The only girl in the room

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After my intro blog post I told people I wanted to write about artificial intelligence and the whole Zuckerberg/Musk squabble, but then people went off and tried to use biology to say stupid things and I have a few thoughts on the matter. Here’s to eventually figuring out how to beat writer’s block without being annoyed by things.

Oh, the Google ‘manifesto‘. First the backlash, then the counter backlash. The world probably doesn’t need any more think pieces on it (as you will see I’ve clearly followed my own advice on this one), but then I saw this post from another female scientist that made me feel like it’s important to clarify “what the science says” on the brains of men and women and why that matters when we talk about culture and policy.

Let’s start with the idea that those who push for inclusivity and diversity in STEM fields want to disregard gender differences. For decades, scientists actually only included men as participants in research studies and clinical trials because it was assumed that they were a generally representative sample of the population (see here for a great review of this history). This has inadvertently led to a great deal of harm because diagnostic and treatment guidelines are drawn in part from research studies, and what’s best for the average male might be vastly different for female patients for example. In 1993, Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act which among other things mandated that women and minorities be better included in research so that we can understand where biological differences across sex and race might affect our findings so that we can better address the health needs of a diverse population. Furthermore, a few years ago the NIH stated that these efforts haven’t gone far enough and that sex needs to be considered as a variable when designing and interpreting scientific studies because men and women are different.

My work in particular focuses on sensory processing differences in children with autism. When I write a grant and include projected enrollment, I have to include a table that shows how many individuals I will need to recruit for my study, including a breakdown of the sex and race representation I hope to have in my participant pool. Often I project that about 3/4 of my participants will be male, because in general there seem to be more boys than girls who are diagnosed with autism. We’re actually coming to find that there may be more girls with autism than we thought, because autism can look different in girls and boys and we might have been overlooking a lot of women with autism that we have misdiagnosed. Looking at gender differences and having a better appreciation for the true depth of neurodiversity helps us avoid overlooking people when we assume they’re all the same, even within the same diagnostic category.

In short, scientists are incredibly aware that there are differences between men and women at a biological level. It’s important that we study them, and as many of the defenders of the manifesto have noted, we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging gender differences. The problem arises when we take data that show gender differences and begin the process of (mis)interpreting that data and applying it to our policies and attitudes. For example, if you look at the structure of men’s and women’s brains, various regions might be smaller or larger. Some people use this to say things like, oh look, that’s why men are better at [directions, math, whatever] than women! The more we delve into these differences though, it’s clear that these differences a) can largely be exaggerated, and then enshrined in our cultural memory and b) often are not that one gender is better at something than another, but their brains just might have different strategies for solving the same problem. Sometimes all we can say is that two groups are different, and what that means functionally is unclear without more information.

This brings us back to the Google manifesto, which has roughly 3 arguments:

  1. Men and women are different on a biological level.
  2. Those biological differences lead them to be interested in different things.
  3. The representation (or lack thereof) of women we see in STEM fields is an accurate reflection of the women who happen to be interested in STEM.

Point 1: Men and women do in fact show differences in our biology and psychology.

We can gather dozens to hundreds of individuals, measure something, take an average, and show that two groups are different. And men and women overall indeed have different biology, including patterns and levels of various hormones, physical shape and size, etc. Part of the problem though is we start to take short cuts and begin labelling things as “male” and “female” traits. Some individuals will naturally fall above or below that average (that’s how averages work) and we then start to equate that with “how much” male or female they are. To take a stereotypical example, an empathetic male and a very competitive female are no less male and female because they show traits that are different than the average, or sometimes more accurately, our idea of what is average for a given group.

Point 2: These differences lead men and women to be interested in different things.

If you’ve been around little kids enough, you do find that kids seem drawn to different toys. Sometimes these interests align with our general notions of what boys and girls like. Growing up, my little sister would only wear dresses and refuse to wear pants because she thought pants were “ug-a-ly”. Three syllables, y’all. There are (at least) two sides to what leads us as individuals to pursue and enjoy different things. One is what we’re naturally drawn to, which might have a connection to biology, and that relationship is not always clear. Identical twins for example are not identical people, despite identical DNA. The second part is what we’re rewarded for engaging in within our environment (positive reinforcement and encouragement, spoken and unspoken expectations of our behavior, etc). It’s a feedback loop, each side feeding into the other, and nature and nurture often become really difficult to disentangle.

