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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

NY Times article on women in science by Melis A. '08

Women in science...the debate rages on.

Perhaps you have noticed my lack of blogging lately, unfortunately I’ve been bogged down with final exams. I had an Organic Chemistry II exam on Monday and Neuroscience today, and my last exam is for Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems on Friday morning. In an effort to procrastinate, I was browsing today’s New York Times and saw an article called “Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches” by Cornelia Dean (the Times’s science editor.)

The article opens with:
“Since the 1970s, women have surged into science and engineering classes in larger and larger numbers, even at top-tier institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where half the undergraduate science majors and more than a third of the engineering students are women. Half of the nation’s medical students are women, and for decades the numbers have been rising similarly in disciplines like biology and mathematics.”

It seems that MIT is increasingly cited as a paragon for the equal representation of women in science. When I casually mention to visitors and family friends that MIT has a 50:50 gender ratio, I am always met with looks of disbelief. People generally can’t seem to wrap their minds around this statistic, when it goes against everything they *think* they know about tech schools. I must admit that I rarely even stop and contemplate what it is like to be a “woman at MIT.” The only differences that I see between the male and female undergraduate experiences at MIT are very superficial, including the perks that women get access to the Women’s Lounge (a room with some couches, a kitchen, and beds to sleep in) and have the opportunity to live in McCormick Hall (an all-female dorm.) If you can think of anything else, let me know.

The article goes on to mention:
“Yet studies show that women in science still routinely receive less research support than their male colleagues, and they have not reached the top academic ranks in numbers anything like their growing presence would suggest.

For example, at top-tier institutions only about 15 percent of full professors in social, behavioral or life sciences are women, “and these are the only fields in science and engineering where the proportion of women reaches into the double digits,” an expert panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences reported in September. And at each step on the academic ladder, more women than men leave science and engineering.
So in government agencies, at scientific organizations and on university campuses, female scientists are asking why, and wondering what they can do about it. The Association for Women in Science, the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council are among the groups tackling these issues. In just the past two months, conferences have been held at Columbia University and the City University of New York graduate center. Harvard has a yearlong lecture series on “Women, Science and Society.”

And here’s what really intrigued me (referring to a speech by Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University):

“The importance of mentors is another theme that runs through these sessions. In her keynote speech at the Rice conference, Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Davis, mentioned several occasions when timely intervention from a thesis adviser, department chairman or other mentor turned things around for her.

Joan Steitz, a professor of molecular biophysics at Yale and a member of the academy’s expert panel, said the same thing in one of the Harvard lectures this month. It is crucial to have “someone up your sleeve who will save you,” Dr. Steitz said.
If mentors don’t present themselves, women may have to create them, Dr. Steitz said.”

This issue of mentorship is one that MIT is particularly good at addressing. I think it’s extremely important for there to be female professors to serve as mentors. Luckily, I have more role-models than I can shake a stick at. My professors have found a way to solve the “two body problem,” which is explained in the article as the challenge of balancing work with family, and thus I have confidence that I can do the same. Admittedly, I would have far less faith in my ability to “do-it-all” if it was not for these brilliant examples of success.

I actually have a lot more that I could say on this topic…but I really need to study =( So, send your comments forth and I’ll try to write more when I’m confident that I know everything there is to know about Joule-Thompson expansions and the lattice model of Polymers. In the mean time, you can also read the entry I wrote last September about the task of “choosing between a career and motherhood”.

30 responses to “NY Times article on women in science”

  1. Sarab says:

    A nice entry, but isn’t it kinda early to be thinking of choosing between motherhood and a career? On the brighter side, if the ratios you mentioned are true, my sister may get in EA while I was deffered. Oh, if that happens, she’ll never let me forget it…. Oh, thankfully, there are 4 years more to go for that unhappy possibility.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Science chicks are hot.

  3. Laura says:

    Yeah we are.


