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.


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