It’s now been several days since I’ve stood on Roger Clegg’s shoulders to post something, and regular readers are no doubt missing him. Not to worry: here he is (or was a couple of days ago), deftly skewering yet another “Diversity in Science” report, this one from Grinnell College. Now that I’ve sent you there I don’t have to
plagiarize borrow his points, but I do have a point or two of my own to add.
First, here is how the Inside Higher Ed article about the Grinnell report begins:
Katie Lee, 22, loves surgery — performing it, that is. Studying biology at Grinnell College, she discovered that the procedure gives her “intrinsic joy.”
Yet she views the logical next step, a career as a surgeon, with uncertainty. As a woman, she’s been told she lacks the “don’t feel, just do” personality that seemingly characterizes the male-dominated field. As an Asian-American, she is considered a minority on campus but not, others have told her, in the sciences.
Lee, who graduated in May, spent four years confronting those obstacles as a member of the Grinnell Science Project, which has encouraged women and members of minority groups to pursue science and engineering since 1992….
Well, by now you can probably predict what follows. But just in case:
Starting in the late 1980s, some faculty noticed that women and members of all racial minority groups were strikingly absent from biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, math and related departments. “The problem was that many minority students were interested in careers in the sciences, particularly professional careers … and they would come in with a lot of enthusiasm to try and major in these fields and then run into all sorts of [academic] difficulties in the first few years,” said Mark Schneider, a physics professor and the first director of the Grinnell Science Project. “They ended up changing majors to something outside of the sciences and actually doing fine and graduating from Grinnell.”
Several incidents, including sexual jokes made by male researchers in her lab, have caused Lee to question her surgery aspirations. “It’s hard to become a female surgeon just because you’re in this social environment where it’s still male-dominated, it’s still a field that is in many ways masculine,” she said. “I’ve thought about that and whether I’d want to go through that. I don’t know.”
I obviously don’t know Ms. Lee, and she may well become a marvelous surgeon. But through my daughter, Jessie, the Caltech graduate student in applied physics, I have met a number of young women pursuing science careers, and I can’t imagine one of them who would have been deterred by anyone pointing out what kind of “personality” they do or don’t have or by the prospect of entering a “masculine” field or even by the prospect of having to hear “sexual jokes.”
On the other hand I suspect that any of them — or for that matter, any reasonable person — might well have had second thoughts about continuing in a field where as freshmen or sophomores they ran “into all sorts of [academic] difficulties.” And I have serious doubts about the wisdom of attempting to remove the obstacle of “[academic] difficulties” by watering down the introductory courses, making them “a kind of leveling of the experience” for everyone, as Grinnell has done:
One of the Grinnell Science Project’s major components is a pre-orientation week for incoming female or minority students with a demonstrated penchant for science. The campus invites 60 to 90 students to arrive before classes start in August, familiarize themselves with the campus, meet science faculty and attend mock courses. The week is meant to give them a head start on feeling at home, said Jim Swartz, a chemistry professor. “When the rest of the new students arrive on campus, rather than feeling like they are marginal here, [participants in the program] are actually the experts,” he said.
Professors have also restructured introductory courses with the intention of making them more accessible generally, which they say has fostered a welcoming environment for women, minority and first-generation students as an effect. For Clark Lindgren, a biology professor and former director of the Grinnell Science Project, that course has been Biology 150. Officially introduced in fall 2000, the semester-long introductory course must be completed by aspiring biology majors before they advance. Students learn by employing research techniques — from reading scientific literature to designing experiments — in sessions that blend lecture and lab work. No course can substitute for Biology 150, not even AP Biology.
“For everybody, this is new and it provides a kind of leveling of the experience for all of the students,” Lindgren said. “So it’s not disenfranchising certain students who have had a certain background and didn’t have the same opportunities to be exposed to more traditional biology.”
Given all the effort to make everything more “accessible” and “welcoming” to women, minorities, etc., I’m sure they must feel less “marginal.” But does anyone stop to think that all this bending over backwards for preferred groups might make those who have, say, been “exposed to more traditional biology” (or physics or chemistry) courses feel less welcome? Why should students eager for more advanced work have to suffer through required “accessible,” “leveling” courses?
Here’s an anecdote with some relevance to this discussion. When Jessie was a 14-year old sophomore at Bryn Mawr she looked forward to and then eagerly enrolled in an Astrophysics course for the second semester at Swarthmore, a sister institution. Her dean had tried to discourage her by telling her, in effect, that the Swarthmore courses were too hard, that the Swarthmore students were grinds, but she would not be deterred. Imagine, then, her mother’s and my surprise when she told us after the first week that she had dropped the course in favor of a differential equations class at Swarthmore.
“Why?” we asked, dumfounded, since she’d been looking forward to it so much.
“Because,” she replied, “there were only four students in the class, and one of them was a History major who hadn’t had any college physics. I don’t want to take any course,” she continued,” “whose pace will be slowed down waiting for someone to learn the basics.”
Now you might say Jessie (who skipped high school and entered college at 13) is not typical, and of course you’d be right. Or almost right, for I have found that she is reasonably typical of one group that, as I’ve mentioned, through her I’ve encountered: young women undergraduate and graduate students in the hard sciences.
One final thought: all of the hand-wringing, we-must-do-more reports on how to attract or retain more women in science make a big deal about the baleful influences of such vaguely cultural influences as what women are told (either overtly or subtly) about their nature, their personality, the debilitating effect of having to endure sexual humor, etc. Potential women scientists, in short, are portrayed as intensely sensitive to these cultural cues about what is appropriate for them to do. But if that is true, if these women are so susceptible to viewing themselves as others are said to view them, isn’t it also reasonable to suspect that a generation of women who have been subjected to the help and concern and assistance offered to them by all those well-meaning liberals who treat them as victims of baleful male influences might actually be induced to think of themselves as victims, as passive, fluttering leaves blowing in the prevailing winds of “unwelcoming,” “inaccessible” science?
Why is that good?