Saturday, July 08, 2006

Women in science

Dinner at Bombay Cafe, with a friend who'd just defended her thesis. The divide at the table was subtle but I couldn't help noticing- J and I - two "almost ph.ds" on one side, and S and R, two Ph.Ds on the other. I guess I'm just becoming more sensitive to these things these days. Gender-wise, we were well balanced. So as conversation went from the gripes of thesis writing to Indian and Mexican cuisine to department politics, we began discussing the latest faculty-hire hunt going on in the department. The department was looking for a new professor, and there were three candidates that came to our univ, interviewed and gave talks about their work. All three spectacular candidates with kick-ass resumes and credentials. #1, though, had clear public-speaking issues and was vetoed right away. The choice remained between #2 and #3, and a tough choice it was.

Both held Ph.D degrees from well-known labs, hefty publication records, and exhibited strong command in the area we were looking to fill up a gap in the dept. And both were great communicators, which is oh so important in scientists, especially in abstract and theory-based areas like this particular position was for. #2 had a couple years more experience over #3. On a relative ranking scale, #2 could be a 90 and #3 an 85. (100 being the top end of the scale, that is).

#2 is a man, #3 a woman.

At the aforementioned table, three of us were hoping that #3 was chosen. Yes, because she is a woman. And that was the opinion of the student population on the whole. J (a guy) took strong objection to this, and of course, heated debate ensued, over by-now-cold samosas. He didn't see why that was even a factor. Our department has 25 full-time faculty members, 4 of which are women. 27 of the 40 grad students in the department are female. This distribution is not restricted to our dept alone, it's quite the norm in academia. The paucity of women in higher positions in science is a well-known issue, and the reasons for it range from the obvious to the lesser-known. So when the time came for us to vote for our choice of candidate, (the student body gets a single collective vote) the student rep J put forth our almost unanimous choice for #3. We got to hear that one of the female faculty members in the department apparently "took strong offence" to the fact that candidate #3 could be picked because she was a woman.

Why not? As a female graduate student and a member of the majority sex within the student population, I strongly feel the need for a larger female presence in the faculty. Having good female role-models to look up to, and help us believe that it can be done, is important to us and something we severely lack. Women in the department will also be more sensitive and clued in on female issues, be it adjusting the tenure clock to accomodate womens' needs, maternity leave, discussing child care possibilites on campus, or someone to talk to about career/life decisions for us female grad students. As a graduate student with a female mentor, ( in as much as I don't always have good things to say about her ;) ) I feel priveleged and fortunate to see and learn several things first-hand about being a faculty member of the minority sex in what can easily pass off as an "old-boys club". And whoever says that there is no difference in the hurdles faced by men and women or in the treatments they get needs to get real.

Our voice of dissent Mr. J felt that "we need to hire the best person" for the job, and being female wasn't a qualification. I think it was. For all the reasons I outlined above. The female professor who protested against such a consideration said that it would be doing a "Grave disservice to the exisiting female professors" if someone were chosen "Because she was a woman". I thought she was missing the point. While good credentials, publications, strong science were of course main criteria , and these had already been established, being a faculty member in a scientific community entails a lot more than that. And a department with a 67% female student population and less than 20% female faculty population only stood to benefit from hiring a well-qualified woman into the dept.

The final vote went to #2.

Addendum: With all the funding cuts towards research in the US these days (thanks to you-know-who), getting the $$ to be able to hire a faculty member is a big deal, and a rare opportunity. The selection process is quite transparent here in our dept. All the students and faculty have full access to each candidates dossier (except to the letters of recommendation). After the candidates present their work in a public seminar attended by all, the students get together to decide their single vote. Each faculty member, however gets one vote per head. So, I guess, the #2 supporters outnumbered the #3 supporters, perhaps because he was , after all, a shade "more qualified" on paper.


Rebellion said...

I grab the gold...
I grab the GOLD :D

Ok, after all the dancing, I grab my seat to read the post now :P

Will be back soooooooon :P

Take care,

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

:-) mubarak ho!!!

Macho Girl said...

my dad's a prof, but when my mom applied for the same job at around the same time, she didn't get it. Both of them are Ph.Ds in the same area, have equally good publications, have done their post-docs in equally good institutes and all that stuff, but dad got the job. I wonder why...

Mom's real happy today though! We are all happy it worked out that way! She said she found industrial science much more interesting than academic science and is extremely happy with what she does! Boy, am I lucky! I get to learn the pros and cons abt working in industry and academics! (touch a huge block of wood!)

Rebellion said...

Thanku jee :D

I dunno what to say yaar to your post!! Though I agree to your viewpoints, at the time I think 'J' is also right and the best person should be hired!!
Now that was the honest person in me who spoke.. :P:P

If I keep the stupid honesty aside, I agree by you all the way and the vote should have gone to #3 :P:P
But why did it go to #2 in the end btw???

