xkcd: Zombie Marie Curie’s advice for young girls in science

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Today’s xkcd strip reanimates the corpse of famed scientist Marie Curie in order to serve up a clever statement about women in the hard sciences:

I’ve always thought that, while academics and activists are busy blogging about social justice and bias in the classroom, the real feminists are the women who are out in the trenches: the computer science classes, the medical labs, the engineering projects. They’re not making a career of giving talks about pay gaps and sexism. Instead, they’re saying “eff that noise, screw convention, I’m going to do what I like.” As Clay Shirky brilliantly said last year: “To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments…” So get out on the field and represent, ladies, damn the consequences.

In case I haven’t made myself absolutely crystal clear: the world needs few women’s studies PhDs.* All the hard battles – coverture, suffrage, body autonomy and sexual harassment – have already been won, and aside from that pesky framework-of-consent issue, we’re standing on solid ground. What the world needs, in addition to nurses, teachers, and caregivers, is engineers, scientists, programmers, and math geeks (I don’t want to hear anything about how men are innately better at math than women. IIRC, there may be more male outliers at the high end of the bell curve, but women are otherwise as capable as men). It may be the case that these career paths have an institutional bias against women, although I’m skeptical it’s as bad as some claim; during my three years as a computer science student, I never once received any negative attention from professors or classmates. All academic subjects, from English to philosophy, art to psychology, were at one time a big sausage party. If we are capable of parsing Tolstoy or William Burroughs, calculus isn’t beyond our comprehension.

[Libby]

*This point is open for debate, as it’s entirely possible that the world needs no women’s studies PhDs.

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34 Responses to “xkcd: Zombie Marie Curie’s advice for young girls in science”

  1. #1 |  Jamon | 

    Thank you.

  2. #2 |  pegr | 

    This is equally good advice for racial minorities.

  3. #3 |  how | 

    If you are capable of parsing James Joyce or Gertrude Stein, then quantum electrodynamics isn’t beyond your comprehension.

  4. #4 |  Robert | 

    Model minority bullshit. Thanks, but really, no thanks.

  5. #5 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Back when I was in engineering school in eth 70s and 80s, there were very few women there. In my second last semester I took a business class and guess what. It was wall to wall women over there. My thought at the time was that future engineers go to engineering school and future bosses go to business school. I was wrong. It turned out, at least in the high tech companies that make up my tiny slice of reality, that future bosses and future engineers both come from engineering schools.

  6. #6 |  Jen | 

    A-freaking-men.

    The more time women spend navel-gazing, the less time they spend actually doing what needs to be done. And boy, is there a lot of navel-gazing going on. My daughter seems to have inherited her dad’s mechanical and analytical abilities; if she wants to, I’m going to encourage her to pursue that as far as she can go.

  7. #7 |  Mattocracy | 

    Word.

  8. #8 |  Rick H. | 

    All the hard battles – coverture, suffrage, body autonomy and sexual harassment – have already been won

    On the body autonomy front, I’ll disagree. Legal and cultural persecution of prostitutes and sex workers is going strong, no thanks to most of those Victorian fake feminists in academia. The right of control of her body only applies to a correct-thinking woman of a certain social stratum. You’re right on, though – getting more females into science is a good thing.

  9. #9 |  bigjohn756 | 

    I agree wholeheartedly with your footnote. I’d say just do it, no need for studies.

  10. #10 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #6 Rick H.

    Legal and cultural persecution of prostitutes and sex workers is going strong, no thanks to most of those Victorian fake feminists in academia.

    Well said. When it comes to the fight to control their own sex lives, women don’t even have a majority of women on their side. For the life of me, I can’t understand why all women aren’t in open rebellion against laws that tell them with whom and under what circumstances they are permitted to have sex.

  11. #11 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    Libby: “In case I haven’t made myself absolutely crystal clear: the world needs few women’s studies PhDs…This point is open for debate, as it’s entirely possible that the world needs no women’s studies PhDs.”

    #6: “Legal and cultural persecution of prostitutes and sex workers is going strong, no thanks to most of those Victorian fake feminists in academia. The right of control of her body only applies to a correct-thinking woman of a certain social stratum.”

