Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is it hopeless?

Over at Women in Astronomy they posted in the weekly STATUS newsletter a review of a seminar given by Prof. Katheryn Johnston last week summarizing some results from the social and psychological science research along with her personal perspective on why women progress so slow in science. I recommend you check out her slides which are posted here: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/cfawis/kathryn_johnston.pdf.

I actually think I've seen this presentation before, but something in it really hit a cord this morning and I'm feeling pretty down about the whole thing.

Check out these two figures below taken from Prof. Johnston's presentation.

This first one is used to illustrate one depressing point - if the spotlight is not kept on the issue then no progress is made. I believe we're in a phase in which the vast majority of people think the problem is fixed. The graph in fact supports that. At the American Astronomical Society meeting this January the Women's lunch was given over to a panel discussion on the topic of if the women's group was even needed any more (the answer thankfully was yes). I also think most people are well intentioned and believe they know about this problem and are sensitive to it. But they also think that as scientists they should objectively pick the best person for the job.... funny how that's so often a man....

This second excerpt from Prof. Johnston's presentations illustrates that point. The figure is from a Nature commentary on why so few women (compared to the number of applicants) were winning a prestigous medical fellowship. The authors of the paper tried to objectively rate young scientist's impact score (based on number of papers, citations etc.). They then plot this against a peer reviewed measure of the scientist's competence. Only the very best of the women (measured by the "objective" impact) were rated as competent as any of the men.

This is something I've worried about for a long time. Obviously women succeed. Even women with children succeed. But I suspect they are only the best of the best. Most of us cannot hope to compete with them - and shouldn't have to.

Why did this hit a cord this morning. Well I think it's because I'm beginning to develop a "reasonable suspicion" that this has happened to me.... but it's so hard to judge when it's you personally. It's so hard for me to say "I'm as good, or better, than that person" in any objective way..... I don't want to look (or be) bitter, or self serving. However there are some objective measures.... I can look at my citation index. Lately I keep hearing (generally as friendly advice on how to get a job) that my publication rate is not "good enough". I agree it could be better, but I'm proud of the impact I've had in terms of some significantly cited papers, and I have 2 almost complete papers in the pipeline I should be working on now (instead of blogging about this I suppose!). Anyway my anecdotal evidence is that I applied for a job recently, and since I know people close to the hiring committee I got some inside information. My "average publication history" was the reason I was given for not being on the shortlist. Those interviewed apparently had "fantastic" publication records, and "several more years" of experience than me.... This all seemed very reasonable, until I found out who they hired and looked him up. We have comparable citation indexes, and I have slightly more experience. If I'm fair he has a few more papers than me - but a lot of them are large collaboration papers while most of mine are first or second author......hmmm.... OK so maybe I was being told a "kind" reason for my failure in this case, but it does make me wonder what I actually have to do to get a job....

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