Sunday, May 4, 2014

Women in Science

Marie Curie & her daughters, 1908 Giclee Print
Meg Urry gave two fabulous seminars on Women in Science to jump start a related program from University of Zurich. Her talks are always fun (see for example "Why so few?") to listen to. 

She concluded with "become a professor, have a family".  I want to add that one should not wait to become a professor to have a family.  I do not think careers are worth postponing life for. Rather, our lives should fit around the job we have, whatever that job is.

Otherwise, I second that an academic career is flexible. This is one reason I chose it. The down side is that universities typically do not have child-care centres with enough spots for their own faculty and staff (in Zurich they recommend getting on the waiting list long before getting pregnant, which I find ridiculous), but then most jobs do not come with a functional child-care package and the professor salary is enough to cover child-care - one child at a time.  In an academic environment the job is flexible and most stress is self-imposed. So, that's all very good relative to other professions.

The rest of her talk
This is my summary (Attention: her talk was entertaining and funny; not obvious from the summary!). She emphasized that our educational system does not attract the best students it could attract to science careers and so changes are needed, and they have not been made. While there is less overt bias, the number of women in science has not changed much over the past few decades. She also argued that both women and men are biased and that being aware and accepting that we are biased reduces the bias. Again, there is various data that supports this view from people asked to estimate the size of a vehicle or person in charge to boys/girls asked to solve math problems to people evaluating resumes. She explained that there are no intrinsic differences between men and women that could explain this gap.

She also emphasised that a more diverse group of people is more creative and overall better than a homogenous group of people. So, we should NOT strive to hire people who are exactly like us, but instead hire people who complement our abilities and interests. We also have to be aware that we are biased towards hiring people who are just like us (men - preferably originating from the same country as us and educated by somebody we know) and make an effort to reduce this bias.

I believe in increasing the number of qualified people in all professions. This involves having better schools, and better teachers who can reach out to their students and make whatever they teach interesting. There are additional efforts that can be made to help students from diverse backgrounds make it through, and such steps need to be taken by more universities and schools around the world. Also, it would be good to have selection processes that are more open when looking for new faculty vs. knowing who they want to hire before they start. Universities are important in that the research we do drives the industry development, and in order to come up with new ideas we need diversity.

Meg's talk was meant to jumpstart a program at the ETH/University where they review the interviewing process for new faculty to make sure it's fair. While the idea is good, what they planned to do seemed extremely complicated (and likely expensive) with many work packages and a tremendous amount of bureaucracy.  There are so few positions and I see so many very talented people of both sexes quitting that I am not particularly excited about putting a lot of effort in a review of a review of a committee. Since there is already so much bureaucracy, which it takes a significant fraction of our time, it seems that we would accomplish more by reducing paperwork instead of enhancing it.

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