Take care,

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

I wonder why too? But yes, you are lucky to see both sides of the world. That sure is an enviable position.

One of these days, I might just ask to be able to talk to your mom. :-)

well..I made my case. I will refrain from arguing and reiterating. I guess #2 got it because he had a year or two more experience than #3, and therefore became "more qualified".

Rebellion said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

:-) yaar not depressed. Especially since I had samosas. ;) I didn't mean to sound upset, sorry if I came off like that. I am just unhappy with the choice.

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

eh? why did u delete your comment? makin me look quite silly up there. ;)

Rebellion said...


Sorry bacha, I felt main bohot zyada sochti hun and mayb what I felt was wrong, so I deleted it.. Didn't realise you'd reply it soooo soon :P:P

Wow.. akele akele samosa khaya jaa raha hai?!!

Take care,

Rebellion said...

Righto ma'am :)

Good Night.. Sweet Dreams.. Sleep well :)

Take care,

PS: This reminds me I have to go & chk my dream analysis.. I saw a

terrible nightmare y'nite!!! :|

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

woh to hain, tu zyaada sochti hai..;)but feel free to say it out loud here, always!

that was such a sweet comment, in fact. :)

The Smiling Girl said...

Well.. its fair that #2 got the vote on the basis that he was more qualified...
But here, I can both agree and disagree with you..
Well, I oppose the fact strictly that someone be given a chance just because she is a woman. Nopes, take her credentials into account, see how much she is suitable for the role and then weigh her and then take a decision. Just because she a woman, she shouldnt get the vote.

On the other hand, I also feel that with a department of 67% female students and just 20% of female faculty, its right that the female students should have the right role-model to look up to.. someone who has done her PhD and is guiding them, someone who must've gone through the same problems as she is at such a good level in her life now.. these are all inspirations..

I donno.. but here I am at cross-roads.. Coz I just dont suggest the Women's Reservation funda here... I didnt use it when I was to join my Engg, and I wouldnt want anyone to give me a job just coz I am a woman. See my credential, evaluate me against the same standards you would do for men and then consider me for the position. At the same time, my sub-ordinates will get a sense of security when they see a woman as their boss and would want to be like her...

well.. this doesnt hold good for the normal female bosses and guides though..:).. Most of them are normally khadoos..

Sirius Black said...

Well do you really think if #2 was told that she was selected over #3 because she was a woman , although #3 was more qualified for the job , would she ever be able to say confidently that the she indeed deserved the job 100%?

The problem with any and almost everykind of reservation is that the person who is getting the reserved seat will almost alwayz feel a lower value or lesser confidence since he/she is not the most qualified for the job.

On the base of similar arguments , can you say the same thing for a male professor in a college of 67% male population and 20% male Professors?

That was almost the case in my high school.Still I am glad that the induction of everyteacher went on the basis of their qualification and not on their Gender basis.As that would have not only resulted in degradation in the education standards also it would have been a clear case of discrimination i.e. selecting a male teacher , even though there was a better female teacher , just because of his gender consideration.

greensatya said...

Hmm, sensitive debate. I don't know if I am agreeing or disagreeing with you. You got to decide that.

I don't understand the relevance of gender in selection of a professor. It should not matter at all. When I see a professor, I see a person, not a male or female.

Women in the department will also be more sensitive and clued in on female issues, be it adjusting the tenure clock to accomodate womens' needs, maternity leave, discussing child care possibilites on campus, or someone to talk to about career/life decisions for us female grad students

I totally don't concur with you on above. Are these rules subjective ?or they are laid down on paper. If they are subjective then there would be problems, be it male and female. And this is not true that a female can *only* understand another female's need.

This post was bordering on 'feminism'.

*Me ready for brickbats* :D

Anonymous said...

uhh! the sad ending to this story wud make everyone think that it all went wrong.

and i really dont know what to say.

may be being a woman you have to come out even more stronger to prove yourself.

watever, the post did make me think.


Andy E. said...

Having been subtly taught the etiquette of commenting, I'll leave most of my opinions for a post on my own blog :)

However, I'll say this - There oughta be a balance between placing too much emphasis on merit (is 85 and 90 a significant difference?) and completely de-emphasisizing it altogether (would you argue the same way if you thought the difference was say 65 and 90?)

I also think you've argued your case extremely well and that doctoral dissertation might flow a lot easier than you think

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

i'm debating whether to put up a whole new post in response to the comments, to further argue my case. :-)
meanwhile, andy e, come back! and bare it all, please! the jabs at your lengthy comments were all good-natured leg-pulling and not meant to be taken seriously. :-) o.t.o.h, i can see why you'd want to post about it, post away, i shall make an appearance. :-)

Born a Libran said...

