Asking the Wrong Question

European CEOs are asking why there isn’t greater gender parity in scientific research. And they’re determined to go out there and fix the problem, by golly.

Only they aren’t asking the right question. Which is, “With educational opportunities essentially at parity (when they aren’t actually canted in favor of women), why do more women not CHOOSE to go into scientific research?”

The answer to which is, “Because they dont WANT to.”

Not because they’re being held back, not because the doors aren’t open, just because it isn’t a field that interests them and they choose not to walk through those doors.

And why might that be?

Because men and women are different. Equal rights is not about numerical parity, but about equal opportunity. The 15% of women who went into reasearch got there. But overall, scientific fields hold less interest for women than they do for men. It isn’t upbringing, it isn’t oppressive society, it’s just the way we’re made. If numerical parity instead of equal opportunity becomes the goal, then it’s going to require forced inequality, some of which we’re seeing in the US as more qualified candidates are shut out because they’re white and male, in order to get the numbers up for those who are less qualified, but are not white and not male.

That has nothing to do with equality, and everything to do with giving special interest groups oppressive power. And that’s simply wrong.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

10 comments… add one
  • Holly Lisle Oct 24, 2003 @ 6:35

    Since the Victorians told us that women weren’t interested in sex, and the neo-Freudians of the 50s told us that women weren’t interested in public life, I’ll wait until the results of the experiment are in.

    Perhaps "Not interested" isn’t the right phrase in some cases. (It is in a lot of cases, but not in mine, so …)

    I’m interested in science. I always have been, and have always been good at it. In high school I was one of a handful of juniors cherry-picked to take a national science test — I had the highest results in my school and ranked well at the state and national levels.

    But I looked at the careers available in science and they didn’t fit in with my priorities. I already knew that I wanted to have kids, and that I wanted to be able to stay home with them as much as possible. A science career and the mom career track didn’t mesh. (Still don’t.) So I chose work that allowed me to meet my primary goal. I went into nursing, and as soon as I had my daughter, switched to weekend Baylor work, which allowed me to be with my kids five days a week. I stayed in weekend-only nursing jobs for the rest of my career, and left it for writing as soon as I could support myself on my writing income. I work the writing around my children now, too. Writing is my second career, not my first one.

    I’m not alone in this. While there are women who do not want to have children, and it is for them most of all that I champion equal opportunities in employment, there are a lot of us who knew early on that we wanted to be mothers, and who have arranged our lives with that career choice in mind. And there are enough of us that I suspect women will remain “underrepresented” in long-prep, hours-intensive, sacrifice-heavy careers, simply because a lot of us don’t want to put in the hours and make sacrifices that include family.

  • Alison Oct 24, 2003 @ 1:12

    Since the Victorians told us that women weren’t interested in sex, and the neo-Freudians of the 50s told us that women weren’t interested in public life, I’ll wait until the results of the experiment are in.
    Personally, I don’t think women can afford not to be interested in something that has such an impact on our lives and our society.

  • Djohn Oct 19, 2003 @ 16:50

    I have always admired those who tackle tasks against impossible odds and persevere. Unfortunately life tends to spend its rewards on those who recognize where they have the advantage and act accordingly. Tilting at windmills is admirable but rarely productive.

  • sylvia Oct 18, 2003 @ 20:29

    The fact is, there are still women who feel they are being marginalised. Are they right? How do we know, when the emphasis is on "men and women are different" rather than the drop out rate?

    It’s not hard to push someone into giving up. Maybe they shouldn’t be so easily pushed around, but that’s not how we work (I hope). Look at the loss rate, not the success rate, and wonder…

  • Djohn Oct 17, 2003 @ 15:03

    If you choose to compare how many horses there are successfully climbing trees compared to monkeys, there will be a significant difference. If the results are used to prove that horses are being discriminated against, current political policies would say yes.

    Unfortunately in the real world many of us are given different abilities based on a variety of factors such as gender, race, or simply luck. Political policy cannot change that. It can only deny us the services of our best and them of the pleasure of being a round peg in a round hole.

    Most people find pleasure in doing what they do best and generally have higher loyalty to their tasks than those who are mismatched.

  • Linda Sprinkle Oct 17, 2003 @ 13:25

    I agree with you on this one. If people don’t want to do a particular job, it’s silly to try to force them to do it in order to bring the statistics up. Opportunity is about being allowed to pursue the goal you want to pursue, not the one someone else thinks you ought to pursue, regardless of the reason they think it would be better.

  • Holly Lisle Oct 17, 2003 @ 8:14

    In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments.

    While this may be true, it’s another issue entirely, and one requiring a completely different set of solutions. Equal treatment of those already working in the field is in no way related to attempting to artificially create a gender-based numerical parity of people going into the field to begin with.

  • Teresa Oct 17, 2003 @ 8:07

    As a woman scientist in America, I some experience with this subject. I was on the admissions committee for phd candidates at a large university. We selected a group of 30 students from about 300 applicants without considering race or gender. We looked at the number afterwards and we had selected 20% women and the applicants were also 20% women. It is my opinion that the selection process was fair and noone was given priority or discrminated against on the basis of race or gender. 20% seems to be rate of women who are interested in being scientists. I think people are asking the wrong questions here. The question is "Are there people who have the interest and the ability to be scientists who are kept out because of race or gender?" If the answer is no, then the percentages don’t matter. They will be what they will be. I think much of the difference between men and women is that women don’t have the interest. But some of it could have to do with children. It is almost impossible to take off a year or two to be home with your children and then return to work as a scientist. This is not deliberate discrimination against women, men would have the same problem if they took a year off for any reason that wasn’t scientific. Most women return to work within a few weeks of giving birth, this is the only way to keep your job. I know several women who chose a different career for this very reason. To find out if there is unfairness you would have to dig up the people who didn’t become scientist and ask them why.

  • Katherine Oct 17, 2003 @ 7:53

    Hmmmm….. You might want to take a look at a study MIT did on the environment for faculty women.

    "In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT. Examination of data revealed that marginalization was often accompanied by differences in salary, space, awards, resources, and response to outside offers between men and women faculty with women receiving less despite professional accomplishments equal to those of their male colleagues. "

    http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html

    These are women who are, in many cases, at the very top of their fields, in an environment that prides itself on being a meritocracy. And yet they found that opportunities clearly were not equal. Enforcing numerical parity is not the answer, but looking at the numbers is one way to test whether opportunities actually are equal.

  • Alex Oct 17, 2003 @ 6:32

    I agree with you entirely on this one. The European Commission seems to be going completely insane these days–and this is just the latest (and not even the most extreme) example of their insanity. They don’t seem to live in the real world at all, and our brave leader Tony Blair wants to drag us into their stinking abyss. It’s madness.

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