  4. Alice says:

    Strangely enough, a few of the people I’ve talked to seemed to think that there were more women at MIT than men. I don’t know if that was because they didn’t realize that MIT was a science and engineering school (oh no!) or that they didn’t think about the gender issue at all (yay?).

    I’ve been really interested in the subject of women in science and engineering since a research project last year. I suppose a lot of this is out of self-interest. Last year in my physics class, there were only, I think, 4 or 5 girls in a class of about 17.

    I really admire women who do very well in math and science. For example, I was quite impressed with my interviewer, a very nice woman who is a physics professor. But the more I look at it, I feel almost bad for admiring them because they are women. As if we shouldn’t expect women in science so the ones who do indeed do well are extra special? Shouldn’t I admire them for their accomplishments rather than their gender? Or is it still ok to admire them for their accomplishments despite their gender?

    And when it comes down to it, that’s a major problem in trying to address any sort of discrimination. It really makes my head hurt to think about it too much.

    But on a happier note, I’m really glad to hear about the mentorship for women at MIT. As much as I’d like to think that I can ignore gender issues when it comes to studying, it is easier to relate to another female.

  5. Solomon says:

    Why is it that only women have posted on this blog. Where are the guys.

  6. Solomon says:

    This how I see it from the African point of view.

    Here in Africa,there is a saying that ‘if there is a gunshot, it is the responsibility of the man.’ and another that says ‘the bitter medicine is for the man to swallow’. They are not so clear but TWI and ENGLISH are Diverse. ^These two proverbs mean that challenging things are for males and not for females, so women are not supposed to concern themselves with mens stuff(challenging things). This is what we are brought up to think so it affects the number of women in science and engineering here in Africa.
    Every science class here in Africa would have about 85% men and 15% women. SEE. The society determines it all.

  7. Daniel says:

    It is definitely an issue of society and culture, and also of nature. Generally, women are more the emotional, feelings-based half of society, whereas men base their existence on accomplishment of goals. It’s obvious which of these two mindsets is more useful in math and science, as opposed to English and history. Like I said, these are generalities, but my point is that we shouldn’t be trying to get as many women as possible into math and science, to prove that they too can accomplish what men can accomplish (which is already a widely known fact). Instead we should be letting women do what they want. If they want technology, let them have it. If they like English better, they are still the same amazing people. A good book can be as life-changing as the technology that went into making your reading glasses.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Actually (this is in response to Alice’s comment, and mentioned in the same aritcle from the NY times), the same subconscious stereotypes that explain why we tend to admire women in science because they are women also somewhat serve as justification for that admiration. Women in science must (more often than not) not only be as good as any man, but must be better than any man in science, in order to be considered any good at all. And frequently, the same characteristics that make a male researcher good at his job make a female researcher seem weak or needy.

    The article cites a study in which a group of academics was asked to review three otherwise identical resumes, one for “Ken,” one for “Karen,” and one for “K.” Ken’s resume, though no different from the other two, was consistently chosen as the best.

  9. Michelle says:

    Melis, when I read this article (yes, I read it before you posted it up. it’s a miracle that occured!), I was surprised by the vantage point that it took on the motherhood VS career debate.

    thinking about it… how have you felt as a woman in science? do you feel that it’ll only be more cutthroat as you grow older, look for jobs, etc? do you find it worthwhile to be working in science with enterprising, brilliant people while in college – and do you think this will help you in the long run? [shrugs] just wondering about that!

    okay… yeah, from my vantage point, I honestly feel the pressure of people’s perspectives on science. in my english classes, it’s mostly dominated by women – but in the science classes, it’s ruled by the guys. from a young age, girls are taught not to welcome science and math with open arms, but to detest and cringe it in favor of more “liberal” pursuits. (my twin sister is a prime example here – she loves English & history; you can guess what I like. raspberry)

    as a person applying to MIT (well, *applied*, but yeah…), I just feel that once we get through working with all kinds of people, we’ll become the better for it. probably, it depends on the person on whether they give up their career for work or vice-versa. it depends on what kind of person they are – are they more indebted to society as a whole or to the pursuit of scientific/medical/[you get the idea!] communities? what are their priorities?

    for me, I’ll probably stay in the sciences after I graduate – good willing! – but what I do with my life there. however, I feel that I should keep up with my part of the balance – probably, I’d have a family and a career. but we’ll see about that…

  10. Vu Truong says:

    ‘It is definitely an issue of society and culture, and also of nature. Generally, women are more the emotional, feelings-based half of society, whereas men base their existence on accomplishment of goals.’

