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Just the facts, ma’am

March 28, 2008

Hi everyone! I’m happy to join this blog occasionally to post about data. Not the data I collect about the minutia of meteorites, but the data other people collect about us – women in science.

One of the more striking things I got from the article sandrift references below – Holmes et al. [2008] in Nature Geoscience – is the disparity between the way most women and most men explained the data put before them. There are two trends that emerge from the data presented. One is that the number of women at each academic level declines. The other is that for the last 20 years, the number of female full professors in the geosciences hasn’t changed. When asked to explain the data, more men cited individual circumstances based on cases they had personal experience with, and more women cited systematic issues such as inflexible family/tenure clocks and the like.

As scientists, aren’t we trained to find systematic explanations for long-term data trends? I find it very interesting that when it comes to this study, many explanations in fact try to explain away each single point as somehow anomalous. We would never get away with explaining away every data point that didn’t conform to our desired outcome in a peer-reviewed journal.

Of course each individual, male or female, makes their own choices about whether to try to get that full professor job or do something different with their lives. But study after study shows that women are frequently at a systematic disadvantage. These studies arm us against the charge that we’re not (always) just a bunch of whiny women when we perceive gender bias. They can help us understand what forces are out there, how we can work within the system that exists, and what we might do to change the system. And, they provide what all scientists love to see – cold hard data.

So, I’ll pull out some classic papers in the next few months. If you have any suggestions for recommended reading, please send them along!

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