Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jumping on the gender talk bandwagon...

I have to say that I was genuinely surprised by the statistics about women in the geosciences that have been posted across the geoblogosphere this week. All logic says I shouldn't have been surprised, I guess, since I've certainly heard people talk about how the hard sciences are a boys' club, how girls are socialized to not like science, and all those similar things. Logic says people would be making these points for a reason. Not to mention I've heard similar lame/pathetic/infuriating statements about "womanyness" (to steal Eric's term) and lower aptitude in other contexts. But I was still really surprised to hear it about the geosciences in particular, and it took me a little while to put a finger on why.

One of the reasons, I think, is the geoblogosphere itself. I found out about its existence from Maria, finally stopped being chicken about commenting thanks to an entry in Kim's, blog, got into a comment-conversation with Tuff Cookie almost right away, and so on. I guess, silly me, that I assumed the non-internet version of the field would have the same proportion of intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate female scientists to whom a lot of other people pay serious attention that the blogosphere does.

Part of it might have been the people from whom I got information (or inspiration) on the earth sciences before I decided to apply to formally study it. When I was six and totally obsessed with volcanoes, I had a video of the National Geographic special about Maurice and Katya Krafft, which I watched constantly. Katya had just as much scientific input and daring in the field (and just as much of a deathwish) as Maurice. And far more recently, when I first moved to California and wanted to go poke the faults, the book I regarded as indispensable was Finding Fault in California, by Susan Hough (who I got to meet this week - more on that in another entry). Woman geoscientists and definite authorities, both. They gave me no reason to suspect imbalance. And on a much smaller authority scale, two of the three geoscience teachers at my high school were women.

And a lot of it definitely has to do with the department I'm involved with now (I'm going to refer to it as my department, even though they haven't sent me that official letter yet). The head of the department is a woman, for one, and while there are still more men on faculty than women, it's not a hugely skewed proportion. It's even more balanced among the graduate students. My department has also gone above and beyond in terms of gender awesomeness in that there is a pre-transition female-to-male transgendered student in the department, and everyone has been incredibly respectful and accepting of him. I know there's no further statistics in that regard in the Nature article, but it doesn't strike me as something the Old Dinosaur Boys would be fans of either.

So I had this pretty concretely formed idea that the geosciences were less gender exclusive than some of the other physical sciences. In a way, I guess it's good that I've had this buildup of situations and role models that made hearing the real statistics surprising rather than old news, but that doesn't come even close to making up for how unfair and imbalanced the field really is.


Kim said...

On the other hand, out of the 18 blogs on your blogroll, five are written by women. So although we may be loud, we aren't a majority, by any means. (I've found that people - both men and women - often say "oh, wow, there are a lot of women here!" when a group is around 1/3 women. So I have gotten into the habit of counting, just to make sure.)

And Susan Hough is great. She used to post on the earthquakes Usenet group back in the day, and she taught me more seismology than I learned anywhere else. The book you mentioned is a field guide, right? I've thought about getting it, for the next time I can bring students to California.

Maria said...

To follow up on Kim's point... how are you counting your department's faculty? I count 12.5% women among the full faculty, not including emeritus professors. Including adjuncts, and assuming that the one person whose gender I couldn't quickly determine is female, it's still under 25%.

Also, though I won't dispute that there are many departments which would fail miserably at even such a minimal standard of gender acceptability, being respectful and accepting of a transgendered student really oughtn't be considered "above and beyond".

Julian said...

Gah. That was hideously stupid of me to not actually count my blogroll or do a simple calculation of the people in my department. Thank you for catching me - I need to not keep doing things like that!

Kim: The book is a field guide, and one designed for people with little to no background in seismology at that. It's written accessibly (and often humorously), and it's been a good thing for structuring personal field/road trips. I'm kind of bummed that I forgot to ask her to sign my copy, though...

Maria: I guess what I meant to say about the transgender student was "above and beyond what would be expected considering the low percentage of women," not to mention, "above and beyond how I expected to be treated." I'm bad at covering stuff up - I am that transgender student, and don't have a particularly high sense of self worth about it. It's been beyond wonderful to not be questioned about it by the department, and that may be part of what made me so quick to praise the gender ratio without calculating anything.

Maria said...

above and beyond how I expected to be treated

Yeah, I figured you were speaking relative to expectations, but still can't let the low expectations go without at least a token cynical remark. It was meant to be directed more at the world in general than at you, but I suppose that's what happens when I comment on blogs before I've had my coffee.

Have you really found that a group's treatment of ciswomen is a useful proxy for how well it handles trans issues? That's interesting - given the amount of casual transphobia I've seen in otherwise progressive circles I would not have expected it to be the case.

andrew said...

There's an old rugged-outdoors type prejudice against females that seems to have lasted longer in geology than it has in other sciences, probably because geology really is a rugged-outdoor science. It's intimidating or challenging, depending on your personality (I lean toward intimidated even though I've done just fine in the field). But it's partly simple American ingenuousness--why *I* couldn't be prejudiced, could I? And how dare you embarrass me by showing me that I am?

Julian said...

I tend to misinterpret world-in-general-directed cynicism as being more personal when I haven't had my coffee. No worries.
(I also tend to make logical/interpretational errors when I drink coffee too late and am awake at 2 AM and decide to post about heated topics. I should stop doing this.)

I honestly can't tell you if other groups' treatment of ciswomen applies to how they treat trans issues, since I'm too chicken to be out about it in most circles. I tend to let people get away with using the wrong pronouns for me because I feel too awkward/embarrassed to correct them. One of the reasons I haven't been so chicken with the earth sciences department is that one of the professors took a cue from my behavior and appearance (I assume) and asked me very respectfully which pronouns he should use for me. From then on, everyone has been using my preferred pronouns, no questions asked, and even hypersensitive me hasn't detected any nastiness about it from anyone. I would guess that the average academic circle would be more tolerant of ciswomen than of transanything, though, but I really can't say anything from experience.

reversibleraincoat said...

Wow. I totally watched that National Geographic growing up as well. It's gorgeous.