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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 9, 2006

Men and Women and Science and Jobs

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Posted by Derek

That Greenspun piece that set off so much comment around here was ostensibly addressed to the position of women in science, but didn't have much specific to say on the topic. So I thought I'd mention another article, by Peter Lawrence of Cambridge in PLoS Biology, that deals with the subject more directly.

We're heading into the territory that got Larry Summers in so much trouble at Harvard, but here goes. The first part of Lawrence's argument is that it's silly to assume that men and women are interchangeable. As it happens, I agree with him:

Some have a dream that, one fine day, there will be equal numbers of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research. But I think this dream is Utopian; it assumes that if all doors were opened and all discrimination ended, the different sexes would be professionally indistinguishable. The dream is sustained by a cult of political correctness that ignores the facts of life-and thrives only because the human mind likes to bury experience as it builds beliefs. Here I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different.

By this point, some people usually will have already stomped out of the room. But wait - that word "different" has to be peeled away from the words "better" and "worse". Allow me a chem-geek analogy: lithium and sodium, though similar compared to most other elements, are still clearly different from each other. Which one is better, which worse? The question makes no sense, but that's exactly where many arguments about men and women come to a fiery halt.

Lawrence's second point, drawn from the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, is that it's also silly to assume that men and women naturally all fall into their alleged types. Even if there are indeed typical male and typical female ways of approaching the world, these are still only averages that we take from a whole spectrum of behavior. That doesn't mean they aren't real, but we should appreciate that they're on a continuum, and that the two distributions of men and women take up a good amount of space, with room to overlap:

. . .Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments. Classifying individuals in general terms, he concludes that among men, about 60% have a male brain, 20% have a balanced brain, and 20% have a female brain. Women show the inverse figures, with some 60% having a female brain."

Lawrence goes on to summarize Baron-Cohen's theory that autism represents an extreme male brain, while noting that a sprinkling of mild autism-spectrum behavior probably does science (and society) some good:

It will not have escaped the notice of many scientists that some of their colleagues and maybe themselves have more than a hint of these "autistic" features. . .Indeed, we might acknowledge that a limited amount of autistic behaviour can be useful to researchers and to society-for example, a lifetime's concentration on a family of beetles with more than 100,000 species may seem weird, but we need several such people in the world for each family. And most of these specialists will be men. . .

It follows that if we search objectively for an obsessive knowledge, for a mastery of abstruse facts, or for mechanical understanding, we will select many more men than women. And if males on average are constitutionally better suited to be this kind of scientist, it seems silly to aim at strict gender parity.

However, in professions that rely on an ability to put oneself in another's place, at which women on average are far superior, we should expect and want a majority of women.

Still, he goes on to say that we would do well to find a place for each type in the other's favorite professions, since the fields are complex enough for some different sorts to be needed. In science, to pick one obvious example, people with better interpersonal skills would make better mentors for students and younger scientists. Too many potentially good careers are ruined by research advisors with no personal skills - well, no helpful ones, anyway. (I've known some who had amazing talents of enraging and antagonizing people).

And on top of all this, there's no evidence that creativity and original thinking, which are in perpetually short supply, have any male-brain female-brain bias at all. But as Lawrence points out, the techniques that we use to fill positions, in both industry and academia, are biased toward male-brain behavior: unshakeable self-confidence, quick recall of all sorts of data, self-promotion in the form of long publication lists, and so on. We would do better, he says, to give less weight to "salesmanship and pushiness".

I think he's got a good point. For example, it occurred to me fairly soon after coming to industry that most of the people who climbed the ladder in a company did so by devoting all their time to climbing the ladder. Anyone with a range of interests and activities, not all of them necessarily relevant to gaining power and position, was at a disadvantage and would generally lose out to the people who had made getting those things their life's work. Of course, in this way you end up promoting some people into supervisory positions whose main skills have nothing to do with being able to usefully supervise anyone, but that's a well-known problem, too.

Turning Lawrence's recommendation into something workable isn't going to be easy, though. Originality and creativity are famously hard to measure, or often even to recognize. Some people seem to have an eye for talent (I'm thinking of some historical examples from the arts world), but if it exists, it's a rare quality. And in many cases, we're going to be asking less creative people to evaluate more creative ones, which has been a traditional recipe for disaster.

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Clark on March 10, 2006 1:34 AM writes...

You, who work in the US corporate world, are bold indeed to write something like the above under anything other than a synonym.

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2. Clark on March 10, 2006 1:35 AM writes...


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3. Joe on March 10, 2006 7:00 AM writes...

