Monday, July 24, 2006


Smart women, the continuing discussion

A couple of weeks ago I commented on an article that told us that women are outperforming men at colleges. The article does point out that despite women's superior performance, they are still often taken less seriously, treated with less respect. We can put forward a good case for that, but it's pretty hard to do a truly direct comparison, since there are always other differences between two individuals besides their sex.

But now the Washington Post gives us Ben (né Barbara) Barres. Dr Barres changed from Barbara to Ben in 1997, at the age of 42, and he has seen for himself, directly, the differences in how women and men are treated as scientists:

"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man." Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."
He tells of someone who didn't know about the change commenting that "his work is much better work than his sister's."

University of Iowa psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen relates that "the acceptance rate of her publications soared" when she started submitting them as "N.C. Andreasen".

I'm proud and pleased to work for a company that takes diversity seriously and makes all efforts to create a culture where everyone is treated with the same respect and consideration, and where the only discrimination is based on what matters: ability. That's not to say that one can't find failures, but that those failures are the exception and when they come out, they're attacked.

But I worry about the science-and-technology community as a whole. Dr Andreasen's experience with the acceptance of her papers for journals and conferences epitomizes the problem: one's work doesn't change when one's name is neutered, so why should there be a difference in acceptance rate? Do reviewers really look at the names of the authors, and factor that into the decision? The only reason I look at the authors' names when I do a peer review is to make sure I have no conflict of interest in reviewing the paper.

I've talked with women about the issue of being taken seriously for the work they do, and have gotten responses that vary as widely as they could, from those with widely disparate experiences. Some said it's rare to see a difference, while others told stories of regularly being considered more decorative than useful — and all of the women I asked are those for whom I have the highest level or professional respect. An interesting view comes from one colleague who says that the relative scarcity of women in our environment actually works to her advantage, in that she's able to make contacts that would elude her if she were just another of the many men around. Still, those contacts wouldn't help if they didn't take her seriously, and it took some time for her to build her reputation up to that.

After reading about this and discussing it, I'm still left at a loss. I can not begin to understand why some men — some obviously significant fraction of men in science and technology — consider women to be less competent than we are, when all real evidence shows that to be false. There are fewer women in our ranks, that's certain. But those who are here are at least as adept as the men are.

One colleague posited this: If you pick a random woman and a random man from a random town, the man is more likely to be interested in computers, and more likely to be savvy about them. Men might be looking at it that way: 2/3 of the men I know are computer-savvy, and only 1/3 of the women are... so a man is twice as likely to be so than a woman is. Maybe so, but, of course, that's faulty thinking. If I select a woman from the grocery sture, I don't expect her to be a crack researcher. But if I select a woman from my office... I do. It all depends upon how you define your universe.

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