Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Women in Science: Strategies for success

The New York Times published an article in yesterday's (Dec. 19) Science section about women in academic science--barriers to equitable participation and the advice they receive about overcoming hurdles. The article is called "Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches," but it will be freely available for only a week, so here are my comments, which serve as a summary.

It's not clear what precipitated this news article. Many of its references are to a September 2006 National Academies of Science report on the status of women. The NAS report repeated several well-known points, such as that although women make up more than half of graduates from biology programs, they account for only about 15% of full professors in science departments at top-tier research universities.

The challenge it offered to universities to reform academia was stronger than previous reports. It places the burden of reform squarely on the shoulders of university administrators to show that they are doing everything they can to promote parity for women, and not just to show that they are doing nothing to hold women back. It strongly recommends policies that provide for paid parental leave, on-site child care, and revised tenure clocks for parents.

The National Academies also reported that although men publish slightly more than women in the sciences, they also receive more financial support through grants and university leave, and that when this factor is controlled for, men and women publish at about the same rate.

Although bias against women's research may be small for any given project, it adds up over the course of a woman's career. Likewise, women are more likely to be assigned administrative service work, a burden that may be small at any given time but which adds up over the course of years.

The NYT also mentions an article (no citation available) which showed that letters of recommendation written for women job applicants were six times more likely to mention the candidate's private life than letters written for men. Women are more likely to be evaluated on their teaching in recommendation letters, while men are more likely to be evaluated on their research. Since top jobs often value research over teaching, this subtle bias may contribute to women's difficulty in getting top research jobs.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Philosophers at a dinner party

The scene is a lovely dinner party (thanks to Catherine), hosted by philosophers for philosophers, non-philosophers, and some precocious children (who were introduced during the evening to the concept of a "wet willie," no thanks to Greg). What do philosophers talk about when they get together off the clock, so to speak? Temporary and accidental intrinsics? Modal adverbials? Borat and how funny we find his racist humor in spite of ourselves?

Not these philosophers. They talk politics. One of their number, Ivy educated and with an AOS in metaphysics, proclaims herself a libertarian. Not that kind of libertarian. Not the kind whose main concern is to secure reproductive freedoms. Well, yes to those liberties, she concedes, but our primary political problem is taxation, and all the lazy folks who rely on welfare because they would rather not work a real job.

Another dinner party-goer, defending some of the folks who are on disability and drawing social security, offered up some personal experience in support of government support for those unable to find or hold a job for medical reasons. Another, a criminal defense attorney who deals with people on federal assistance, also tried to defend the importance of federal aid to maintaining civil order (at the very least). But our libertarian friend held her ground.

Why? Because she doesn't accept "appeals to authority" as good reasons. And now we come down to it. For what do we teach Introduction to Logic?

A logic professor brushing aside personal testimony (first- and second-hand) with the 5-cent fallacy "appeal to authority" has lost the key to epistemology. How can there be knowledge if we don't base it on experience? If all appeals to authority were suspect, we would know precious little, including how to interpret our own experience.