The best way to discourage women in science…

… may be writing about what it is like to be a scientist.

I just finished listening to Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence as a book on tape.

A 10-year-old girl might hear the story about Irene Pepperberg’s 30 years with Alex, an African Grey parrot, and think “I wonder if it would be nice to do important research with a remarkably intelligent and friendly bird.”

A 20-year-old woman hearing the story might be more inclined to ask “Would I like to be divorced, childless, working seven days/week, 12 hours/day, and starting my first ‘real job’ at age 40?” or “Would I like to be in my 50s without a secure income, eating tofu and keeping the winter thermostat at 57?”

Pepperberg is one of the world’s more successful scientists. Because scientists and philosophers are so chauvinistic about humans, there was a lot of received wisdom in Academia about what animals could and could not do. Pepperberg laboriously demonstrated that Alex the parrot was capable of some fairly sophisticated thought and language. Most of her findings, however, wouldn’t have been news to a preliterate tribesman living with parrots 4000 years ago.

Pepperberg chronicles her career scrounging for jobs, begging for money (most often refused), and working with colleagues who are unintelligent, dogmatic, petty, and spiteful (except at the MIT Media Lab, which was the Promised Land for her until they ran out of money). Pepperberg endures the hardships of graduate school in chemistry and the peripatetic life of a young would-be academic. Right about the age when a New York City employee or Boston bus driver would be contemplating retirement, she finally gets a tenure-track job at the University of Arizona, only to discover that she dislikes her colleagues.

When a grant is denied or a lab runs out of money, Pepperberg is reduced to penury, apparently having no savings. Her total lifetime earnings are probably less than what a top radiologist would earn in two years.

Perhaps Barack Obama read this book before he recommended science as a career for people other than himself and his family.

More: my old women in science article.

11 thoughts on “The best way to discourage women in science…

  1. I haven’t RTFA but I why did you emphasize women? Yes, the author is a woman but all the problems you mention affect men too. And men face the additional additional obstacles in education that have resulted in your nearby Boston College having less than 40% men in their student body (so to speak).

  2. Reading reviews on Amazon… Regular people:

    “I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the story of Alex.”
    “Reading about Alex was a fascinating experience”
    “I fell in love with Alex. What an amazing bird!”
    “The book should have included more of Alex and less of Dr Pepperberg.”

    Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.:

    “It isn’t just about the parrot or their relationship, it is, too, about Pepperberg’s life. As a former university professor, I easily empathized with her efforts in finding a job and securing tenure.”

    I’ve always found it both funny and sad, how scientists try to compensate with (a lot of) pride for what they lack in any real rewards for their efforts, struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments. The irony being that, except for other scientists, nobody really cares.

    Speaking of animal intelligence, what we need more of in science is not women, but trained monkeys. (And, perhaps, parrots as well?) Because they might be better suited to enjoy the routine lab work currently done by science grad students. I’m confident the monkeys will have enough intelligence to handle at least 95-97% of the typically required tasks in disciplines like chemistry and biology, for example. I am, however, worried they might be more expensive to maintain than PhD students.

  3. Bob: What is there about Irene Pepperberg’s story that is specific to women in science? Aside from the fact that she is a woman… she was married to a man. In Massachusetts, of course, this is not the distinct privilege of the fairer sex, but mixed-sex marriages remain the most common.

    When a man is embarked on a quixotic career he is often supported by a (female) wife who sacrifices her own ambitions and career in favor of the man. She may quit graduate school and take a boring but steady job. Irene Pepperberg’s husband, however, did not behave selflessly. Partly because he was able to advance in the university bureaucracy faster, he considered his own research more important and added his own derision to that of Pepperberg’s colleagues’. He often suggested that she get a “real job” (40 hours/week, high salary) and support his goals. When she persisted in pursuing her research and working the long hours necessary, he divorced her.

    If a woman scientist could be sure of finding a husband who will take a government job (“it’s okay once you accept that you can never accomplish or change anything” — FAA employee overheard last year) and be home at 5:10 pm every evening while she sallies forth to slay scientific dragons, I suppose that Pepperberg’s story would not have a female angle. But I wonder how many men there are who would be satisfied with a wife who puts 80+ hours/week into her job and simultaneously earns less money than a 42-year-old retired government worker.