    This feels like a false dichotomy to me. People who are emotional and people who are goal-centred come from both sexes and all genders. If anything, it seems as though a person only accomplishes goals when there’s a lot of emotional stock placed in those goals at the same time. I really, really, really don’t want this otherwise very intelligent discussion and thought-provoking post to degenerate into essentialist WOMEN ARE X, MEN ARE Y (or rather, women are XX, men are XY, hahaha) babble.

    Barring huge, gigantic, phenomenal leaps in cognitive and developmental neuroscience, we do noit understand whether male-female differences are intrinsic or socialised. An infantile brain, after all, is largely elastic: despite ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain’ research, neuroscientists do not know if chromosomal sex gives rise to such brains, or if it depends on the child’s first years of life (when neural connections are being formed). It also puts men with traditionally female modalities of being and women with largely male modalities of being in terrible positions! (Also–how do the transgendered, intersexual, and androgynous fit into this? A heteronormative, essentialist way of viewing women in a science just doesn’t take enough into account.)

    I’m not saying that There Are No Differences Between Men and Women–I’m not a constructionist. At the same time, I think emotionality and goal-mindedness are gendered traits. Men have emotions. Women have goals. To say that either have an intrinsic connection with either sex or gender (most of you understand that sex and gender are two different things) shows not only a marked insensitivity for gender issues but of humanity in general. You acknowledged that this was a generality–and I’m quite inclined to agree.

    ‘It’s obvious which of these two mindsets is more useful in math and science, as opposed to English and history.’

    Again, I respectfully disagree. Maths and science are largely emotional–from the feeling a calculus student gets from proving a difficult theorem to the ardent hope of an energy researcher who hopes to improve the world, science across all cultures and timeframes have depended on the passionate, emotional, empathetic individual. MIT recognises this: if they were all about ‘setting goals’ then their applications would not be so deeply personal. The concerns of science are the concerns of humanity; a scientific achievement is an endeavour of human service. Time and again, people who truly love humanity and the universe become the most effective scientists.

    English and history requires a logical mind, too! Higher literary analysis and linguistics are sciences unto themselves. I’d also suggest reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel for a chapter about ‘History as a Natural Science.’ It seems to me that the interpretation of history and the documentation of sources thereof is the concern of a mind that would be fit for any science. The divisions between subjects are artificial–any mindset can be useful for any subject, and all sorts of minds have succeeded in each one of them, male or female or otherwise.

    ‘Like I said, these are generalities, but my point is that we shouldn’t be trying to get as many women as possible into math and science, to prove that they too can accomplish what men can accomplish (which is already a widely known fact). Instead we should be letting women do what they want. If they want technology, let them have it. If they like English better, they are still the same amazing people.’

    Again, a false dichotomy: the world isn’t divided into physics majors and English majors. What do women want, anyway? In most societies, to varying degrees, women are oppressed. Sometimes, the oppression is obvious, available, and clear, such as Saudi Arabia. Other times, the oppression is more discreet. When a young female student takes English (I say this to use your example; I certainly do not find English to be a feminine pursuit) because over the years society has socialised her into thinking, ‘Well, I’m a girl, this is what I should do’–what is the meaning of choice in such a context? In a heteronormative, patriarchal society, it’s extremely, immensely, excrutiatingly difficult to separate individual autonomy from the underlying influence of a society that, for the most part, think of women in science as more of a novelty than they do of men in science.

