Monday, September 10, 2012

All it takes is hard work?

Recently I had an interesting juxtaposition  of experiences.

The first was attending a meeting at which some women scientists, all in academia, spoke. They all agreed that hard work, being passionate about what you do and following your dream were the keys to success. I felt a bit uncomfortable with that as I know many women who worked hard, were passionate about what they did and followed their dream and are no longer scientists, at least in the sense of being actively engaged in research. During questions at the end they were asked if women are at a disadvantage when it comes to careers in science. 'No, no' they all agreed, ignoring the accumulated data. In fact, they unanimously claimed, if anything being a woman was an advantage, since women are more visible.

The other was reading Claude Steele's book WhistlingVivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. (The title comes from the experience of a young black man. He found that people often reacted to him with fear until he started whistling classical music. The act of whistling classical music was enough to replace the stereotype 'violent young black man' with the stereotype 'educated individual'.) Claude Steele is the discoverer of the phenomenon of stereotype threat, in which being a member of a group that is stereotypically thought to be worse at some task can reduce performance on that task. One of the phenomena he describes in Whistling Vivaldi is what he calls 'over-efforting'. Essentially this describes students who fail to use effective strategies, presumably from a desire to prove themselves as individuals. One example he discusses is a notoriously difficult course that was required for entry into medical school. Many students would audit the course in one year and take if for credit the next or find ways of substituting a different course. However, while white and Asian students were happy to use these strategies, many black students would insist on taking on the course for credit even when, from the point of view of getting into medical school, it would have been strategically better to withdraw and either take it for credit the following year or substitute a different course. This led Steele, who is black, to question the advice he received from his parents that the key to success was hard work. He goes on to discuss an interesting experiment performed by O'Brien and Crandall ( A standard way of testing for stereotype threat is to have two groups sit a test. For one group membership of a particular group is made relevant; for the other, membership of that group is minimised. For example, if a group for which gender has been made relevant sit a maths test then the women tend to do worse that the men whereas if the group has been told that gender is not relevant then men and women perform the same. What O'Brien and Crandall did was have the groups do an easy maths test and a difficult maths test. Making gender relevant actually improved women's performance relative to men on the easy maths test but made women's performance worse on the difficult maths test. Steele suggests that responding to challenges by working hard is a successful strategy up to a point but fails when the challenges become more difficult.

The question this juxtaposition of experiences raised in my mind was: what should the message we give young women be? Should it be 'Work hard and you can achieve anything'? Or, should it be 'These are the potential difficulties and here are some strategies to get round them'?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Evaluating Women in STEM Interventions

When I started working for WiSETI in Cambridge in 2003 I was employed to work on a project specifically aimed at increasing the number of women applying for positions in science and engineering. At that time I thought that evaluating such a project would be easy. We knew what the proportion of applicants for lecturing positions who were female was before the project started. All we would need to do would be to monitor the proportion of applicants who were female during and after the project and see if it increased. As the project progressed I came to see this expectation as being very naïve.

The problems are:
  1. Small numbers. How do you know whether an observed increase is due to the intervention or just a random fluctuation?
  2. If you aggregate data from different departments are you doing it in a meaningful way? You expect more applications from women for a position in Botany than for one in Computer Science. It could even be that some areas within a subject have more women than others.
  3. Measures are not evenly applied across departments. Some departments are enthusiastic and follow advice, some are enthusiastic but do their own thing, some are not enthusiastic but go through the motions and some are not enthusiastic and ignore advice. (And these descriptions are points along a continuum, not categories.)
  4. Other relevant variables change during the course of the project – legislation changes, policies change, heads of department and departmental administrators retire and are replaced, and new nurseries open. It is impossible to be sure that you are comparing apples with apples.
  5. Is the proportion of job applicants who are female even the right quantity to monitor? What matters in the end is how many women are appointed. Does increasing the number of female applicants from say 5 out of 35 to say 10 out of 40 actually increase the likelihood that a woman is appointed? Or does it just mean that five extra women have devoted a considerable amount of their precious time to writing a job application and another group of people have had to spend their time reading them? If relatively few women are applying for lecturing positions in STEM does this mean that women are establishing themselves as independent researchers and then not applying for academic positions or does it mean that they are not establishing themselves as independent researchers and hence qualifying for the academic positions in the first place? Is it that women lack confidence and hence don’t apply for positions? Or is it that women tend to be time poor and therefore less likely to spend some of that precious time applying for a job unless they think they have a reasonable chance of success? If women are less likely to apply for a job for which they are qualified than men are, is the solution necessarily to persuade women to behave more like men?

