Obama and women in US Science: Be Still My heart

Could  the President of the United States actually care about whether women get a fair deal if they aspire  to undertake scientific research in a university!?!  Omigod.   I never thought I’d see the day.

So here’s how that’s going.  Title IX asserts,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Though there isn’t any qualification in the statement characterizing Title IX, it has been applied  principally to athletics.  But now the President of the United States appears committed, through his statements while campaigning and more recent events, to applying Title IX to university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). 

We do have to introduce a little reality into this.  The fact is that the United States has a huge problem.  It is widely agreed that our  economic health (such as it now is) depends on innovations and inventions.  It is also widely agreed that these in turn require a flourishing base in basic research.  And basic research is done largely in universities.   BUT fewer and fewer  US white guys are interested in doing basic research in univesities.  Lots of science grad schools are  filling up with non-citizens, but lots of important positions are  restricted to citizens.  Yikes!  A crisis.  So the ranks have to be opened to non-males, non-whites.  And given the university setting, with people already aboard getting to decide who can get aboard, such diversifying has not been easy.

So Obama thinks the government is going to have to step in. 

Now you’d think we have all there is to interpret Obama’s intentions.  We have what he says his goals are, and they are  entirely consistent with all his other statements in support of US science.  But for the  right wing that is definitely not enough.  They see him as pretty much aiming to use Title IX to enact measures that will obviously greatly damage US science.  Maybe they are confusing him with Bush, but I don’t think so.  In fact,  I am not going to conjecture about what their motives.   It’s enough to note that it is wildly implausble that he’d work with the National Science Foundation and  all sorts of other academic groups to ruin the playing field, as opposed to making it more equal.  And, after all, if this were just about the just distribution of faculty positions, we could hope philosophy would be in his ken; I bet it isn’t.  (But maybe we should write to  him?) 

There are, of course, other worries.  If the government  requires universities to start increasing their non-male, non-white faculty in STEM fields, women hired may find that their merit will be doubted.  In fact, to some extent there  is  already pressure and there are problems.   But Obama does also talk about coordinating with programs like NSF-Advance, which is working hard to invest in universities so that at least the STEM faculty start to realize in how many ways their decisions and practices result in an unjust distribution of educational benefits and opportunities.

Let me close with a cautionary tale and a quote. 

The tale:  JJ-partner is a university scientist who was in charge of a very large multi-field conference.  This was about 5 years ago.   The contributed papers, on which names did appear, ** were sent out to researchers around the country, who were asked to put them in one of 4 categories, according to merit.  The result was that all the papers by women were ranked in the bottom quarter.  JJ-partner had the  final say and could tell, he says, that the rankings of women were terribly skewed.  So he changed it. 

That’s what can go on.   In contrast, as the AACU says,

In too much of the discussion of participation, there is an implication that the activities to diversify STEM are being offered solely for the [benefit of] underrepresented groups. To the contrary, the disciplines have a major stake in opening up their canons and concepts to new perspectives. The society, the nation, and the planet need the multiplicity of approaches that diverse practitioners bring. No country can long afford to waste more than half of its talent pool.


**The merit of a lot of science work depends on factual claims about equipment and results which cannot be well assessed if names are omitted.  That was the  case in the general area in question.

And thanks to NFAH, a reader, who alerted us to the issues.  I apologize for perhaps not being as cautious as you.

Creepy Baby Gear Competition

The gauntlet has been thrown down. We are now officially having a Creepy Baby Gear Competition. (Except that Mr. Jender cannot play. He will win in an instant.) Please leave your entries in comments and/or send photos by way of the contact feature. (can you do that? I think you can. Someone tell me otherwise if you can’t.) For now, here is my entry. I call it the wear-your-recently-dead-baby:


Rita Levi-Montalcini

is an amazing woman.

Here we see her celebrating on the occasion of becoming the first Nobel Prize-Winner to reach 100. The neuroscientist won the prize for her work on Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), with which she’s dosed herself for some time. Others suspect this may be part of the reason for not only her longevity but her amazing vigour. She says her mind is sharper than ever “because it has been enriched by so many experiences”. Levi-Montalcini still works every day, dividing her time between the European Brain research Institute, which she founded and a foundation to help African women with a facility for science. If by some chance your jaw isn’t yet dropping to the floor in admiration, consider how she got her start– fighting both anti-Semitism and sexism in early 20th century Italy (her father didn’t want her to go to medical school, and Mussolini fired her under his anti-Semitic race purity laws). She did research in her bedroom and in a makeshift farmhouse laboratory during WWII. More recently, as an Italian senator-for-life she’s “earned the wrath of the right-wing”.

And here’s a wonderful line from a woman turning 100: “It’s not enough what I did in the past — there is also the future.”

For more see here and here. (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)