EducationFeminismHigher Education

Academic science and sexism

A recent New York Times article declared academic science isn’t sexist.  The article has already been heavily criticized, and rightly so.  I just thought I’d add my two cents from the perspective of a female science professor at an all-women’s college.  Allow me to sum it up for everyone, based on my admittedly anecdotal observations.

Girls and women are not encouraged to enter science. In fact many are actively discouraged.

Very very few of my students are in my classes for the love of science and almost none (I can only think of one student at all) are pursuing a science career.  That vast majority are taking science on their way to a health-related career or because it’s a core requirement of our school (and yes they hate being in science!).

Of course  “…women can and do prosper in math-based field of science, if they choose to enter these fields in the first place” (though I certainly take issue with them doing equally as well – see the paper itself, a pdf linked in Emily Willlingham’s post).  When almost all of my students hate and fear math and came into college with that attitude, why would anyone expect them to choose that path?  When I was told in a thousand ways, including right to my face, I was poor in math, after placing fourth in my school in a national math test (our picture was in the school newspaper-very exciting!), how can I believe the playing field is even remotely level?

What worries me is how many people so desperately want to believe this is true, that women can do just as well in a science career and all this nonsense about gender disparities is based on anecdata.  That women are making up the still existing and very real problems with gender equality in this and any other academic discipline. This idea that we’ve somehow solved the sexism in science is going to haunt us.  This article will be touted as progress even though it so clearly is not reality based.

The constant discussions and debates over whether or not there is sexism in any field actually deflect from the toll the actual sexism takes on the women in these fields.  It would be really nice if I could tell my students they have an equal chance to anyone if they enter science fields, but I can’t. These women have been told over and over they need to go into a field that they will be good at, such as healthcare, and many argue that science isn’t necessary for that (!).  They don’t want to do science, because they’ve been told it’s hard, they’ve been told it’s boring, they’ve been told it’s not for them.  I’ve worked at coed schools too, and I know this isn’t the message boys got. My student got the message.  Science isn’t for them.

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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