Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Women in Skepticism?

Rebecca Watson relates a debate over sexism that took place at an annual skepticism conference, The Amazing Meeting. (I wasn't there, but I've actually been a big fan of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast of which Rebecca is a part. Rebecca is a writer by trade and her colleagues are academic scientists.) Skeptics view their mission as bringing science and scientific reasoning to media and a broader community. They are fierce defenders of evolution, opponents of homeopothy, and work against the anti-vaccination crowd. But I've noticed that Rebecca is the only woman on the show, and that they rarely interview any women on the show at all.

Rebecca's point was that although women were about 40 percent of attendees, all but one presenter was a white man. Her post was overall very diplomatic, but I wonder how long the skeptical movement will be able to skirt the issues of gender and race balance. After all, science itself, especially the hard sciences, is a field where very few women reach gender parity. Women make up the minority of grant recipients (PDF) at the National Institute of Health, and few schools even approach gender parity in its faculty ranks in hard sciences. The fact that science itself is realtively undiverse is a problem. With only a certain kind of perspective making up the majoirty of the people, there are fewer challenges -- even skepticism -- applied to what is often thought of as assumptions.

But what I found really disturbing was the reaction Rebecca got just by opening up the discussion of sexism at TAM this year:
I mean is it surprising that attractive girls might be steered toward a path that is less than academic as they go through middle and high school? I rarely see really attractive women that are also highly intelligent or geeky and i dont think its a result of some kind of discrimination. (emphasis Rebecca's)
It seems that science and skepticism itself is suffering from a lot of stereotyping, part of it directed at women.

The question of how to gain gender parity in sciences is a complicated one. Some say it is due to a lack of mentoring. Others say it goes all the way back to how boys and girls are treated in science in elementary school or that women are taught that their value is based in their attractiveness, and science isn't viewed by many as a field that attracts attractive people. Such complicated questions like the ones raised by Rebecca at TAM this year are ones that should be addressed, but they should be opened up to the broader picture. Women don't just make up the extreme minority of presenters at TAM, but they also make up a minortiy of high-profile scientists. Perhaps we need to start examining the reasons for what that is to answer the question about TAM.


Emily Rutherford said...

I agree that attractive girls and women are often discouraged from intellectual pursuits, and are instead encouraged to be good girlfriends/wives. But speaking purely anecdotally, it seems as if many girls and women who aren't considered conventionally attractive might elect to devote more energy to school in order to find an environment in which they can be highly regarded. For many teenagers/adolescents, the social world is more interesting and popularity there is more enviable than academic success, but it's very difficult for girls/young women to be popular if they're not considered attractive, and so maybe some would opt for praise from teachers/professors/etc. instead, or being well-regarded by their peers as a source for homework help.

Well, it got me through high school, anyway.

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