Men are better at Science than women : a case of gender bias in Academia

Imagine a scenario of an aspiring woman Physicist,  attending a workshop on gender issues and underrepresentation of women in Physics and an invited speaker gives a talk on how women are worse at Physics than men and that Physics was invented and built by men. How would that woman and many others sitting in the audience feel? This is what happened last year in October when a prominent Italian scientist, Alessandro Strumia,gave a talk at one of the biggest Physics facility in the world, CERN,  claiming that women are underrepresented in Physics because they are “under-performing” to a group of women starting their careers in Physics. 

One of the major claims he made were that Physics is not sexist against women, but against men. He produced various half-baked studies claiming that women were hired and promoted in positions unfairly and that women scientists receive less citations for their publications as compared to male scientists which prove that males perform “higher quality research”. 

His talk was condemned widely worldwide and CERN issued a statement describing his talk “highly offensive” and that CERN stood for diversity. First thing that came to my mind was how he was allowed to give the talk at the first place. After reading more about it I realized that the organizing committee did not have access to his slides beforehand and his talk was supposed to be on gender bias in citations which was an important issue to be addressed.

He himself told in his talk that a woman with considerably lesser citations than him was given a position which he believed he deserved which makes me think that this talk was more a result of anger. Then the main basis of his talk was the number of citations. Citations are not a good measure of scientific performance as number of citations depend a lot on peer-review and there have been numerous studies suggesting that peer review process is biased against women . This blog in particular examines how his claims regarding citations were wrong.

There have been similar incidents in the past and there might be more in future but I think inclusive pedagogy is something that can play a big role in reducing these biases and addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM. There needs to be an inclusive culture in classroom which can help women believe and trust that they are as good as everyone else and that Science is above all these biases. Everyone can do science and nobody should feel excluded by gender. To end this post on positive note, one of the most ironic things that happened in the same week as this CERN incident was that a woman scientist, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018. This shows that good work will continue to be recognized even if these biases exist.

Mindlessness to Joblessness

As always, I will tell a story. I am from India and in India, the education system is quite different from US. Till the 10th standard (sophomore year of high school), we study (and/or “learn”??) everything- science, maths, history, geography, politics, economics, languages and much more. From junior year, we have to choose a broad field(major) we want to continue our study in and the options are Medical, Non-Medical (Science), Commerce and Arts.

I was always genuinely interested in science, particularly Physics, so for me, the obvious choice was Non-Medical. But this was not the case with most of my other classmates. They had different criteria for deciding the major. The first criterion was “difficulty”. Med and Non-Med are usually considered difficult, so the students who have a higher GPA (presumed “smart” ones) usually go for these and the students who have lower GPA go for the other two. Now many of these “smart” students actually had no or little interest in science or math and they still went for it because “smart” students are expected to go for it (parental pressure and societal pressure). I remember one of my close friends ended up taking Science because of his parents’ pressure although he was really interested in Economics.

The second criterion (which is nowadays becoming the first) was “future jobs”. The usual mentality is Med and Non-Med lead to high paying and better jobs after college. Because of this, many “presumed not-so smart students” who would have taken commerce or arts otherwise, also went for med or non-med (mostly non-med, because it takes forever to become a medical doctor).

What happened as a result, the “smart” ones with minimal interest and “not-so smart” ones with vested interest, did not perform well because whatever they learnt was not mindful (I do not mean to generalize here because there are some who develop interest even if the chosen major wasn’t their first choice). Now most of them did manage into some pathetically low-ranked, high-cost private engineering colleges (these are the colleges, very high in number, with sole purpose to rake money out of students and give them a degree, with a little to no impetus on learning), but failed to get jobs after graduating or are working low-paying jobs (it is so ironic because the main reason for making that choice in school was to get a high paying good job) .

The rate of educated unemployment in India is rising at an alarming rate and one of the biggest reasons is the mismatch between the interests and learnings of students (I don’t want to discuss specific numbers here because the numbers go higher than the population of many countries). My post might have deviated from the main topic “mindful learning”, but I wanted to lay emphasis on how a small mindful advice from parents (to discover and follow interest and not money) and a mindful teaching from teachers ( to understand that the real aim of “learning” is not to get a job, but to gain knowledge) could have prevented my classmates to fall victims to this herd mentality and could have helped them to take a mindful decision towards their future.

