should reconsider. In fact, being a woman got me funding for graduate school, since I was on a minority fellowship. People think it’s really cool that I’m a woman in physics, I get a lot of street cred for it. *I* think it’s cool, and it’s fun to play up the “geek girl” kind of image.

It does help to learn something about how women and men communicate differently if you’re going to be in a male dominated field, so that you can work productively in a male environment. There are a lot of great books about this. There is also a great book called “Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie” that I’m reading right now, which is about women in science, and is very informative about how men and women differ in their approaches to math and science.

Was I wrong? There IS bias.

Interestingly, the very day that I wrote this to her, I went to a talk on gender and science. What I heard there made me wonder if my advice to the girl above was misguided and wrong.

The speaker (Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist and science educator at U. Wisconsin) pointed out that we still have fewer women in the sciences than you’d expect by the number of women getting undergraduate degrees in science. Academic hiring is, in theory, based on a meritocracy, and faculty claim that “we only hire the best.” But when pressed to ask for their criteria on what the “best” or “merit” is, they often claim that “I know it when I see it.” But that leaves lots of room for bias.

Since women are scarce in the sciences, she says, there are four main hypotheses that people put forward:

Hypothesis 1. Narrow pipeline. There are few women coming into the sciences. However, there are more women coming in thanever before. What they’ve found is that women are lost at each transition step — from High School to College,from College to Graduate School, and especially from the PhD to Tenure Track positions. She’s heard many tragic stories of how isolated women are once they get tenure.  Note too this recent post at Bad Astronomy about how lots of girls want to be scientists (yay!).

A female scientist samples of DNA

A female scientist samples DNA

Hypothesis 2. Women aren’t as talented. However, women get as high grades as men, and there are no differences in math and verbal skillsbetween men and women. Women are well-qualified. The only difference that has been shown to exist between men and women is that of spatial skills, and this seems to be due to experience and training rather than genetic difference.

Hypothesis 3. Women choose not to advance. This hypothesis also doesn’t seem to hold water, especially if you consider the choice between “family” and “career” to be a false one which is imposed by the systemic constraints on women who want to have both.

Hypothesis 4. There is discrimination. This is the hypothesis she spent most of her time talking about. She claims that we intend to be fair and to uphold the meritocracy. But our unconscious prejudices affect our evaluation of people and their work. There is less outright discrimination as there used to be, where people believe that women shouldn’t have certain jobs, but that unconscious bias causes the unequal hiring of women in the sciences.

For example:

  • People will overestimate the height of men and underestimate that of women (based on previous experience that women are short and men and tall)
  • People rate the verbal skills apparent in a short text as lower when they think that a black person or woman wrote it.
  • Many studies have shown that when given a resume, people (men and women) are more likely to say that they would hire the person if there is a man’s name attached to the resume (rather than a woman’s name). The fact that both men and women do the same thing show sthis isn’t due to a group of advantaged people trying to keep women out of the in-club, but rather the product of enculturation. The same thing is observed with job evaluations.
  • And the prize for the weirdest study: People are more likely to hire an applicant when a masculine scent (I think it was testosterone or some other hormone/pheromone) is applied to the application

What to do…

There’s good news, though. Job performance evaluations are more equal when the evaluator is not distracted. This goes with the literature that more information leads to less bias. Similarly, the hiring bias in female vs. male names on a resume disappears when academics are asked who they would grant tenure to. That’s because there is more information available at that time.

Additionally, people show less bias when, amazingly, they’re instructed to avoid being prejudiced.

So, it seems that my post to the girl, above, was somewhat misguided. There is bias, and it’s likely that it affected me at some point in my career. I asked Dr. Handelsman, however, whether it’s better to not deny our personal disadvantage and recognize that there is bias? What is our role as discriminatees? She wasn’t sure, and said maybe ignorance is bliss, allowing us to go forward confidently and not be angry all the time. So, maybe my advice to the girl was good, not acknowledging this hidden bias?

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In the continuing vein of women and science (see my previous post Flirt Harder, I’m a Physicist in particular), I was just forwarded a link to L’Oreal’s postdoctoral fellowships for women scientists. I remember L’Oreal.  I remember them from when I was at a conference for the American Physical Society (APS), talking with some colleagues at an exhibit hall. Some guy from L’Oreal came by and handed me some mascara along with a brochure.  I jokingly asked why I got the mascara, and not my male colleagues.  The L’Oreal guy laughed a little uncomfortably and my colleagues expressed their complete lack of interest in mascara.