On the one hand, I do believe that women should be encouraged to join the sciences for the reasons you have already mentioned, I think the debate is of the same nature as whether reservations should be there or not... I have a woman adviser n I also know what you are talking about learning about the views of a minority group... At the same time, I think candidate # 3 and in general, the women scientists, would prefer to be appointed based on their qualifications and if she is good as you say she is, then she should be appointed at the next univ or something based on merit alone and I think she would prefer that... Dont u?

confused said...


Interesting post.

I don't think it is relevant at all that the student population is 67% female. Because in a lot of schools it would be the very opposite. Should that be an argument against hiring a female professor? IMHO, the strong female population is an argument against hiring more female professors. A all women club is as undesirable as all men club.

Having said that, I agree ''3'' should have been hired. She is marginally less qualified then ''2'', something which we can all live with. However, she comes from a sex which has been underrepresented in academic science for historical reasons. It is a imperative that she is given a leg up. The point to be noted here is that the difference in qualification is only marginal. I think the best policy would be to have an institutional framework where some points, maybe 5 or 10 added up for those who come from disadvantaged groups. This will help in maintaining the standards while still helping minority groups.

Prashanth said...

Oooooh... sensitive topic. For the record, my vote is for the woman, but only for the primary reason you stated and for none of the secondary reasons. Women should be encouraged to enter a male-dominated area as long as there are no physical reasons they shouldn't be there.... like working in a mine or army infantry or stuff like that. Women are all too ready to become writers and journalists and singers and environmentalists and so on, but they are rarely seen in some fields because that's the way it's always been. And that is just sad. A little partiality is sometimes necessary to fix imbalances caused by history.

Nirwa said...


You are being blogrolled by ME! :P

About your post, more or less of the comments and the replies have said what I wanted to say! :-)


Erimentha said...

Very good post! 'Qualification' and 'suitability' may not be the same thing, which is what you're saying when you're talking about the need for more female faculty members. So, to all your commenters who thought the best-qualified person should've got the job: the best-qualified, or the most-suitable?

The Smiling Girl said...

I absolutely loved ur new profile description!!!

Rebellion said...

Ditto gurl, I agree with s.g.
Me too loved your new profile description! :D

Btw.. when's ur next update?

Take care,

Anonymous said...

came over from Desi Pundit. Great post. I would have picked #3 too.

The Smiling Girl said...

Desi Pundit mein tera bhi aya hain?
Link de mujhe... Mujhe dekhna hain!

Sayesha said...

Girl you've made me think....

And when are ya gonna rename yourself to 'The doc from Ipanema'? ;)

qsg said...

I am often torn over this issue. I do think that sometimes women just don't have the same opportunities as men in different fields to be able to get the right experiences. Therefore, they don't start out as equals, and then continue to lag behind because it's a sort of a domino effect. At the same time, I am totally against reservations of any kind. I would find it very insulting if I found out that I was picked for a role because I am a woman, and not because I am the best person to do the job!

Having said this, as a manager I make sure that I mentor women on my team and give them opportunities. Sometimes, I spend more time with them when I see potential and try to groom them. I have also allowed them more leeway in terms of flex hours so that they can tend to their kids etc. I prefer to level the playing field than give someone a chance because they are women. Now when I am hiring, would I seek out women's resumes and pay more attention to them - yes, I do, and I prefer to seek out women candidates as much as I can. But, at the end of the day, I would hate to be picked or not picked for my gender, or pick or not pick someone for their gender.
I believe in discriminating (positive or negative) based on gender only when I am picking suitors! :) Guilty as charged! :)

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Hi... I came here from Desipundit's set of links.

About your post... I agree with the viewpoint of J, that the best person should be chosen. Your arguments would have been valid if there was actually a visible or tangible problem arising due to the lack of female faculty in the department. Until that happens, may the best person win seems the best option to take.

By the way, your blog seems nice. Will be around!

anti-feminist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
qsg said...

It wasn't enough to write the comment here - had to make a post of it... ! And you thought this comment was long - heh heh

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

:-) i liked your post, very powerful and empowering. I need to stop checking my blog now and work! Will come back monday!

Sunil said...

In most major universities in the states, especially in sciences and engineering, if there are two almost equally qualified candidates, one male, and one female, the department (and university) push is to hire the female candidate.

And it is necessary, because there remain very few women in academia. The only way to get more female scientists staying in science is to make opportunities available to them. People try to deny it, but it's still a mans world out there.

Janefield said...

i posted my take on this on gemini's blog instead of here. and come back, its monday :D

The Smiling Girl said...

Congrats on the DesiPundit yaar.. Dont remember if I did congratulate already or not..:)

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

thanks man! it feels nice, yes. :-)

Janefield said...

yes, yes, hearty congrats on featuring in desi pundit, new look for blog and rocking introduction! :D