So, even a project with relatively well-defined objectives is not necessarily straightforward to evaluate.

If you are trying to decide how to most effectively deploy available resources to achieve the best effect then you also need to take into account what resources were devoted to the project. When you are estimating the resources used by a project do you take into account time effectively donated to the project? How do you compare a project that has a positive effect on a small fraction of participants but can be delivered to a large number of people with a project that makes a difference to most of its participants but can be delivered to only a few people?

There are a lot of questions here. I would really like to see some rigorous discussion of how interventions are evaluated, provided, of course, that this is not at the expense of actually doing something.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Motherhood and Career

Over Christmas, one of the books I read was ‘Reading Women: how the great books of feminism changed my life’ by Stephanie Staal. Staal grew up taking it for granted that women could have professional careers. She went to college, worked and then did a Masters degree in journalism before working as a reporter and writing a book. The she got married and had a baby. She took a pragmatic decision to switch to freelance work, taking into account her working hours as a journalist and the costs of childcare. Eventually as she struggled to find the time and the energy to work she started to feel that she was losing her identity as a professional with a career. Then one day she was in a book shop and picked-up Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, which was published in 1963 and helped spark the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. She found that she now understood what Friedan was writing about in a way that she did not when she read the book an undergraduate. Eventually she decided to repeat ‘Feminist Texts’, an introductory survey of the major feminist works, at her alma mater, Barnard College, in New York, in order to see whether  they would help her find a way forward.

The book interweaves her thoughts as she reads through and discusses the texts with her own experiences and, if nothing else, provides a quick introduction to feminist thought over the centuries.

A passage that particularly caught my attention was in a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf famously proposed that in order to engage in creative activities like writing a woman needs a room of her own and a personal income of £500 a year. Staal writes:

Crowded into an urban apartment, working to regain my professional footing, keeping watch of a young child, I thought about Virginia Woolf’s conditions for female creativity. If I had the money – five hundred pounds converted into U.S. currency and adjusted for inflation, of course – and a room of my own, which I sort of had here by the kitchen, was that really all it would take? My daughter pounded on the door of my home office. “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” I stopped typing. The words of the sentence I had been writing scattered, the muse frightened away. I swung open the door in a motion of irritation. And there stood my daughter, holding out to me a piece of paper with a poem she had written, her expression serious and proud.“Mommy,” she said, “I wrote this for you.”

That seemed to me to sum up the dilemma that women face one we have children. Yes, we want to use our intelligence and education but we also want to have time to spend with our children. I do not believe that there is a universal right answer. It depends on your health, the health of your children, the support available from family or networks of friends, cultural and religious background, how much you earn, how much your partner earns, whether childcare is available and many other things. But, if organisations seriously want to retain women then they need to support whatever works for individual women, whether it is working full time (depends on access to childcare, school holiday programmes, after-school programmes), working part time (without prejudice to career prospects) or taking a career break (depends on support for returners). This should not be seen as a luxury but as essential for retaining the best people.

I also think we who have experience of combining career and children also need to be more willing to talk about what it is really like. Not just the constantly feeling that whatever it is you are doing you ought to be doing something else but the feeling that an identity that has been important to you as a professional is becoming submerged.