There are plenty of girls (myself included), that were very drawn to sports (go O’s!), math, and science at a very young age. There are men that are drawn to careers that put them in roles we tend to associate with women, like teachers or nurses. Sometimes what happens though is that we engage in confirmation bias and when we observe something that fits with our beliefs about the world (girls like these kinds of things, boys like those kinds of things), we chalk it up to our beliefs being correct. When we see something that doesn’t align with this view, we dismiss this observation as an outlier (a female who likes coding, or male nurse). What this can do is give us an inaccurate representation of what exists in the world.

Point 3: These biological differences between men and women (true), which lead to different interests (unclear relationship to underlying biology/not a lot of evidence), lead to what the writer claims is the reason you don’t find many of us women in STEM settings: because we’re just less interested in all that math and science. The third point is what I find to be the most harmful part of the manifesto.

I have over the course of my career had some absolutely amazing experiences as a scientist. I’ve been all over the world, including getting to present my work in China (twice! who knew I’d get to hike the Great Wall on a work trip?). The more I’ve delved into how the brain perceives and processes information, and the math we use to try to make sense of those operations, I am continually in awe at the complexity of the brain and how many different ways a brain can solve problems. I’m proficient in multiple programming languages and an expert in several neuroimaging analyses and psychophysical paradigms. Simply put, I find my job to be exciting and deeply fulfilling, and I am good at what I do.

I’ve also had experiences that led me very nearly to quitting science. Not all are worth sharing on a public blog, but I’ll highlight one. One time, I was at a social event as part of a conference I was attending. In my small group of people introductions were being made and a male colleague turned to introduce me and said, “she doesn’t look like it, but she actually has a Ph.D.!” When I relay this experience to well meaning friends I often hear, “oh they probably just meant that you look younger than you are!” Frankly, the intent of this comment had nothing to do with my age– which was abundantly clear even before it was followed by a lean in and a quick whispered addendum, “don’t worry, it’s hot.” Here I am, trying to present my work as a junior scientist and we’re leading off with my looks.

This is of course not the worst thing I or many other women in STEM have heard and experienced– I highly recommend Hope Jahren’s New York Times op-ed for a glimpse into some of the darker parts of sexism in academia. These experiences collectively and repeatedly undermine our ability to do our work. It’s not, as one acquaintance remarked to me, “complaining about being given a compliment.”

Not once have I lacked interest in science. I have, however, been completely demoralized at times by the academic research environment, which is not unlike the environment that many female engineers have reported. Data that makes no sense, looming grant deadlines, resourcefulness on limited budget and equipment, seemingly impossible logistical obstacles, career uncertainty, becoming reasonably versed in not one but nearly a dozen fields that are relevant to my research.. these are things I knew about and signed up for. It’s hard work but I’ve thrived on these challenges. So have so many other women that came before me and women that I’m honored to call colleagues now. Some have argued that the harsh cultural reality that women face is either just how science/STEM works or even that these sacrifices to our time, energy, and most importantly our dignity are part of the scientific culture that are integral to the mission of science.

With all due respect, women are not shy about facing sacrifices. But facing multiple episodes of harassment, sometimes even implicitly sanctioned by company culture or a non-response from HR, continually drains mental and physical energy. You come into work every day and find yourself frequently fighting twice as hard to do the thing you love, you’re good at, and you are most definitely interested in. It’s not even the big, obvious harassment that is sometimes the hardest, but rather the more seemingly benign statements, even from well meaning friends, that eventually wear us down. And then add in all the regular work stress (like the good stress that pushes you and motivates you) and life stress (family emergencies, family life and demands) that everyone goes through on top of that, and something has to give.