I'm amazed that this needs special attention or that people think it's brave to say it. Displaying what seems to be male behavioural trait: surely it's self evident that men and women are different - not better/worse, just different. We've all heard the phrase viva la difference (excuse my french). It would seem folly to assume that these average individual tendancies don't show up as measurable aggregate quantities. Having said that, I believe that structural issues such as those alluded to about 'people who want to climb the ladder end up climbing the ladder' viz a vi self-reinforcing selection, are a more important parameter and i would guess more damaging in the long run.

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4. Derek Lowe on March 10, 2006 7:06 AM writes...

Which part surprises you? On the gender-difference subject, hey, if Baron-Cohen can write a whole book about it, someone should be able to blog it. And besides, my wife and I have one boy and one girl, and it's been clear to me for a long time that there are differences there that I didn't teach them.

Or is it the ladder-climbing stuff? That shouldn't be controversial, either, but we'll see.

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5. JSinger on March 10, 2006 8:55 AM writes...

Going back to Greenspun's piece, though -- I think that his point, which was buried under what seems like deliberate hyperbole, is this:

The career track and economics of being a PhD scientist simply make it an extremely unattractive career choice to people who could make a lot more money with a lot less risk by doing something else. Any discussion of underrepresentation (of women, minorities, anyone else) needs to start with the recognition that it's hard to recommend a career in research to anyone.

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6. qetzal on March 10, 2006 5:14 PM writes...

I find statements like this somewhat annoying:

Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments.

It strikes me as much too categorical. 'Males are systematic and analytical, females are empathetic and commicative.' It suggests that females usually aren't systematic oranalytical, and males usually aren't empathetic or communicative.

Of course, this is untrue. Assuming the tendencies are accurate, it only means that the average male is more systematic and analytical than the average female. Similarly, the average female is more empathetic than the average male.

Maybe this is a trivial nitpick, but I wonder. Consider this statement:

However, in professions that rely on an ability to put oneself in another's place, at which women on average are far superior, we should expect and want a majority of women. [emphasis added]

Expect, yes, but want? Definitely not. If a company says, "We have positions that require very empathetic people, so we want to hire the most empathetic people we can find," they're doing what they should, even if most or all of their hires are women.

If they say, "We have positions that require very empathetic people, so we want to hire mostly women," that's discrimination.

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7. RKN on March 11, 2006 1:35 PM writes...

...while females on average are innately designed...

"Innately designed" -- Gasp!

And written by an orthodox molecular biologist no less. Where's the outrage! ;-)

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8. Renee on March 12, 2006 10:19 PM writes...

I'm a polymer chemist who's worked for 2 large chemical companies, and I've seen that things have gotten better for women over the last 20 years, though they're by no means perfect.

But do I think there should be equal numbers of male and female scientists? No. It doesn't matter to me if the percent of female industrial scientists is 5%, 15% or 25%. What does matter to me is that those who chose to become chemists are viewed just as much as professionals as their male collegues.

Are female chemists more empathetic than male chemists, particularly when comparing those who go into management? From my experience, no. Just like men, there are women who make good bosses and can relate to people, and there are women who are plain awful. There are women who put 110% of their energies into climbing the corporate ladder. Woe to the person who gets in their way.

One of the funniest moments of my career was when a male collegue was remarking about my then female boss. He said, "I thought women were supposed to be caring and nurturing. But who the hell trained your boss, the Gestapo?" Sadly, I had to inform him that this was a likely scenario. However, she treated everyone horribly, be they male or female; she did not discriminate.

She has had a remarkably successful career.

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9. LNT on March 13, 2006 12:46 PM writes...

While it's true that women "inately" have a lower interest to pursue R&D careers, I think it is also true that the environment probably forces many out of the field before they can truely enter it. Graduate school and postdocs generally occur during "prime" childbearing years. What happens if a woman wants to stay home with the kids for a few years? Can a woman (seriously) take a few years off between postdoc and a "real job"? I've never heard of it happening. Would a company hire a woman who has taken a few years off? I've never heard of it happening. Can a woman in on a graduate student/postdoc stipend really afford daycare? Probably not. Even if she could, what about the (typical) 60-70 hour work week durring graduate school and postdocs? Where does she have time to raise the kids? From my observations, most graduate student who become pregnant end up dropping out with a MS or leaving the field entirely.

These questions surely affect men too, but to a MUCH lessor extent. It's absolutely true that the field of science is very unfriendly to women who want a family. This is sad and surely has to change.

The low percentage of female scientist is at least partly due to the difficulty of balancing a science career and family.

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10. LNT on March 13, 2006 2:09 PM writes...

Follow up on the last post:
Is it any wonder that 11% of female chemists die from suicide? This number is based on an ACS study done in the mid-80's. See "Chemistry", Winter 2006 edition (the most recent) page 15. (this is an ACS publication and presumably the numbers are accurate)

I was blown away by this number. 11%. 1 out of 10 female chemists I know are likely to die from suicide.