I felt uncomfortable enough in that moment to have remembered it now, years later.  Yet, it was actually pretty good mascara (I’ve still got it), and what the heck, I got something typically “feminine” in a typically male venue.  Should I feel empowered by my gift of mascara?  Maybe what was uncomfortable was that it highlighted my gender in a venue where we try to ignore such personal characteristics.  See my earlier post on stereotype threat, where I discuss how we’re afraid of doing something that will reflect negatively on our gender when our minority status is highlighted.

Anyway.  I think the L’Oreal fellowships are pretty great.  They make money by exploiting our culture’s focus on women’s appearance, so why not give some of that money back to women who aren’t conforming to the stereotypes and are using their brains in science.  Though one thing I found curious — they ask for (optional) a photo attachment on the application.  Is that normal?  They also highlight the achievements of women in science around the world.

I just read an interesting article (Shmader and Johns, Converging Evidence That Stereotype Threat Reduces Working Memory Capacity, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, Vol. 85, No. 3, 440 – 452) about why worrying about stereotypes can make women and other minorities perform poorly on tests. They gave subjects a test of working memory (matching equations and words). They were told this was a test of quantitative capacity. For half the subjects, they also said that gender differences in math performance could be related to differences in quantitative capacity. That created a condition called stereotype threat — the fear that your behavior is going to confirm existing negative stereotypes of your group.

They found that – for both women and latinos – the stereotype threat condition caused a decrease in working memory capacity. In the non-threat condition, women and men, latinos and whites performed equally on the task. Men’s and whites’ scores were not affected by the different conditions.

They wondered whether it was just that women and latinos became more anxious due to the threat condition and that this emotional response affected their test performance. That doesn’t seem to be the case — women didn’t become more anxious (though latinos did). Even if they’re not aware of feeling threatened, the mere presence of the negative stereotype may consume critical cognitive resources. Other research has shown that subjects show physiological signs of stress when under stereotype threat. Perhaps that interferes with the ability to remember items.

Myself, I know that when I’m in a position of stereotype threat (which happens all the time… I mean c’mon, I’m a woman physicist, and one with a relatively shoddy physics background at that) I become very aware of it. Just the other day I found myself the only woman in a room of men discussing gender differences in physics classes. I stayed quiet. I didn’t want anything I said to become indicative of “what women think.” I also find myself discussing physics with groups of men quite often. I’m very quiet in those conversations too. Of course, worrying about “looking stupid” is tied up with many other factors (my personal ego, the culture of physicists, group dynamics), but it’s also tied up with my gender, even if only implicitly. I’m not one of those super-brilliant female physicists. I’ve got my PhD, I’m no dummy, but I don’t compete well with the fast-and-furious discussions of physics. In part, I often feel I have fewer cognitive resources at my fingertips, and maybe that’s what this study is highlighting. I could participate in the physics discussions at a slower rate, with a book and some time to think about it. I don’t pull things out of my head if I haven’t been thinking about them recently, the way that I see the men around me do.

Sciencewomen just posted a fabulously detailed blogroll of all the women blogging on science topics.

A great resource.  I wonder how the proportion of women blogging about science compares to the proportion of women employed in the sciences?  There certainly seem to b a decent number of us blogging about physics, considering the dismal number of women in physics.

See my next post for some thoughts about being a minority in the sciences and how it makes me feel stupid.

So, I’ve got this bumper sticker, which has sort of become my little badge of fame, “Flirt harder. I’m a physicist.” I love it — I’ve had motorists pull up beside me, motion to roll down my window, and yell “What kind of physicist?” I once saw the driver of the car behind me taking a picture of it while we were both stopped at a stoplight. I’ve had numerous pedestrians stop to ask me about it. Several don’t get it, like this blogger:

the confusing ones say “flirt harder. i’m a physicist.” i really don’t get that one. do i have to be a physicist to understand it? i’ve only taken high school physics so i have no idea what flirting has to do with anything physics related.