  4. Don’t worry too much about Obama’s encouragement of young people to become scientists. His example is far more likely to inspire young people to become lawyers who encourage others to study science, which is harmless enough for the lawyers.

  5. I guess there are multiple angles through which to view this story, but if your synopsis is really the best example of why this is a gender-issue, as opposed to an industry-issue, or issue with challenging received wisdom in science I’m not much persuaded.

    I personally find this less a cautionary story of being a woman in science, and more of a cautionary tale of being someone in science (of any gender or marital status). Any career that is laborious, low wage, and described as “quixotic” puts a strain on a marriage, setting aside norms of marital roles.

    Let’s flip your argument on its head. I wonder how many _spouses_ there are who would be satisfied with a _partner_ who puts 80+ hours/week into his/her job and simultaneously earns less money than a 42-year-old retired government worker. My wife would threaten to divorce me: She’s already asked me to find a less-intensive job, and I was bringing home great pay. My life is a cautionary tale of workaholism in the private sector, not a cautionary tale of being a man in the private sector.

    I’m not saying that gender norms weren’t at play, but it does seem weird to couch this post largely in gender terms and not more universal terms.

  6. snuh,

    I think Phil really does mean this situation applies to everyone. He is just pointing out that women may just have more aversion to the quixotic pursuit of science. After reading many of Phil’s essays, he is very clear that the difficulties are universal.

  7. Just read Andrei’s blog and was pointed to the Douglas Prasher wiki.

    All I got to say is DAMN! Guy worked on green fluorescent protein (GFP) which earned a Nobel prize. Got denied tenure and is now a bus driver in Huntsville, Alabama. The same area where the University of Alabama, Huntsville professor (Amy Bishop) got denied tenure and went on a shooting spree. Even top talent is having trouble.

    Phil, you gotta do another essay someday on your website on the state of science. Not just for women, but for everyone. I’ve read a lot of criticisms of your essay, but everyday, it seems less like hyperbole, and more just the plain facts. It’s terrible right now, people are getting violent:

  8. Hey Phil

    You might like this post about a husband/wife couple, both programmers, thinking it might be better to teach their daughter to program at home and how to run a business, than shed $100,000 for college.

    I am many years away from having kids (assuming I ever do), but when the time comes, I seriously wonder whether $25K a year for college is the best investment in the kid’s future.

  9. After attending a lecture of Irene Pepperberg, I am not longer a fan of her work. I don’t believe her work can hold up to peer reviews.

    Alex was a lab animal, he lived in a lab with no windows. He was tended to for the vast majority of his life by students. Dr. Pepperberg worked the fund raising side of Alex. Alex was supporting Dr. Pepperberg’s research, thus her employment. She had difficulty obtaining support, because I believe academicians were not impressed with her work. She bounced around to several insitutions. While Alex may have has some cognitive thougths, when he would not produce they fed him treats, as she expalined he liked Jelly Bellys. No one in their right mind gives a parrot jelly bellys. They bribed and taught him behaviors, this cannot possibly stand up to scrutiny of research.

    Dr. Pepperberg was and is unable to reproduce this with her other African Grey’s. Dr. Pepperberg ‘claimed’ Alex taught the other Grey’s they didn’t need to work for food. YouTube is full of video’s where parrot owners have taught cognative thought… watch Einstein the Talking Texas Parrot videos, he is one of the most advanced Grey’s I have seen.

    Finally, my point about Alex being a research lab animal is illustrated in the fact when he died she received an email about his passing. No one for the insitution called her. That to me speaks volumes. Everything I wrote here I heard Dr. Pepperberg state at a lecture. Some of the information was brought up in the Q & A after her lecture. It goes without saying Alex supported her most of her life, and now he is supporting her in death with her books. She didn’t love Alex like a family pet, he was a research animal, parrot owners and other people over equate her relationship with Alex.

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