Friday, January 21, 2011

In a perfect world..

I am back. I knew I would not last with this silence business but I am glad that I did it.
Over the past four months, I have been acutely aware of only one of the many identities I have - scientist. Finishing up is a mirage in its own way. Now, I have decided to throw myself into the arms of hopelessness. It comes in handy sometimes. But the key is to be "really" hopeless and not just pretend that you are not going to pin your hopes on a date. From the heart of true hopelessness, sprouts a new beginning. :)

Before I stopped writing, I was intrigued by the studies done around gender differences in academia. There have been a lot of controversial debates on the issue. I followed it with interest because I am on the path of entering academia myself. Whether it is women in science, women in politics, women in business or just women doing something different, I find it all interesting.
In this post, I am just pooling together all the interesting articles I have read on this issue over the last four months.

Let us begin at home before we soar high into the academic skies. When talking about women dropping out of academia, investigators often use a term called the ' leaky pipeline'. Wherein, women are said to be dropping out of a pipeline at crucial points in their scientific careers. However, in India, there are places where girls drop out of schools at a crucial age, after puberty, due to lack of real pipelines. The absence of sanitation is forcing young girls to drop out of schools in parts of rural India. This is not even a case of unconscious bias. It is a glaring proof of how the lack of sanitation, which is a basic human need, affects one sex worse than the other.

This is a clever experiment on how a 15 minute writing exercise can dramatically change the gender gap in university level physics, which brings to our notice the radical change that can be brought about by a seemingly small exercise of reaffirming your own values. This Slate article further elaborates on how subtle suggestions pointing towards a stereotype can influence test results negatively. When women of Asian origin were reminded of their Asian heritage (prompting the stereotype that Asians are good at maths) they scored better. When they were reminded about their gender (prompting the stereotype that women are not as good at maths) they did worse. Even in female dominated fields such as biology, where 50% graduates are women, the number of women at the higher faculty level is seen to be dropping to >15%. This article about Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn brings forth various dilemmas women go through while in the so called leaky pipeline. It is rightly titled 'Why Science Must Adapt to Women'. Although such studies are often 'controlled' for variables such as age, I think unless they devise a 'control' for these constant schisms, where women get torn between their toddlers at day care and their cultures in shaker flasks, a real solution for the pipeline would not happen.
Another touching article I read, which reminded me of my childhood days - when I was growing up around a dad who would not hesitate to take a month off from work so that he could hang out with me while my mom was away. This FT article talks about women CEOs and their husbands. Although I do not like the overall tone of the article and the hastiness in matching evidence with preconceived ideas, I agree that having a relaxed and caring husband at home is one of the biggest boosts an alpha-woman could receive.

This is a Washington Post article about motherhood and tenure. Karla Murdok's statement, "One of the costs of working full time and parenting is that I don't feel that I do either job as well as I could, or should.", is worth taking a special note of. Tenure is not just about being smart. So conclusions drawn just by looking at the disparity of male:female numbers at a faculty level (e.g., by counting the number of men and women who have been granted tenure as full professors in different fields) tend to be unfair towards women.
Another often repeated comment about women at work in general is that women are averse to taking risk. They tend to play safe 'naturally'. Perhaps as an answer, Naomi Klein explains where too much risk is taking us. I really enjoyed watching this TED talk because Naomi takes up serious issues and it is still very funny. Especially when she talks about women taking lesser risks and says, "it turns out that being praised less and paid less has its upsides, at least for the society". :)
In her speech, Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams presents a realistic face of world peace. With examples of women bringing women together from around the world, she elaborates on the power of coming together for a cause.

I am not taking a strictly evidence based stand here. All I really want to do is absorb various perspectives and ruminate on them. I am not really an angry feminist either. I think it is not a "Male Vs Female" debate. To be able to solve problems related to inequality, the versus should be replaced with "with". In exploiting the potential of talented women, we don't necessarily have to prove that they are better than men. We can just make their lives better than what they were yesterday. The competition here is not an egoistic battle of the sexes. It is a competition with yourself from yesterday. Also, it should be looked upon as a competition to lead a wholesome life instead of just using one of your many identities as a benchmark for success.

I should acknowledge Nanopolitan for his vast collection of links and perspectives on the issue. I have been following his blog regularly for the past six months. I also thank Alok Shrivastava for extending a space for a lively debate and leading me to many of the places mentioned in the post.

See you again soon!!