I am quite frequently the only female scientist in the room, although thankfully it’s slowly gotten a little bit better in the almost decade that’s passed since I started graduate school. It’s not because I’m some rare creature among females interested in math and science, or that I am any smarter or more driven or harder working than the many female colleagues I’ve watched leave science. It’s because I chose to stay, sometimes against my better judgement and the pleas of family and friends who have witnessed the toll it has taken at times at my mental health. Having equal representation in STEM is not about some notion of being ‘fair’ or political correctness or not being able to face ‘hard truths’ about biology. It’s because we need the best and brightest to be tackling the problems that STEM fields are trying to solve, and we’re not going to get there when we systematically push out almost half of the talented minds who are very much interested and more importantly are completely capable of contributing. I have not even touched on the layers of bias that come from being a woman and a person of color, for example, that can have additive effects on discrimination.

That is why this manifesto is so inherently sexist, even if it’s sexism dressed in calm pseudo rational style writing and ‘viewpoint diversity’. So many of us are interested in math and science, but we’re not interested in being told to put up with harassment. You don’t get to pin this one on some vague notion of biology– that’s not how this works.

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13 thoughts on “The only girl in the room

  1. Karen Knox says:

    Well said, and thanks for writing this. I’m old, but young women and girls need to hear voices like yours. I’ll pass this on to my daughters-in-law and to my granddaughters (eventually) as this message is one they need to hear. If I were still teaching, I’d take it to my students!

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  2. Raaj Gowrishankar says:

    Sarah – I used to work across the hall from you; thank you for addressing this so eloquently from both a scientific and a personal point of view. Your point about the fact that it isn’t blatant harassment but comments that appear benign that really get to you (and I’m sure many women faced with the same problems) and this whole Google manifesto debacle got me thinking – it’d be great if you could elaborate more on the subtle, more nuanced and sub-conscious issues related to sexism you (and other women) have encountered, albeit the google manifesto was anything but. Things that when taken out of context, might not necessarily seem like sexism, but certainly are. I feel a little education on perspective will definitely benefit us all.

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  3. Karen Bernstein (@KarenSBernstein) says:

    Thank you for writing such a cogent essay about a complicated topic. I’ve spent 35+ years in aerospace engineering, and I still find that I’m mostly the only woman in the room. I hardly notice anymore. In fact, I notice when I’m NOT the only woman, and I hope to make that happen more often. People like you writing pieces like this bring that goal closer to reality.

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    • Sarah says:

      Hi Karen, thank you so much for your comment! Aerospace engineering is such a cool field! I’m so grateful I’ve had incredible women to look up to as role models who helped paved the way, and hopefully I can help make it better for the next generation.

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  4. tharrisonUW says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah: a brilliant blend of personal expertise and experience. As a male in the engineering/sciences field, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to these discussions and thinking about how to improve my own behavior to foster better community –
    so far I’m in the read, listen, and pay attention stage, so I’m really looking forward to further posts.

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  5. Leah Greb says:

    Ah the problem with logical sounding arguments cloaked in scientific language, the unfortunate “confirmation” of so many people’s personal belief system. “I always knew there was a reason for that, I always knew I was right.” The internet allows even educated, highly intelligent people to find what seems to be a logical, even scientific, confirmation of what they already believed to be true. Thank you for being a light in the darkness, keep it up!

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  6. Trent says:

    Solid in every way! I feel very fortunate to have many female scientists role models in my life who are brilliant, inspiring, and just down right good at they do. I like to think that I am aware of explicit and implicit inequality in our field (and just in general) and my own privilege as a white guy in science (and just in general). That said, I’m certain that I have unintentionally been the perpetrator/recipient of, or accomplice/silent witness to, various forms of bias in times when I forget that the playing field is systematically uneven. So it’s critical that I don’t make the mistake of thinking that my self-perceived awareness of bias somehow makes me immune from contributing to it. With that, I agree with Raaj above that learning more about all of this (e.g., subtle, but no less harmful, forms of bias and microaggression) is needed. Thanks for insightful thoughts! Keep writing.

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