I’ve had some guess that it means that physicists are more desireable, so you should flirt harder to get one (I don’t mind that interpretation). But Jen Oullette gets it:

One of my favorite physics buttons/bumper stickers reads, “Flirt Harder — I’m a Physicist.” There’s a certain degree of truth to this stereotype, although it must be said, most physicists, computer geeks, etc., seem to end up married or in relationships at some point, so they can’t be as clueless as they’re generally believed to be.

The reason I love this bumper sticker, for myself, is partially its irony (I’m known to be an incurable flirt, and certainly not among the clueless when it comes to picking up on romantic signals). I’ve also often wondered how much of people’s confusion about its meaning comes from the fact that it’s on a woman’s car. The stereotyped clueless physicist/geek is a guy — women aren’t generally known for being socially inept. The opposite — we’re supposed to be the ones holding the fort together. So, is it a bit of cognitive dissonance to think “geek” along with “woman”? The two words hold some conflicting stereotypes.

Which brings me to the real reason for this post, which is to comment on a very interesting thread over at Cocktail Party Physics on what happens for women occupying the overlapping states of smart & sexy? This was in response to the 81 (and counting!!) varied comments on Phil Plait’s posting about Nerd Girls. Jennifer says:

Phil Plait is taking some heat from commenters over at Bad Astronomy after posting about the Nerd Girls: a Website, blog, and collection of curricula aimed at celebrating “smart-girl individuality” and challenging “stereotypes and myths about women in science and engineering.” … Apparently this site is controversial because it depicts smart women who are pretty, have a sense of style, and like to wear heels and a nice dress in the evenings when they go out dancing (at least a couple of them do). … The audacity! How dare smart women engage in such frivolous matters! They’re supposed to be dour, humorless, scruffy dressers, I guess, in keeping with their seriousness of purpose, so they can prove to the world that they don’t care what people think of them. Or something. Who knew that wearing makeup and wanting a pair of nice shoes automatically made you shallow and a slave to our appearance-obsessed society, no matter what your other brainy accomplishments

In graduate school, I worked in a lab full of other women.  I wanted to put up a website called “chicks in science” and have us all wearing short little lab coats with plunging necklines, posing coquettishly with erlenmeyer flasks.  I was the only one who seemed to get a kick out the idea.  (Now, of course, it sounds like the Nerd Girls site capitalized on a great idea).

I personally have always liked romping in this fun little playspace between girly and geeky. I certainly revel in all things science, and play up that part of my personality. And I wore my hear in pigtails for years, and had fuzzy little pigtail holders with stars on them. I use glittery nail polish. My cell phone case (which drew a gasp from my ex) has little blue and pink hearts on them. I like a good manicure, though I’ve also had sort of wimpy tomboy tendencies since I was a kid. I have a giggly bubbly side to me, and often times I get that sort of wide-eyed “really?” when folks find out that I’m a physicist. Of course, that’s not necessarily gender specific (plenty of physicists, male and female, are too familiar with the “hush in the conversation” that follows the admission of one’s profession).

But guys (of course, I surround myself with nerdy guys) are generally not dismayed to find out the “smart + sexy” equation applies to me — there’s generally this sort of “hey cool, that’s hot” look that passes over their face. But one thing that strikes me is that my smartness seems to play second fiddle. I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they have said that I’m beautiful. Plenty of times. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart they are. Why this seeming double standard, even among men who value the fact that I’m smart? I’m with Phil Plait on this one — how can we expect ourselves to “rise above” millions of years of evolution? Men are attracted to me for the traits that we’ve been bred to be attracted to — those which signify fertility and health. You know, big hips, rosy lips, symmetric facial features, etc. I’m attracted to them because it seems they can outsmart the antelope. We’ve got these big ponderous brains that let us think about the nature of consciousness, the universe, and gender differences. But that doesn’t mean those brains can completely override those gender differences, even if we’re aware of them.

The unfortunate result is that I’m much more confident of my looks than my brains. I accept compliments about my appearance much more gracefully than those about my smarts, where I tend to minimize, “Oh, I don’t really know physics that much.” Internally, I know I attribute my successes in science to extrinsic factors (“the exam was easy,” “I talked my way into graduate school,” or even “They let me in because I’m a woman”) than to intrinsic factors (“I’m smart”), though I do admit that I worked hard. I don’t see guys do this. I’m not blaming them (or anyone), it just seems a shame. I do feel angry that I’ve gotten so much more positive feedback (interpersonally) over my life for being cute than for being smart. I even know that being cute has probably helped my career (research shows that attractive women have many advantages in career, as do tall men.)