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11. Carla on March 14, 2006 10:09 AM writes...

Brave? How about, gullible? Do you not realize that the same type of "inate differences" analyses were published and used in the 19th and 20th century to justify segregation, Jim Crowe, and even the mass extermination of millions of Jews and Gypsies? Sociology and psychology research is rarely as straigtforward as chemistry. It is easy to find these differences statistically, but it is not possible to determine how much of these differences are culturally or socially introduced, and how much are innate. It is also impossible to determine how much the genetic diffences between genders really impacts performance on any tests after years of cultural exposure. Brain development is influenced by personal experince. We should not confuse correlation with causation. The differences in gender distribution in academics, career choice, and career success have much more to do with culture, power, and economics than brains.

By your own reasoning, the majority of those in polical decision making positions and serving as diplomats should be female, because they are "innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others." The fact that this is not true illustrates that you are overlooking the influence of social and political structures on career choice.

The danger in your viewpoint is that it provides support to the argument that no changes are needed to the social and political structures that limit females from entering and succeeding in technical fields. After all, females don't really have the "inate" desire or talent for this kind of work anyway. Acceptance of this "fact" will result in discriminatory practices in the workplace, even in companies that profess equality. Every woman in the field becomes less capable, because of her gender. It is insidious, it is unfair, it is destructive. (Certainly driving scientists to suicide is not helpful to the profession.)It is important to structure academia and corporate systems so that all who are capable are able to contribute. That will not happen if the generally accepted viewpoint is that there aren't enough people from xxxx demographic to justify changes.

Stucture can enhance or impede careers. 20-odd years ago, one of the best chemical plant chemists I worked with was a polio victim. This was before ADA. If the company had not made the building changes to accomodate his wheelchair, he would have had to retire when his condition worsened and he could no longer work using a cane or walker.

As an engineer myself, and the mother of two girls who are interested in science careers, I request that you consider that many women, not just a few "exceptional" ones, are fully capable of outstanding scientific research. It may not be thier own brains tht stand in their way, it may be the mind set of others.

(And yes, my 2 children are VERY different from each other in personality and interests. Why do people only assume childen of opposite gender are so different?)

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12. Derek Lowe on March 14, 2006 11:22 AM writes...

It took until the eleventh comment to hit Godwin's Law, which is later than I expected.

Carla, you're putting your finger on some of the reasons that this is a tough topic to talk about. There's no doubt that the data is confounded by plenty of social factors, but (to my mind) there's little doubt that there are factors beyond those (as witness the data from infants and primates).

Where the arguing should start, I think, is about how much these innate and societal differences reinforce (or oppose) each other. Then we can move on to what (if anything) should be done about the situation. But starting things off with references to the Nazis doesn't get us anywhere useful.

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13. Dr. Free-Ride on March 14, 2006 12:19 PM writes...

The question of why there's such a striking gender imbalance in the sciences (and especially in "hard sciences" like chemistry and physics) is a hard one. Untangling nature and nurture in human beings ain't likely to happen until the first few generations of lab-raised children are grown. In the meantime, it seems there are plenty of folks making admissions and hiring decisions based on their own strongly held (but perhaps not so empirically grounded) views on what men and women are *really* good at or cut out for.

Set that part aside.

You raise another point which I think often gets lost in the discussion: the science we do may be improved by having lots of different "types" in the community doing that science -- people with different levels of confidence or skepticism, people with different ways of explaining things, people with different base assumptions about what the world is like deep down. It seems to me, in a community where not everyone thinks in exactly the same ways, there's more chance of real objectivity. Why? Because if you can convince someone who comes to the table with different assumptions, you may just have found yourself some truth. This in itself might be a good reason for the community of science to make a concerted effort not to just make each new generation of scientists a faithful reproduction of the generation that came before. And this might mean that the old guard that's less comfortable working with women may have to suck it up in the interests of building a more robust scientific community.

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14. Renee on March 14, 2006 5:33 PM writes...

I went and read the Chemistry Winter 2006 article, about 11% of female ACS members dying by suicide. My thoughts on this are several fold: There was no data on how many male members die by suicide, there was a significantly smaller number of women studied versus number of men, and that no data was given on the average age of death of male vs. female members. There was also no info on how many of the women studied in the mid-1980's were in academia or in industry.

I suspect that these female ACS members were mainly in academia, since few industrial chemists that I know of join ACS. Given the difficulty of persuing academic careers, and the especially unwelcoming environment of 2-3 decades ago for women in that arena, perhaps the 11% number is somewhat understandable, though sad. However, at least among the industrial chemists I know who are women, there simply is not a significant number of them who are suicidal, or even depressed. To be fair, I've known of male chemists who have suffered from depression.

Please, don't think that 1 out of every 10 women who becomes a chemist will die by her own hand.

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