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Earlier today, artman2003 posted a link on Facebook to an article (one of many) that discusses the low numbers of women in science:

Women are underrepresented in science in general, but the gender gap is bigger in some fields than others: physics, for instance, has a much lower percentage of women than biology. Researchers decided to ask scientists themselves why they thought this was -- and male and female scientists turned out to have pretty different ideas. Sociologist Elaine Ecklund and her coauthors surveyed 3,455 physicists at various levels of their professions. In the survey, women were more likely than men to cite discrimination as a reason there were fewer female physicists than biologists. Women were less likely to say that individual preferences were a factor. (read the whole article)

From a young age, I wanted to be a scientist. I got as far as earning a BS in biology. All through grade school and high school, I made straight As in my science classes but was told by every (male) math teacher (usually also a football coach) that girls aren't any good at math (the subtext was that we shouldn't even bother trying). Girls who were good at math were ignored and boys who were bad at it encouraged to do better.

The result was that I only knew a couple of girls taking calculus and upper-level math in our high school (and I, worried about my GPA and thoroughly convinced I did suck at math, was not one of them). Consequently very few girls in my high school graduated with any of the math credits required for entry into a hard science major like physics or astronomy.

My experiences were a while ago, but in recent years I have spent enough time as the token female in information technology workplaces to see that:

  1. Gender bias in terms of men thinking that "Women aren't any good at math/coding/hardware so why bother training them?" is alive and well.
  2. Men are uniformly pretty oblivious to their own biases.
  3. The constant, subtle message of "You aren't as good; you can't really do this" is hard to fend off psychologically.

Dealing with that kind of daily, mundane stress makes it hard for women to want to stay in male-dominated workplaces, be they network operations centers or physics labs.

Some of you will probably think I'm exaggerating, but the bias against women in science is well-documented. It hinders female students' ability to find mentors, female scientists' ability to get hired, and hinders their ability to get a fair salary if they do manage to get hired:

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers evidence of bias among scientists -- male and female scientists alike -- against female students. The study was based on evaluations by scientists of hypothetical student applications for a lab manager position, with the application materials identical in every way, except that half of the pool received applications with a male name and the other half received applications with a female name.

The scientists evaluating these applications rated the male student more competent, more likely to be hired, deserving of a better salary, and worth spending more time mentoring. The gaps were significant. (Read more here)

The most frustrating part? Senior female scientists were just as likely to show negative bias against young female scientists as the men were: "Female scientists recommended, on average, a salary of $29,333 for the male student and $25,000 for the female student."

Something I've observed in computing labs, academic IT departments, etc. is that there is usually a "boys' club" environment where the guys share knowledge and help each other out and the women aren't invited into that circle. It's seldom an overt shunning; the men just seemingly don't think to include the women in impromptu meetings, work lunches, etc. Women find themselves out of the loop when it comes to networking and informal training and then get passed over for promotions or advancement opportunities. And there's always a good reason put forth why a male coworker got the raise or promotion and the one woman in the group didn't, of course.

If you are that lone woman working with a group of men, you know the bias is there, you know it in your bones ... and you also know your male coworkers don't understand, mostly don't want to understand, and you can't complain about it for fear of being seen as a whiner or a bad employee. So you just suck it up and deal with it, hoping things will get better. And if after years of being the most-passed-over, lowest-paid staff member you abandon IT for a less-depressing job in a non-technical field, well, your former coworkers will confidently say that's just a matter of you exercising your individual preferences, or following your natural talents; discrimination surely had nothing to do with it!

But if you go into a technical job where there is a sizable minority of women in your workplace, it's smoother sailing, right? Sadly, no. In my experience there is usually not a corresponding "girls' club", so there's still not a culture of information sharing and helping other women succeed.

I don't know whether the lack of a sharing work culture amongst women is because women who get far enough to have gained some kind of position in scitech have a hardcore loner mentality, or if they've been equally indoctrinated with the idea of "Women are bad at this, so why bother trying to help them?", or if they feel like they have such a precarious position that once they find their way past the glass ceiling they feel compelled to pull the ladder up behind them so nobody else can use it. (Read others' observations on "rope ladders" in the Forbes article "Why Women Are The Worst Kind of Bullies"). But clearly, all the rope ladders (and even worse behaviors) are symptomatic of women as a group feeling stressed and insecure about their prospects for staying employed, whereas most men don't feel that being helpful could cost them their jobs.

The upshot of all this is that I can see the problem, have to watch my female friends in science deal with the problem, but I don't know what to do about it.

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