    I understand what you’re saying–I agree with you that people should listen to themselves and study whatever they want to study. I only want to add that sometimes, our choices are complicated by what the world seems to be whispering in our ears again and again. I know that I have a brilliant female friend who loved maths, but had a teacher who didn’t take her seriously–even one time accusing her of having a (male) friend help her with an especially difficult assignment. She ended up dropping the class. Everyone has a story like this–if not because they’re female, and if not with maths, then because they’re male, or black, or Hispanic, or Martian, and with another subject, with another endeavour.

    When people want more women in science, or more underrepresented persons in anything, they’re not talking about the women who don’t enjoy science in the first place. They want the women with aptitude and passion for science who have been discouraged, disenfranchised, and silenced to have a chance to do what they love. Eventually, they are hoping to get to the point where a scientist is a scientist, an engineer is an engineer regardless of sex or gender. When society views men and women equally in all the ways they are equal, and there are still more male scientists, then fine–I’ll graciously accept that. At this point, however, I fault the gender imbalance in science on society’s perceptions of What It Means to Be Male or Female.

  11. Vu Truong says:

    I meant to say: At the same time, I DON’T think emotionality and goal-mindedness are gendered traits.


  12. Vu Truong says:

    I know I wrote a novel up there, but I’m sorry; I’m an extremely passionate (male) feminist! I still have more to add:

    A lot of this is also a class issue! A female student from an upper-class family who attends an Ivy League school can study and become whatever she feels like. She has more self-determination than a poorer student, male or female, who attends community college or a state school. I’d say the science roadblock closes a little bit for an upper-class student: she likely would have a ‘you can do anything’ upbringing, better access to a good education, and more exposure to science (or anything that interests her in general). That’s the intersection of sexism and classism though.

  13. Meara says:

    I wish people would get over all these stereotypes. It annoys me when people think that a girl got into MIT simply by virtue of that second X-chromosome or that an Asian kid didn’t get in because MIT already “has enough,” but it also annoys me when people automatically class math/science stuff as “hard” and liberal arts stuff as “easier”. I happen to understand and remember science a lot better conceptually than I do history, while I know people who can go on for hours about every king England’s ever had but have horrible trouble remembering the stages of mitosis. Basically the point is that people have different skills and abilties independent of their genders, even though gender probably does have some influence. It would be a lot simpler if people would stop worrying so much about what someone SHOULD be based on their gender/ethnicity/whatever and concentrate on what their actual individual abilities are.

  14. Daniel says:

    Vu Truong (and everyone else),

    Wow… Maybe I was unclear because I didn’t feel like writing a novel (nothing wrong with that, just didn’t have the time).

    GENERALITIES was the key word of my post… I agree with every single thing you said. I was merely offering a possibility for one influence on the male/female statistics of scientists and mathematicians. I did not, by any means intend to depict females as any less capable of or less passionate about math and science by nature. I think from what you said that you thoroughly understood my point but found it to be idealistic and unrealistic. Fair enough.

  15. Vu Truong says:

    ‘I was merely offering a possibility for one influence on the male/female statistics of scientists and mathematicians.’

    I’m really, really sorry if I made you feel like I was jumping down your throat; honestly, I identified with much of what you had to say and my intention was to add, not to criticise.

    ‘I did not, by any means intend to depict females as any less capable of or less passionate about math and science by nature.’

    I didn’t get any such thing from your post; you’ll note that most of the time I didn’t directly reply to things you said but rather the issues themselves as less-thoughtful people would think of them. I just felt I needed to add the societal context in your whole ‘let the women choose’ thing–which, in a gender-neutral society, would be quite the ticket.

    ‘I think from what you said that you thoroughly understood my point but found it to be idealistic and unrealistic. Fair enough.’

