Monday, November 26, 2012

Gender Parity and Shoulder Pads

Margaret Wente, in The Globe and Mail, raises the issue of women in science from an economic and political perspective. She asks whether "Gender Parity Trumps Excellence in Science?"

The assumptions Wente makes in this article are quite staggering.

First, Wente's entire premise - that we should give up gender politics and not fund gender parity because we need excellence in science -  is based on what is not in a report done by experts!

"Nowhere in the entire 252-page [Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension] report is there an inkling that anything but men and culture might be to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Nowhere is there any speculation as to why this gender imbalance exists in every developed country – including those with better child care. Nowhere is there a hint that one reason more women aren’t entering these fields is that maybe they don’t want to ... Yet as far as this report is concerned, it’s all about discrimination – both subtle and systemic. The authors – all senior academics, with some gender-studies experts – also claim that the feminization of science and technology would be a very healthy thing."

Wente dismisses the findings of the entire report for being "as dated as the shoulder pads [she]wore in 1982" and bases her claims, rather, on the speculation that women don't want such jobs (and takes the writers of the report to task for not doing likewise!).

I have discussed the argument before that women simply do not choose jobs in certain areas of science and IT,  regardless of the opportunity to do so - the claim implies or outrightly states there is something inherent in women's genetics that are responsible.

A 2008 article in the Boston Globe by Elaine McArdle argues also that women simply do not want to work in the hard sciences, that the gender gap there is because women "self-select" other careers, mostly involving people.

The McArdle article is better argued than is Wente's but still does not really address the depths of discrimination in many societies. McArdle cites stats from countries in which women's legal rights  to job choice do not result in more women in certain fields.

To me, the fact that women need legal guarantees in job choice screams volumes about the still-extant depths of discrimination. If the choices were so rosy and easy, why legislation?

The title of Wente"s article itself demonstrates the discrimination so ingrained in our society,  in spite of its author claiming to applaud girls who win science prizes. Where is the proof that gender parity and excellence in science are mutually exclusive? Can we not have both? Might gender parity increase our scientific excellence? Why run immediately to a negative assumption about the effect of women on excellence in science?

Discrimination - probably of the kind cited in the report Wente castigates -  exists and acts on females from cradle to grave; it is so ingrained it becomes normal.

Imagine the work involved in becoming a top-funded researcher in one of the hard sciences - the years of study, the financial drain, the restricted social life, the subsequent years of experiment and publishing. Hard for anyone, male or female.

Then add to all of it ongoing discrimination - the articles on the role of women, on the biological clock, on the reduction of excellence in science, on the resulting slip in reputation and economic clout that Canada will surely suffer, on the claim that women don't really want these careers, and add in discrimination in school (my stepdaughter in grade three was told that girls don't really "do" math when she wanted to enter a math contest), in the wider media,  and generally in society - and no one should  be surprised that women don't want to entertain that battle.

And don't forget the glass ceiling, the difficulty getting hired, the derision of men who currently hold such jobs or would like to.

Wente claims that it's mostly an economic issue - our money would be better spent strengthening our competitiveness in certain fields:

"Canada desperately needs to strengthen its competitiveness in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unfortunately, adopting the recommendations in this report would be a giant step back. In effect, Dr. Marsden and her team want to dilute our research efforts by politicizing the way the money gets handed out. For example, they want more money to go to younger and more junior academics (so that more women will be eligible)."

Just how will we "dilute our research efforts" by funding younger and more junior academics, and more women? Those now working in the STEM fields won't be there forever, just as their research will not remain current. Surely, we increase our competitiveness by drawing on the brain power in our whole society and planning for the future.

Last, Wente throws out the spectre of China and India, overtaking us because they supposedly don't concern themselves with gender parity - "That’s not what India and China are doing."  Fact is, they are!

India has a scholarship program precisely to encourage more women to enter into or return to science and technology. It's a federal program run by the Ministry of Science and Technology. A Google search "percent women scientists India" also turns up a vast number of position papers and professional organizations in India with the goal of gender parity.

China is even further ahead. In 2010, nearly 37% (36.91) of all jobs in science and technology were held by women. The Chinese government has scholarship programs to encourage more young women to become scientists - applicants in every region can apply for a scholarship of roughly the equivalent of $12,000 US.

If China and India best us in research, perhaps it will be because they are attempting to draw on the brain power of their entire population, male and female, regardless of ages-old discrimination against women.

Wente may have ditched the dated 1982 shoulder pads she used to wear; she should also ditch the dated  and outmoded attitudes.


Hels said...


is The Globe and Mail an intellectual and influential paper? I hope not.

I wonder why Wente "throws out the spectre of China and India overtaking us because they supposedly don't concern themselves with gender parity". If China and India are not concerned with women's equality of opportunity, then there is no fearful spectre to concern her. If China and India HAVE been very involved, as you suggest, then Wente better be having a jolly good look at their results.

I thought we sorted this out in the battles of 1963-70. Has nothing improved since our youth?

ChrisJ said...


I think sometimes that we are back-tracking. As women do better, the naysayers become more entrenched.

Ciss B said...

You have to admit, our politicians have taken a giant step backward in their views too. I cannot believe that after the work we have done since before the 60s is being railroaded and trying to leave women back in the beginning of the Women's Movement! How is this happening? Sad for those of us who have degrees that now are sometimes worthless in this atmosphere of the return of the, "little women," ideal.

ChrisJ said...


Forgot to say - yes, the paper is in circulation nationally and has been quite influential, although has gone downhill lately.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, to many conservative politicians it seems that the 1950's are just what we need - pre-women's movement, pre-civil rights!

Ciss B said...

Pre-women's freedoms to work, and to live in many ways....scary.

ChrisJ said...


It really is scary.

Judie said...

Over the centuries, women have been held back for one reason--religion. The religions of the world have always held men in the highest esteem, and women have always been been demeaned as not being capable individuals for anything other than bearing children and satisfying the needs of their mates. Until religious leaders recognize women as equal to men, nothing will ever really change.

ChrisJ said...



Pearl said...

A good addition to the debate.

It's hard to weed out what's going on. People behave and aggregate patterns form for reasons that look individualized.

The idea to blame men still embeds women as helpless hapless victims having their destinies created for them.

Context is part. I remember when teaching ESL how the Chinese students and Ukrainian students remarked on how women don't do the same jobs here. So few women here are in construction, doing electronics, and road work, for example.

China's equity struck me as far ahead of here. It arose perhaps partly due to the insistence on not distinguishing between individuals or genders.

There isn't the same hyper-sexualized society when there's poverty. Affluence seems to breed the luxury of heightened gender distinctions. When there's survival to be done, everyone pitches in. But even in impoverished areas, highlands of Guatemala for example, there are male and female divisions of labour.

Assumptions are embedded. Even slight tendencies register as general guidelines to the brain. I'd guess that it is something mammalian or broader that informs it.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, very complex stuff. Probably is some genetic component, with culture playing a shaping role.

Judie said...

Chris, thanks for your comment on my latest post.

I wish you would put up more of your digitalized photos! They are wonderful!!

ChrisJ said...


Have a good Christmas.

I will be getting back to the photos in the New Year.