Today, news made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter about the abjectly low number of female authors on palaeotology papers. See here. Below is my unreflected take on this. Because many people will be too hectic to read it all, here’s a two point summary:
1) there are gender differences, and we must simply accept them, not try to undo them.
2) said differences plus prejudices lead to genders being treated differently (usually to the disadvantage of women), resulting in different chances and opportunities for equally capable individuals. We need to stop this unfair practice, and we must actively counteract unfair treatment outside science that influences chances and opportunities in science!
NOTE: I am only talking about things past school – talking about people society hands science as first semester students at university. Before that, unfair and stupid things take place, but I will ignore them for this post.
Is there really any more to say? Well, yes, there is. First of all, the low number of female authors is in part an effect of worse circumstances in the past. Not too long ago women were not allowed to attend university, then they were allow to, but not able to hold a job in science, then they were accepted as lab technicians but not anything higher up, and so on. In part, the 17% female author figure stems from the fact that a science career lasts typically between a decade and a half-century. Even if all things were absolutely even and fair today, it would take a half-century to get the effect of the past out of the system. Go to the site linked above and change between “all years” and “1991-2010”. You can see how all numbers for females go up. Thus, I want more detailed data 🙂
Secondly, I do not need more detailed data to see that things aren’t perfectly even and fair today. In fact, they are far from even and fair. For one thing, women have an uterus, men do not. As a direct result, women bear children, men do not. Thus, on average, the career of a female is interrupted by a period in which she can barely work (if at all), has massive hormone changes going on in her body several times, changes that are known to massively influence risk-taking behaviour and memory (and if she has more than one child this all is repeated). Sadly, doing science is typically a precarious employment. You go from one time-limited grant to the next, you need to stitch your income together from several grants and teaching assignments, you need to move every few years, etc. Additionally, it is a “much away” profession: you do a lot of travelling. Both things are harder on women than on men, on average, because evolution has selected for a low willingness to take risks in mothers. I know several very smart, diligent women who did not go into science despite a strong interest simply because they did not want to suffer through the ridiculousness of grant writing. I fully understand, I get ulcers from just thinking about the grant vetting process and the unkept promises of processing time by funding agencies! But women – even those who do not have children yet – have a lower tolerance for all this sh*t.
Also, the “down-time” means that women compare badly versus men of the same age with regards to experience and number of papers. That’s utterly unfair – if you compare people you need to compare worktime, not age. Luckily, some funding agencies do ask people to explain “career breaks” in grant applications, and thus discount such “down-times” when assessing them. Idiotically, these years often do not count for wage or pensions.
Fourth, there is a clear difference (again – on average; I know quite some exceptions) in how gender-typical behaviour (be it “natural” or trained-on by society) results in authorship percentages: on average, men are more willing than women to toss out a half-cooked paper, or push their name onto a paper where they only deserve a “thank you” in the acknowledgements. Thus, men tend to publish more, but lower average quality. This is one gender-typical difference I wish peer-review would cancel out.
More? Lots – but not now. Right now I am too angry thinking of all the great people science has lost because of all this nonsense, and of all my female colleagues who suffer from direct or indirect prejudices and discrimination!
(incidentally, isn’t it cool that I can say: in my experience, lesbians, homosexuals and transgender people suffer much less in science that in average society?)