    I’m an idealist, too! I’m glad that there is discussion about this in the first place, and I’m glad that you took the time to hear me out. Sorry again if my remarks gave any indication that I misunderstood the tone of your post.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Yay Vu Truong, for saying everything I wanted to much more eloquently than I would ever have been able to!

  17. Indonesian says:

    Vu Truong,

    Nice Post. It took me 3+ times reading it to get the rough points. I think how you depict the main issue is fair enough. I just want to say something about a tiny bit of the class issue you have added.

    I think women (or student) being grown in an economically capable upbringing does not always have more self-determination or confidence than poorer women (or persons). The mindset of poorer people are not always, “I can’t do anything.” take for example Edison, who never went to HIGH SCHOOL and invented the light bulb. Science definetely does not close its doors on him. In fact, people with economic limitations tend to look for other, more creative methods to solve their problems. In Indonesia, poorer students are more independent than rich students. That I have observed.

    It doesn’t matter whether the student comes from an Ivy Leauge School or a community college. Nowadays exposure to science and technology can be from anywhere like public libraries and OCW. What it takes is determination and passion, things I think does not come from class or social status.

    Vu Truong, please bear in mind that this post is in no way trying to discredit or ridicule your post. It’s a nice point of view anyway. I’m just putting my opinion here.

  18. Indonesian says:

    What I meant to say is that most population of poorer students are more independent than many rich students. Not because of the rich students, remember. We’re talking about the students with economic limitations. Economically capable students are just as determined and independent as Vu Trouong have said.

  19. Vu Truong says:

    ‘I think women (or student) being grown in an economically capable upbringing does not always have more self-determination or confidence than poorer women (or persons).’

    Neither did I. Refer to my original post where I said: ‘I’d say the science roadblock closes a little bit for an upper-class student…she likely would have a ‘you can do anything’ upbringing.’ I made sure to qualify my statements. Clearly that shows that I believe that being rich does not ALWAYS mean more confidence + more self-determination.

    ‘The mindset of poorer people are not always, “I can’t do anything.”‘

    False dichotomy (wow, I’m saying this a lot today). The world does not divide itself into confident rich people and self-hating poor people. Saying that many rich people have an easier time with education does not mean that poor people are uneducated, oppressed wretches who will never make anything of themselves. There are always going to be failures and success of all economic classes, but a person with parents who makes $100 000 USD a year faces a different set of problems than one with a parents who make $20 000 a year. This was all I wanted to say: that class, too, is an important consideration.

    ‘Edison, who never went to HIGH SCHOOL and invented the light bulb.’

    Depending on how you see it, this could be a great counterexample or hugely irrelevant. Thomas Alva Edison was poor, but at the same time, it’s quite the false analogy when to compare him college-bound students. I don’t think I ever said that the poor were doomed to a life without achievement. I simply said that an economically privileged upbringing might give a student a slight advantage. Disregarding class completely (I’m not saying you’re doing that–this is just a general statement) really shuts down a lot out of the situation. It puts economically disadvantaged people in the position of having to deal with another obstacle on their way to success whilst saying that the obstacle doesn’t count. MIT is need-blind–which is almost as important as supporting gender and racial equality.

    Perhaps I was wrong to use the word ‘self-determination.’ I did not mean to say the economically disadvantaged have no control of their lives and are doomed to misery and unaccomplishment. I was using ‘self-determination’ in the philosophical sense: the belief that human beings have the right to self-sovereignty and economy. Anyone who faces institutionalised oppression–racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, religious intolerance, whatever–is having their self-determinated negatively affected to some degree. Sometimes the effect is debilitating, but sometimes (in the case of your example, Edison) the person transcends them. In neither case should we discount the didactic value of class.

    ‘In Indonesia, poorer students are more independent than rich students. That I have observed.’

