Thursday, May 25, 2006


Richard Zare, an internationally known scientist at Stanford, writes in Chemical and Engineering News about gender inequality in academics. An alarmingly low percentage of women, 13%, are on the science faculties of the top 50 universities in the US.
Zare writes that there are three main factors responsible for this trend:

1. Subtle but real discrimination
2. The failure to take account of the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and childcare.
3. The failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle.

Point 2 is paramount, and I think it's almost cruel not to take account of it. By the time a woman is done with her pregnancy and the first sleepless nights, it's quite difficult for her to feel the previous allure of academic research unless she has incentives. If not anything else, generous maternity leave for female postdocs is a must

As for point 3, a balanced lifetsyle itself first needs to become widespread, lopsided as it has become with the pressures of modern capitalist promises. Then comes the issue of structuring faculty jobs. But isn't this a vicious cycle? Point to ponder I think.

Then Zare asks the question which is on the minds of many:
"Why is it that men are described as brilliant while women are described as talented and hard-working? Let a man be assertive and we admire his courage to speak out. Let a woman be assertive and we feel threatened by what she might next say."

I don't know, but as has been noted by Ad Lagendijk in Nature, scientific research especially is an alpha male's game, where aggressiveness and laconic and quick criticism unfortunately seem to be the rules of the game. This may introduce an unspoken bias against women and especially aggressive women, who were always a rarity in the field because of historical circumstances.

If this is the case even in the US, one can only wonder what's the case in other nations. Actually, one does not need to wonder, and the facts are there for everybody to see. To complement point no. 1 in the above list, in the cases of countries like India, let me add the influence of subtle but real bias introduced by parents and society at an early age. As I have written earlier, this involves a gentle but firm push towards choosing a 'safe' career.

Strangely, I sometimes think that the hullabaloo about women's lib in the US has actually accentuated the gender gap, ironically and unduly highlighting women in high places. Sex and the City surely cannot help.


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