Monday, June 26, 2006

Half Empty or Hall Full?

Imagine a car race, where there are two cars A and B, A in the lead. B manages to catch up to A, and even starts to get ahead. There are two basic scenarios for what could have happened:

Scenario 1: A drops in speed, so B, still going at the same pace, is able to pass.

Scenario 2: B increases in speed while A stays the same, so B catches up.

Now, obviously we could determine which of these happened by analyzing average velocities. But which one do we believe happened?

We hear a report that girls are now catching up to boys, doing better in school, higher graduation rates, grades, even in “boy subjects” like math and science. Is it because (1) boys are doing worse or (2) girls are doing better?

Overwhelmingly, we seem to believe it is Scenario 1, that somehow our education system is failing the boys. We are so concerned in fact, that Newsweek had a cover story about how we need to "Save the Boys!". Stop worrying about girls! Our education system is failing behind! Having female teachers (women in authority!) plus asking boys to “behave” and “follow rules” and “turn in homework on time” is asking too much of them! It’s not like the system was made for boys in the first place, and for a century or two boys seem to do fine.

When girls are doing well, we assume it’s not that girls are doing better, it’s that boys, in comparison are doing worse. The Newsweek article (and many others like it) believe we need to change the system to help boys. When girls were behind forty years ago, there were no thoughts of changing the system, it was how to change girls to better succeed in this system. Now that they have managed to succeed, they are now outstripping boys, so now the system is “bad” because it “penalizes boys”. Sigh. Girls just cannot get a break in this country.

The good news? One study is now realizing this. Quote from the study :

"The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse," the report says, "it's good news about girls doing better.”

Finally the press seems to get the idea. But while the headline “Boys doing worse!” can make the cover of Newsweek, “Girls doing better!” cannot even stay on the front page of the Washington Post the day it’s published. Why don't we sing girls praises, for doing so well in really, so short on a time? Why do we assume girls can't be doing better, boys must be doing worse? How can we fix this?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Should pro-choicers always vote democrat?

As you may know, Louisiana Govonor Kathleen Blanco signed a statewide ban on abortions, a “trigger law” that will take effect if (when?) Roe V Wade is overturned. So, this begs the question, how safe is it to vote democrat when some decide to renounce women’s rights in such a way? Should we always vote democrat? What’s better, a pro-life democrat or a pro-choice republican?

So, I’m going to look at this question purely from an abortion rights standpoint, ignoring other issues. The confirmation of Samual Alito to the Supreme Court will almost certainly tilt the court against abortion and women’s rights. His beliefs on abortion rights were extremely clear, and most people are convinced he would vote to overturn Roe V Wade.

Four democrats voted to confirm Alito: Bryd (W. Va), Conrad(ND), Johnson (SD) and Nelson (Neb). All four are either confirmed pro-life (Nelson) or have heavily pro-life leanings, according to NARAL rankings. All are also fairly conservative, from very conservative states. Senate minority leader Reid, however, while staunchly pro-life did vote against Alito, as did pro-life leaning democrats Landrieu and Pyror.

As for the republicans, only one republican Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, voted against Altio. He is one of four prominently pro-choice republicans, but the other three, Snowe, Collins and Spector, all voted for Alito.

Snowe especially has gotten endorsements and supports from pro-choice groups, but what good is that when she won’t vote pro choice when it counts? Votes were more along party lines on both sides than ideology. In addition, current NARAL rankings show that pro-life democrats have similar voting records on abortion to pro-chioce republicans, ironically enough, so these labels may not mean much. Which makes me think a pro-life democrat is a safer vote than a pro-choice republican, because, most often, they will follow the party lines.

Monday, June 19, 2006

First things first

Women who wish to make a contribution to the realm of science have long had their work cut out for them. They have been relegated to the hearth, enjoined to passivity, upbraided for their temerity in straying from their ordained roles, decried as rabble-rousers, burnt as witches, dismissed as soft-headed and exploited as uncredited lab-grunts.

The roots of this tradition run deep. Hypatia, after whom this blog is named, was reportedly flayed to death by a religious mob that viewed her science as sorcery. During the Enlightenment, the liberty and welfare of all Mankind were seen as just and noble goals, and Science thrived as an intellectual field. Yet somehow these high ideals didn't extend to women's freedom to pursue scientific learning. As recently as the 20th century, women who attained an education in the sciences were excluded from arenas where male scientists could share and develop their ideas. Highly trained and talented women were treated as technical assistants.

While we have come a long way since those days, women still have a long way to travel. Women now make up a much larger percent of undergraduate degrees in the sciences, but we have not yet made up the predicted gains in women professors and “higher-ups” in industry. One description I heard from a prominent women scientist was it is not one thing keeping women out of science, it is the accumulation of small inequalities, which slowly build up over time and edge women out of science. Women are paid less and despite what some may think of affirmative action, women have more difficulty being hired and are held to higher standards than men. One study showed that handing the same resume for a faculty position and placing a woman’s name at the top, it would get a much less favorable response than if it were a man’s name. They determined a woman would have to publish 2.5 times more to be seen as equal to a male competing for the same offer.

Women are also forced out of science not by direct prejudice, but by “choice.” The United States falls behind almost every developed country in the amount of maternity leave and support we give working mothers. For many women, it must be a choice between science and family, in a way very different from the choice for a man. These are not free “choices” women have to make.

We are concerned not only about the specific issues that affect us as women in science, but the way women's rights and civil rights are being eroded, and how religious beliefs are being touted as "science" in public policy.

We are scientists, engineers and mathematicians who believe that intellectual ability is not the domain of one gender.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Natural Philosopher (355? - 415 CE)

She is one of the more romantic figures in science. She was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who taught at the great school at the Alexandrine Library. She traveled widely and corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean. We know of her only through her letters because all of her work was destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandia was destroyed.

She taught at the school in the Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Letters written and addressed simply to the philosopher were delivered to her. She taught mathematics and natural philosophy. She is credited with the authorship of three major treatises on geometry and algebra and one on astronomy. She invented several tools: an instrument for distilling water, an instrument to measure the specific gravity of water, an astrolabe and a planisphere.

She died violently. She was dragged to her death by a mob who pulled her from her classroom into the streets where they peeled her to death with oyster shells.

She wrote that:

  • All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
  • Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
  • To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.