Saturday, October 6, 2007

Women *Are* in Science. But Why *This* Science?

My life as a scientist began in 1993, which was my senior year of college. My independent research project was a bit odd I suppose...genetic diversity in fresh water minnows, but the predominant discipline was molecular biology. As a result, I have been a molecular biologist in both a basic research setting as well as in industry. In both realms, I found I ran up against a distinct lack of women in science. Oh the winds of change.

I recently returned from a conference on human identification. Read that as forensic science because that is the field I am in now. I found myself looking around at the group of about 700 forensic scientists and was amazed to see that there were women there...*lots* of women. I'd go so far as to say that it was close to if not over 50% women. Now that is a sight I am not used to in science.

In fact, I am so used to not seeing that in science that I was forced to do some research here at home. And here is what I found. This trend is not going unnoticed. Now, what I find intriguing is the fact that no one knows why.

So, here is my challenge to the intrepid SI readers. Can anyone explain to me why women feel that forensic science is a discipline they can legitimately compete in versus the countless other scientific disciplines that are inherently underrepresented by women?


La Pobre Habladora said...

Is the same increase not happening in other scientific fields? One answer might be that women are not facing as much sexism when they practice science outside a university setting. Academia, with its occasional valuing of reputation and prestige over competence and practical results, might be more conservative in its attitudes - maintaining old sexist attitudes.

Mächtige Maus said...

I'm afraid I can't give an honest answer to you question because I've not been to many conferences of late. I simply found myself in the back of the auditorium (no...not sleeping!) astounded at the fact that the women were the overwhelming majority.

Here's what I can say based on my academic research. At the technician level, women are represented. However, women as PIs still seemed underrepresented.

Sexist attitudes in academia. Hmm, I might buy some of that.

Anonymous said...

Women are underrepresented in academic positions, yet are in equal numbers to men in biology grad programs. I've often wondered if some of this is due to choice or to some discrimination.

La Pobre Habladora said...

In my M.A. program, a group of us were told by a professor that he didn't like to accept women into the program because "they just go off and have babies," and leave academia. While comments like these certainly were not the sole factor in my decision not to pursue a Ph.D. at the same institution after completing my M.A., feeling that the environment was somewhat hostile certainly did not help.

Casmall, while I am sure that women who leave science will often say that it is their choice to leave, their reasons often do include the fact that they are regularly discriminated against and do face more a more hostile environment.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Also, as Zuska points out here, part time work is hard to find in science and a full-time job in academia usually requires an 80-hour work week. So if you have any other interests, like a family or your own mental health, practicing science in an academic setting might not be appealing.