Thursday, April 01, 2010


Bias is bad for science

The New York Times recently published an article about bias against women and minorities in science fields (and schooling). I’ve written about this before, and that was about a study from 2004. We’re not getting much better at this — or, if we are, it’s not fast enough.

Consider this:

The report found ample evidence of continuing cultural bias. One study of postdoctoral applicants, for example, found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals, or 20 more in less-known publications, to be judged as productive as male applicants.

And this:

In a separate survey of 1,200 female and minority chemists and chemical engineers by Campos Inc., for the Bayer Corporation, two-thirds cited the persistent stereotype that STEM fields [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] are not for girls or minorities as a leading contributor to their underrepresentation.

Other studies have shown that papers written by women are more likely to be accepted by journals if they list their authorship by initials, rather than using a feminine first name. And, of course, women still are paid, on average, only a little more than ¾ of what men are.

We weren’t raised by wolves; why can’t we fix this? Smart, successful, technically adept women do not pose a threat to men. Quite the opposite, they add to the pool of qualified developers, researchers, and educators. And the same goes for minorities. We need them. We should be encouraging them, instead of behaving in ways such as this:

Many in the Bayer survey, also being released Monday, said they had been discouraged from going into their field in college, most often by a professor.

“My professors were not that excited to see me in their classes,” said Mae C. Jemison, a chemical engineer and the first African-American female astronaut, who works with Bayer’s science literacy project. “When I would ask a question, they would just look at me like, ‘Why are you asking that?’ But when a white boy down the row would ask the very same question, they’d say ‘astute observation.’ ”

A few years ago, there was a series of advertisements about diversity — public service announcements, really — that aired on PBS. One depicted a job applicant ending what appeared to be a pleasant and successful interview. The applicant was clearly “of colour”, and he was talking with two white men. After he left the room, the older man crumpled his application and tossed it in the waste bin. “I think we have enough ‘diversity’ around here, don’t you?”, he said.

The younger man reached into the bin, took the wad out, flattened it on the desk, looked at the older man, and said, “No. I don’t.”

Let’s move in that direction now, and let’s all help. As the tag line from the ad goes: One voice can make a difference.

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