How to Think About Women in Science

I think this quote from an American Physical Society article is an exceptionally clear statement of an important perspective shift, when considering the touchy issue of getting better gender balance in tech/science (emphasis mine):

“Many scientists believe that increasing diversity is a matter of social engineering, done for the greater good of society, but requiring a lowering of standards and thus conflicting with excellence. Others understand that there are deep reasons for the dearth of women (discussed below) wholly unrelated to the intrinsic abilities of women scientists which lead to extra obstacles to their success.

Once one understands the bias against women in male-dominated fields, one must conclude that diversity in fact enhances excellence. In other words, the playing field is not level, so we have been dipping more deeply into the pool of men than of women, and thus have been unknowingly lowering our standards.  Returning to a level playing field (compensating for bias) will therefore raise standards and improve our field. Diversity and excellence are fully aligned.

from http://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/200907/urry.cfm via Christine Corbett

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How to Think About Women in Science

  1. joshuahhh

    That’s a fantastic perspective which I don’t think gets mentioned enough: prejudicial biases are not only wrong, they’re inefficient and counterproductive.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a logical distinction between “diversity” and “lack of bias”. Diversity means having people from a wide range of backgrounds, etc. Lack of bias means choosing people on a meritocratic basis, rather than for other reasons.

    If ability is constant across all backgrounds, then these are the same thing, basically. But the people who believe that diversity “requir[es] a lowering of standards” aren’t accepting that premise anyway, so the argument is begging the question.

    Yay logic, I guess?

  2. I’d say that at birth, while still slippery and naked, we are in the realm of meritocracy. As soon as the nurse hands your beaming parents a blue or pink blanket, we enter the realm of biases, and must consider them.

    And I think that practical meritocracies don’t exist.

    I am not convinced that “diversity” and “lack of bias” are logical opposites. Additionally, diversity (in, I think, a more useful form) can also mean a broad representation of varying perspectives and ideas. A selection of people with variously ranging backgrounds in utter agreement do not represent that diversity. It is possible that selecting varying backgrounds may lead to the latter kind of diversity, but I think you must look beyond a person’s externals (“background”) and look into their mind.