VR learning for Generation Z

Let me start with a small story. Three years ago, I went to Walmart and accidentally stumbled upon a huge stack of these Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. I had heard about VR from a friend who recently bought a fancy VR headset for $1000 and here I was looking at a super cheap smartphone version, costing just $15. I bought it just out of curiosity, went home downloaded some VR apps on my phone and I was amazed at the extent of things I could do with it. I could play some super cool games, experience myself sitting in a roller coster and not only that, there was an app where I could watch the inside of a human body. Of course in this toned-down cheap version I could really not do as much as in the $1000 one, but still it was good enough to get a feel of it. What I actually learnt from this experience was that VR was no longer some distant future and it was no longer limited to games or entertainment, but can be used as a great learning tool in this digital age.

According to a a popular model developed by educational theorist Fleming, there are usually four types of learning styles- Visual , Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic. But, is this model really applicable for the generation of digital learners? A recent Barnes and Noble College study, conducted on 1300 middle and high school students, shows that today’s students are not big fans of passive learning. They are not interested in showing up to lectures, make notes and then memorize for exams. Instead they want an educational experience that is immersive and engaging. For example, 51% of the surveyed students said that they learn best through active participation while only 12% said that they learn by listening. They also said that with technology and hands on experience, learning is much more fun for them. This survey definitely gives us a hint what future learners expect from their classroom experience and VR can play a big role in making this experience more immersive.

The biggest advantage of VR could be in visualizing and understanding difficult and abstract scientific concepts like magnetism, relativity, human anatomy etc. Students can easily perform the complex chemistry and biological experiments in virtual labs without having to worry about the dangers of using chemicals etc. This TED talk by Michael Bodekaer, the co-founder of Labster shows how virtual labs can revolutionize education. Another technology that is gaining popularity is Augmented Reality (AR). AR adds another dimension to the learning process and teachers can combine traditional approach with innovative practical illustrations of the complex concepts .

While the costs of these high-tech fancy VR sets are undeniably high for now, they will inevitable drop. But for the starters, why not experiment with the super cheap ones like the one I got from Walmart. There are numerous apps available which work with these low-cost ones, for almost every subject including chemistry, physics, zoology, history, grammar and list goes on and on. In the end, it’s upon the educators to understand the need of this Generation Z and make the learning experience for them not only more engaging, but also make them a part of this experience.

Networking is the new learning !

My experience of pedagogy from school to college to even some part of grad school has been same. I had always thought that the conventional way i.e. a single person talks to a group of people sitting in a hall trying to explain them what he/she knows or what the book says, the group of people try to grasp as much as they can and make notes, work on homeworks/ assignments and finally give an exam and the grade is a marker of how much they actually learned, was the tried and tested way of teaching and learning.

But last semester when I took the Communicating Science course, my thinking completely changed. That course was all about communication with the fellow classmates, communicating your research to them, getting their feedback, getting their appreciation, writing news articles about each other’s research etc. What was happening was that I was presenting my work number of times to different people with varied research backgrounds and in the process I was building a network, which helped me learn and understand my research in a different and better way. What this course helped me realize was that networked learning is really important and effective.

Coming back to the method 1, is the conventional method which is still the most prevalent one around the world, really effective? Because many grades on my transcript( and of most people’s) are the result of studying restlessly a day or two before the exams and not real learning. However, the method 2 which encourages the “learners” to engage in discussion, debate, dialogue and learn a lot more in the process is really effective. A great example of this would be the discussion we had in the first class of Contemporary Pedagogy. I really wasn’t aware of the discussed aspects of the Learning management systems and just listening to people talk about their perspective on the topic helped me learn a lot and actually encouraged me to go back and research more about it.

I think there is a need to change our understanding of “learning” and the pedagogy will play a crucial part in it. Courses like Contemporary Pedagogy or Communicating science need to be introduced to a wider audience and young teachers and future professors like us should inculcate these new approaches while teaching.

Looking forward to a lot more ‘networked learning’ throughout the semester and fellow learners, feel free to pitch in your ideas/comments/views on this topic.