Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Book: Who's afraid of Marie Curie?

Author: Linley Erin Hall

Details: (c) 2007 Linley Erin Hall; Pub Seal Press 2007; ISBN 1-58005-211-8

Verdict: Who's afraid of Marie Curie? is informative and sensible.

Reasons for reading it: I know the author, linley. This is slightly weird, actually; I've read books by people I'm connected with via LJ before, but none by people I actually know personally. I'm going to try to write a review that isn't influenced by this, but obviously, Linley will need to decide whether to read my comments or not. I'm rather relieved that I have nothing strongly critical to say.

I probably wouldn't have bothered with the book if it weren't for this personal connection, but that's mainly because I read very little non-fiction (outside work, at least) and certainly don't buy new pop science books the day they come out. I am interested in the topic of women working in science though, for fairly obvious reasons!

How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon, because when I was doing my big book buying spree darcydodo reminded me that the book had been released that very day.

Who's afraid of Marie Curie? is pitched really well. It is lively and easy to read (I read it while travelling home, so I was tired and distracted, and I found it perfectly digestible) but rigorous and well-referenced. It's making a case which is rhetorically convincing, but is extremely careful to distinguish between opinion and fact, between data and interpretation. In short, it's tackling an interesting question of popular science in just the way these things should be handled. I didn't learn all that much novel to me, and a lot of the detail is America-specific, but that's nothing to hold against the book, I'm not really the intended audience.

Partly, it's a complete and thorough take-down of Larry Summers' gender essentialist idiocy. I'm not sure how effective it's likely to be, because anyone who would pick up this kind of book probably already realized that Summers was an idiot, so I can't see how it can get its message to people who will accept "the president of Harvard said that women are naturally worse at maths" over "some feminist wrote a book discussing the discrimination and sexism women face in the academic world". But WAoMC provides some excellent and memorable ammunition for arguing against any Summers fans who are willing to listen to reason and consider empirical evidence. Incidentally, rivka has a more emotive but still excellent rebuttal to the Summers style argument that no matter how enlightened the parents are, boys "naturally" play with trucks and girls with dolls.

That said, for a book documenting all the disadvantages women face in the scientific world, WAoMC is surprisingly upbeat. It's full of suggestions for what can be done to make the scientific world fairer, and what individual women can do to overcome their disadvantages. I particularly liked the sections about encouraging girls to pursue scientific interests, because of course it's perfectly true that plenty of women are put off long before they're old enough to be considered to be scientists, and some who do drop out do so for reasons that go much further back than their personal experiences in the scientific world. But the whole ethos of the book does make sexism seem like a surmountable and ultimately minor problem, and it's certainly true that the situation of women in science is improving all the time. I think the change in title from Where the girls aren't was a thoroughly excellent decision.

WAoMC does tend to assume that "women" in science are in fact straight women who want to raise children with male partners. The only mention of any kind of queer issue is a comment that in environments where overt sexism is a problem in addition to institutional and indirect discrimination, lesbians and bisexual women (presumably non-passing bisexuals?) can face even worse problems. And with such care taken to choose interview subjects from a range of racial, class and age backgrounds, it's a shame that there isn't one instance of an (overtly) queer woman's experiences. (While I'm on the subject of diversity, I think it would have been better if the pseudonyms chosen reflected the women's backgrounds more. I understand that it's perfectly likely for Asian women to be named Helen or black women to be named Kirsten, but when the book places so much emphasis on combatting the default image of a scientist as a white man, making the ethnic diversity more emotionally obvious would have helped.) The children issue is more complicated; a large part of the discrimination women face is discrimination against parents, and however much we might wish that parenting was a gender equal job, the fact is that in practice women do in fact take on the vast majority of childcare and resulting career disruption. Even knowing that, it does annoy me when feminists simply take it as read that "what women want" is first and foremost better childcare arrangements, and indeed that childcare and parental leave is a "women's issue" in general.

There's another inconsistency typical of feminist rhetoric which creeps into WAoMC: it's simultaneously arguing that there's no inherent difference between genders so women would do just as well as men if given the same chances, and that "feminine" talents such as communication and attention to detail and balance between career and social life are undervalued in a sexist world. That said, I do strongly approve of the book's emphasis that [M]any of the problems that women in science face are not unique to science, or to women. Clearly, if the people who have the best chance in science are those who can handle having their confidence constantly undermined, being at the mercy of bad supervisors, and working all their waking hours in a narrowly focused way, science is not selecting the most able people in general, even if men are slightly more likely to fit these bad criteria than women. Also, the bad system is self-perpetuating, because the people who reach senior positions are not those most likely to be supportive towards their subordinates.

Anyway, I think I'll be leaving this book around in a prominent place for my colleagues to read. It's a very necessary book, even if it has a couple of minor flaws.

Just as I was reading the book, there was one of those silly privilege lists doing the rounds on LJ (I might talk about that more in another post). The combination of the two reminded me that I did indeed have a very helpful upbringing, both in terms of giving me the best chance in general and in terms of helping me to become a scientist specifically. WAMoC suggests that fathers should encourage their daughters in scientific and technical play, noting regretfully that althought it would be great if mothers did so to, in practice there are few mothers who themselves have the confidence. Well, my mother was in fact trained as a scientist, and did very much get involved in scientific play with me throughout my childhood. Not to mention that my grandmother was a doctor and in general I had at least as many female role models in technical fields as male. And on top of the kind of cultural advantages of a family that believe in education and are decently well-off, I also had the emotional advantages of sane and reasonable and loving parents, something the list doesn't cover at all.

So in fact, most of the challenges mentioned in the book don't really apply to me. Not only did I have extremely supportive and non-sexist parents, but I went to a strongly academic girls' school which gave me a good scientific background. I have never had a problem with academic confidence, or underestimating my abilities or being too much of a perfectionist to actually produce stuff. I have always had very good and not at all sexist teachers and supervisors, including if it matters a high proportion of women. I am not intending to have children or put my career second to a (thoroughly hypothetical) husband's. I'm also not American and generally live in a much less sexist milieu than that described in the book. So I would say that I have equal advantages to any male colleague, and I'm still not completely convinced I can hack it as a career scientist.
Tags: book, work

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