    I sincerely want to kiss both of you.

  12. #12 |  RomanCandle | 

    “IIRC, there may be more male outliers at the high end of the bell curve, but women are otherwise as capable as men.”

    But aren’t most people who make their living in the hard sciences drawn mostly from the high-end of the bell curve, where men are over-represented?

    Maybe I’m reading you wrong, but I’m not sure that a lack of women in the hard sciences is prima facie evidence of rampant sexism, especially since women seem to be outperforming men in virtually every other academic discipline.

  13. #13 |  Thoreau | 

    But aren’t most people who make their living in the hard sciences drawn mostly from the high-end of the bell curve, where men are over-represented?

    There’s a whole lot of people doing various jobs in science at different levels, with varying amounts of advanced education. I wouldn’t assume that every person with a bachelors in a science or engineering field must be an outlier from the very high end of the bell curve. I recall seeing studies (no, I can’t find them at the moment) showing that if there is a preponderance of males at the highest end of the bell curve, it is only (at best) at the highest end, beyond the 99% level. If 25% of the population get college degrees (rough guess) and even 10% of the degree recipients get science or engineering degrees (slightly low estimate) we’re talking about 2.5% of the population, at the very least. A lot of them will not be from the outlier region.

    These are rough numbers chosen conservatively.

  14. #14 |  a leap at the wheel | 

    It turned out, at least in the high tech companies that make up my tiny slice of reality, that future bosses and future engineers both come from engineering schools.

    As my old boss used to say, it is easier to get an engineer to think like a manager than it is to get an MBA to think.

  15. #15 |  Steven | 

    Seeing an xkcd strip on The Agitator warmed the cockles of my Liber-geek heart.

  16. #16 |  dhex | 

    so…shorter version: if you’re not good at math, kill yourself? :)

  17. #17 |  MikeZ | 

    I completely agree but can’t help but wonder if that is partly because I work in an engineering office with 20 other guys and could just be a desire to sit across from someone a little less hairy at the lunch table.

    I can safely say certainly at my company its a lack of applicants not a lack of acceptance that explains our current lack of female employees.

  18. #18 |  albert magnus | 

    Outliers matter a great deal when looking at faculty positions at research universities and national lab positions, where competition comes not just from the US, but the entire world.

    There are certainly places in science and engineering where that high-level of ability is unnecessary, for instance, medical physics where the pay is excellent. However, women-in-science enthusiasts tend to want women in the prestige parts of the profession, i.e. faculty positions, so they tend focus on the women working at CERN (where the competitions for jobs is hellish) rather than the women building chemical plants (like my sister who makes lots of money).

  19. #19 |  Deoxy | 

    I recall seeing studies (no, I can’t find them at the moment) showing that if there is a preponderance of males at the highest end of the bell curve, it is only (at best) at the highest end, beyond the 99% level.

    No, it’s quite a bit more noticeable than that… at both the top AND the bottom. The male bell curve is simply flatter than the female bell curve, resulting in more extremes.

    Personally, I’m waiting for the calls for men in elementary education and nursing. Oh, and for women to be mechanics.

    Seriously, men and women (on the whole, in general) have inherent differences and desire different things. That means that even if you somehow magically managed to remove all institutional and social sex bias, there would still be some areas dominated by women and some areas dominated by men. Allowing freedom of CHOICE means inequality in outcome – the only way to create equal outcome is to remove choice.

    Now, that’s not to say that ABSOLUTELY all bias is gone in out current system, mind you, but could someone please give me a standard that ISN’T “equality of outcome” that is close enough for us to get over it? And if it is only measuring women, it’s a complete fail, as that doesn’t account for women-dominated fields (like elementary education, for a stupidly easy example… for which there MUST be a male-dominated field in response… simple mathematics!).

  20. #20 |  Thoreau | 

    Deoxy-

    The study I saw was in Science and the past 2 years, and focused on middle school and/or high school students. I might be misremembering the details, or maybe middle school and high school data on tests of math ability is not valid for extrapolation to mathh ability in older cohorts.

