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Feb 22, 2010

What Women (in Science) Want

  • In the December 18, 2009 issue of Science, a small blurb entitled “Science for the Fair Sex” managed to generate controversy (or at least anger some people) in only five sentences. (Not a record, I’m sure, but impressive nonetheless…) The topic of the short paragraph was the “Girls Night Out” seminar series hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences. The series, comprised of five talks that began in January and conclude in May, is described by the Academy as “featuring leading women scientists on topics of special interest to women (and the people who love them).” At first glance, the blurb in Science appeared to be nothing more than an objective summary of the seminar series, mentioning some of the titles and topics of the talks. (These included lust and romance, nutrition and diet, and evolution and beauty.) But then came the final sentence. Clearly dismayed with those topics selected by the New York Academy of Sciences, the author remarks, “Guess girls are interested in science only if you can find a link to food, love, or makeup.”

    As you might imagine, at least one member of the “Fair Sex” had something to say about this. Late last month, Science published a letter written by Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University. In her letter entitled, “Give the ‘Fair Sex’ a Fair Shake,” Dr. Marion (who happened to be one of the speakers in the “Girls Night Out” series) criticized the notion that the selection of topics was condescending to women. She specifically spoke to what she views as discrimination against those who study topics like food and love, arguing against the attitude “that nothing but cell biology and genetics constitute real science.”

    I certainly agree with Dr. Marion’s comments, in that certain topics and scientific disciplines receive more validation (deserved or not) than others. Yet, in this instance, I don’t believe that the issue at hand is whether scientists who study love and makeup aren’t as “real” as scientists studying cell biology and genetics. Rather, the question is whether the New York Academy of Sciences’ “Girls Night Out” series is doing more harm than good in the advancement of female scientists.

    The paragraph in Science that culminated in the “girls only like science related to food, love, or makeup” comment is itself a bit exaggerated. Of the five lectures in the “Girls Night Out” series, three of them are, yes, concerned with food, love, or beauty, yet the other two are entirely unrelated. (One centers on the relationship between humans and trees, while the other chronicles the underwater research of an ichthyologist.) Clearly, the New York Academy of Sciences does not believe that women are only interested in research related to love and food.

    So if the issue isn’t who are the “real” scientists, and if it isn’t that the New York Academy of Sciences believes women are only interested in science related to food, love, and beauty, then what is the issue? (Why am I writing this at all?) The issue is that the “Girls Night Out” series is, in fact, somewhat detrimental to the equality-for-women-in-science movement. Not because of the topics that were chosen, but because of the Academy’s audacious assertion that it (somehow) knew exactly which topics would interest female scientists. Remember, the Academy describes the “Girls Night Out” series as focusing on “topics of special interest to women (and the people who love them).” Therein lies the problem. I think that holding seminar series for women, with prominent female scientists as the speakers, is a great idea, but at no point during the process should you add the tagline that, “We know exactly what female scientists and aspiring female scientists are interested in…” For example, even if a majority of women are interested in topics related to beauty and love, that does not mean that when women are looking to attend a scientific seminar, they will all be interested in the science behind lust or good looks. Beyond love and beauty, the Academy's seminar line-up suggests that deep sea diving and trees are also highly regarded by women. Please enlighten me – what exactly about marine life or plants is “of special interest to women”?

    As long as respected scientific organizations like the New York Academy of Sciences insist upon assuming that they know what interests female scientists (be it makeup or dolphins), female scientists will be pigeonholed into certain fields or topics of study. The cure to this disease with which the Academy has fallen ill is twofold. First, don’t label scientific events as being comprised of topics “of special interest to women,” unless it’s a conference about female-specific medical issues. Second, diversity is key! If you want to have talks about the science of lust and beauty, fine – but also include speakers who are experts in physics, biomedical research, x-ray crystallography, agricultural production, and the science of hair loss! As a woman in science, I don’t want to attend a conference whose organizers presume to know my interests based on my gender. Only when female scientists are allowed and expected to be interested in anything at all will women gain true equality in the scientific profession.

    Oh, and for the record, my research interests have nothing to do with beauty, food, marine life, or trees…


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