    I am glad to hear that! It might be that we are having a conflict of observation. I attend an inner-city public school in the United States (yeah, don’t be fooled by the British English), where, relative to contemporary American society, many students are economically disadvantaged. If being forced to head straight to work and putting off college because your family needs the money that badly (I have a friend like this); I’d say that this is a case of class affecting self-determination. I’m not saying this disproves your observation: it’s wrong and argumentatively unsound to pit anecdotes against anecdotes. I am only glad to hear that your experiences are to the contrary and merely offering one of mine so that you understand why I have said the things I said.

    ‘What it takes is determination and passion, things I think does not come from class or social status.’

    Class privilege is not about determination or passion, but about opportunity and advantage. You said that poorer students are just as determined and independent, I agree; nowhere in my previous post did I give any indication that I believed the opposite. It was my intention to say that class is an important factor in the college admissions process. If I believed otherwise, I would be equalising the struggles of the extremely wealthy with those who are struggling to get by. If you disagree, then I guess we’re at an impasse; I thank you for bringing it up all the same (and I’m sorry I wasn’t as clear as I could be the first time).

  20. Vu Truong says:

    ‘self-sovereignty and economy’ => ‘self-sovereignty and autonomy’

    Crikey, I am sure am out of this morning. Let that be a rule: I am not allowed to write posts in the morning before I go to school.

  21. Indonesian says:

    Vu Truong,

    It seems you are determined to make replies twice as long as the sender’s post smile but you don’t have to take my post statement by statement. If what is written in your reply is what you really mean, then I’m okay with that. But this talk is somewhat starting to veer of the main issue of women in science. Maybe we should discuss this in another time. Thanks for your point of view though. I’m sure everyone welcomes another perspective.

  22. John says:

    I’m sorry if I patronized anyone by my comment. I meant to be facetious. I hope there will be a day when I can write
    ‘wow men in science? HOT
    and still be similarly forgiven for my egregiousness. But I dig science chicks, and I’m not afraid to admit it. The statement’s not meant to devalue how much smarter or capable they are than me, it’s more of a statement of personal preference.

    That being said, there are several hidden prejudices and tendencies shared by the scientific community at large that disadvantage a female scientist, not the least of which is the tacit assumption that somehow good looking female scientists are probably not as good scientists.

  23. John says:

    I am once again using your blog to procrastinate. =D It seems that you’ve instigated quite a dialogue on the intarweb. Without reading it and putting off bedtime even more, I did read the NYT article and found it interesting, even though I obviously can’t empathize.

    Um, gender roles/expecations, gender self-consciousness, genderism, intrinsic gender differences. That’s a giant ball of wax.

    I’m going to walk around that ball of wax and just reiterate that women in science are very hot, and on behalf of male scientists everywhere, I hope I don’t give y’all a hard time.

    Um, actual substance, yeah. There’s a post I read earlier on It has a very personal perspective of obstacles facing women in science. Happy reading and maybe I’ll see you during break!

  24. Vu Truong says:

    I find the ‘wow girls in science? HOT’ comments to be really patronising. It seems to me that by being a part of the scientific community that a woman has already been able to do more than look attractive. I know that people might not be saying these things seriously, but This Is a Serious Issue (the internet? serious business!) and the fact that being patronising can be written off in the way it has just shows that there’s quite a ways to go.

  25. Melis says:

    Thank you all for your incredible enthusiasm about the topic! It seems like you all have a lot to say, and I appreciate the eloquency with which you share your thoughts. Is there anything specificially about “being a woman at MIT” that you would like to know about?

  26. Anonymous says:

    Vu Truong-
    are you in your right mind? you’ve written a lot more than the actual blogger!!!!!!!!!

  27. Eoin says:

    Melis is awesome!

  28. Eoin says:

    Melis is awesome!

  29. kanika says:

    if you happened to come to india..u will see how miserable the condition of females is ….i know girls from my school who will be subjected to marriage after high school and in the rural areas theyre forced to maternity at tender ages…im so lucky to have sUch wonderful opportunities for mah self and i hope to achieve something great in the field of computer science…and i hope ill make females all over the world proud….ohh!!!i jus hope i make it to MIT…