Sunday, January 23, 2005

Can women be scientists? The argument won't die

Over at Mother-in-Chief, the argument spawned by the Summers' comments still rages. A commenter there argues all kinds of things about women, like that most want to mothers and are genetically incapable of being scientists. I posted this response to his latest comment. I was so mad, I was shaking. I encourage you all to check out the discussion. Suzanne has been very reasonable in the face of this person's ridiculous statements. Here's my response to him:
Ben, your statements are absolutely ridiculous. I was an academic and my husband is a scientist--who does not work 80 hours a week and is well-recognized in his field--so I can speak for what an academic life is like. First, you make this statement:

"The reason that there are so few outstanding female scientists is that most women want to be mothers, and hence would have to be part-time scientists."

Where's your evidence for this? How do you know most women want to be mothers? And it takes two to tango, so usually a decision to have children is not just the woman's but a couple's decision with the man involved. Because usually, as Suzanne points out, women are working before they have children, so lots of shifts are going to have to occur in order to have children. The second problem with this quote is that they do not have to be part-time scientists if they have a supportive spouse at home or good daycare or a combination of both. You can have children and work full-time. I do and it's mostly thanks to a supportive spouse and good childcare.

Another statement you make is about the way science works and you use this example:

"A web designer who produces 300 lines of code a day can be just as good as one who produces 1200 a day, just slower."

In fact, a web designer who produces 300 lines of code is better because the page will be lighter and load faster; they're more efficient in the long run, so this was a bad example and you obviously have no idea how programming works, so you've lost your credibility. I think at times the same could be true of science, depending on the science you practice.

Suzanne is not necessarily asking for part-time in all careers, but for flexibility in all careers. The definition of worthwhile is subjective, so while your definition of worthwhile might be publishing in Nature, someone else's might be applying that published research in a clinic in rural Arkansas. The person who applies that research might be a female scientist at a state school who has worked out a flexible agreement where she teaches only on Tues./Thurs. mornings, leaving her time to research on M,W,F mornings and afternoons when she can pick up the kids from school and then take them with her to the clinic where they learn how to give back to the world. If her spouse is supportive, she may also be able to work more than that, especially if his work is also flexible, so that some days he is the one meeting the kids instead of her. You have to think outside the box sometimes and academics, for all its liberal thinking, rarely thinks outside the box when it comes to its own working conditions and requirements for tenure. Ben, get out some and talk to people, especially some of the women in your field. Find out what would work for them. In my experience with the female scientists with kids that I know, they accomplish just as much working their 40-50 hours as the single man who "works" 80 hours.