Jennifer’s post continues:

The mistake many people make, however, is to over-compensate too far in the other direction, wherein anything remotely “girly” is somehow exerting undue pressure on young girls, with no thought to the possibility that maybe some girls genuinely like this stuff. Maybe this is part of who they are. Maybe they also like science and math. Ergo, we are putting a whole different kind of peer pressure on them that also squelches their individuality, by insisting they simply can’t be both interested in science and in clothes and makeup. (“Accessorizing is evil and will turn you into a bubblehead! Put down that Coach handbag and back away slowly! Do it for science!”)

That attitude is showing up a lot in Phil’s comment thread; I’ve heard it before. Danica MacKellar was sharply criticized when Math Doesn’t Suck was published last year for using math problems involving, say, shopping for school clothes.

I’ve seen this too, this “girly stuff is demeaning” attitude. It bothers me. A lot. Because “boyish” stuff, like trains and hunting and barbeques, doesn’t have that same negative connotation. To me, the embarrassment we’ve got about girly stuff has to do with our negative attitudes towards women. Period. We think that handbags and high-heels don’t belong in a textbook (or anywhere serious) because they’re related to women, and we don’t value women.   I don’t usually state such strong opinions, but there it is!

Back to guys’ interest in the “sexy+smart” coincidence. One thing that’s curious is that they often seem to cling to this hope that I’ll “get” them, that I “speaka their language.” Which, to some degree, I do. I speak geek. I like talking about this stuff. But to a large degree, I DON’T understand guys any more than any other girl. Stereotypically speaking, I have a woman’s desire to talk deeply about how I feel, to examine issues from many sides, to seek connection and to listen and to build community and all that crud. And I still have all the communication problems with men than most other women do. And yet, men talk about topics that I find much more interesting, in general. I straddle these two worlds — of nail polish and emotional conversations, versus differential equations and debunking astrology.

Where’s a geekgirl to call home?

Richard Hake and Jeffry Mallow have compiled over 700 research papers on how males and females learn — and are taught — science and mathematics.  Wow!

You can download the PDF of their work here. If that link stops working at some point, the permalink is in Reference 55 here.

The first page reads:

This 12.8 MB compilation of over 700 annotated references and 1000 hot-linked URL’s provides a window into the vast literature on Gender Issues in Science/Math Education (GISME). The present listing is an update, expansion, and generalization of the earlier 0.23 MB Gender Issues in Physics/Science Education (GIPSE) by Mallow & Hake (2002). Included in references on general gender issues in science and math, are sub-topics that include:
(a) Affirmative Action;
(b) Constructivism: Educational and Social;
(c) Drivers of Education Reform and Gender Equity: Economic Competitiveness and Preservation of Life on Planet Earth;
(d) Education and the Brain;
(e) Gender & Spatial Visualization;
(f) Harvard President Summers’ Speculation on Innate Gender Differences in Science and Math Ability;
(g) Hollywood Actress Danica McKellar’s book Math Doesn’t Suck;
(h) Interactive Engagement;
(i) International Comparisons;
(j) Introductory Physics Curriculum S (for Synthesis);
(k) Is There a Female Science? – Pro & Con;
(l) Schools Shortchange Girls (or is it Boys)?;
(m) Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?;
(n) Status of Women Faculty at MIT.

In this Part 1 (8.2 MB), all references are in listed in alphabetical order on pages 3-178. In Part 2
(4.6 MB) references related to sub-topics “a” through “n” are listed in subject order as indicated above.

On a related note, here is a post from Swans on Tea about the recent discussion on instituting Title IX in Science.

The issue here, though, is whether the comparison to sports is an appropriate one to make. It’s not.

Men and women don’t compete with and against each other in these sporting events. Title IX has been very successful at expanding womens’ participation in sports, because it focused on equality of opportunity and did not assume equality of ability — women are not fighting for a roster spot on a single football, soccer or baseball team, etc. …The lack of opportunity for women that prompted Title IX was the lack of teams on which they could compete, and one could (and did) create and fund these teams. The situation in science is very much different in the difficulties that exist and the solutions that can be proffered.