    If I get a chance I’ll look for it.

  21. #21 |  Jerri Lynn Ward | 

    Does the world need PhD’s at all? I’ve long thought that accreditation coupled with our factory approach to education is not very libertarian.

  22. #22 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    “This point is open for debate, as it’s entirely possible that the world needs no women’s studies PhDs.”

    Libby,
    Nonsense! Without PhD’s in Women’s Studies, what on earth would we do with the people who are only fit to become PhD’s in Women’s Studies? We certainly don’t want them cluttering up the REAL world.

  23. #23 |  Josh Zytkiewicz | 

    “but women are otherwise as capable as men”

    Ok, but do women want to be in those fields? While there may be societal pressures and biases discouraging women from pursing engineering and mathematics, it’s also possible that large numbers of women just don’t have the desire to be in those jobs.

    As an example, I did pretty well in science and mathematics in school, but I don’t want to be around sick or injured people so I wouldn’t want a career in health care.

  24. #24 |  dmelbo01 | 

    OMG I think i am in Love with you now 8)

  25. #25 |  otto e mezzo | 

    @14 “As my old boss used to say, it is easier to get an engineer to think like a manager than it is to get an MBA to think.”

    I know that was a bit tongue in cheek, but I’ll say a few words in defense of my MBA wife. She works for a consumer products food company (frozen foods, condiments, sauces, etc.) and there are *lots* of women in management positions (most with MBAs) at her company. The fact that they’re women, is I suppose, irrelevant to your point, but in this field at least, it’s MBAs running the show. I can pretty much guarantee that no packaging engineer or food scientist is going to be making decisions on what products to launch, and how to keep them moving once they’re out there.

  26. #26 |  Zeb | 

    Great post. While sexual bias in education should be eliminated if at all possible, I’v always thought it was a bit insulting to women to suggest that they need to be interested in the same jobs in the same proportions as men are. If fewer women want to go into science and math, that is each woman’s decision to make individually.

  27. #27 |  maybelogics | 

    What if there are no such things as feminists?

    What if there are only those with a desire to see ladies “represent” or be represented in particular ways (eg. professionally or sexually) and those with a desire to see individuals represent and be represented in particular ways (eg. as humans)?

  28. #28 |  megs | 

    I subscribe to a wide definition of feminism (if you are for treating people as individuals and only taking into account gender where it is biologically impossible to disregard), so I love women who are just out there doing stuff. I feel a little embarrassed when I see a gal who has thought some good things and done some good stuff getting recognized because she is a woman in a traditionally male field. When she was working, she wasn’t thinking about representing her sex.

    I’m going to say the world needs about one Gender Studies major every 2 or 3 years. Full confession – I went to a women-only college (just went co-ed a couple of years ago, but I didn’t care about that aspect, it was a good school) and had to take one semester of a women studies class. I took Evolution, but lots of science classes qualified for women studies according to their rules. High fives all around.

  29. #29 |  Stick | 

    My wife has a degree in chemistry and teaches high school. The girls I work with (in a coal mine) are paid EXACTLY the same rate as the men. Two of my ex-girlfriends were prostitutes.
    I tick all the boxes.

  30. #30 |  marco73 | 

    100 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a woman could be engaged in the research that Marie Curie did.
    Today, woman are represented in all branches of science and industry.
    If you want to see the progress women have had, and society as a whole, just contact your state university. Ask them to send you the commencement program from their latest masters/doctorate graduation.
    The commencement program typically lists all the new PhDs, along with a short bio, and a brief description of the thesis.
    I got to attend a commencement last year at our state university, and I found the thesis to be fascinating. Some of them sounded a little boring, but some of them sounded like the start of the next step in the advancement of medicine, chemistry, biology, engineering, computer science, etc. The PhDs were passed out to men and women, all different colors and nationalities.
    Those new PhDs and their professors are the people who really “represent.”

  31. #31 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I study women a lot and probably have earned a PhD…but probably in Creeping and not Women’s Studies. I also remember having a college girlfriend accuse me of having an affair with a classmate. I told her there are no girls in Economics. She came to a class, saw there were no girls, and left after 5 minutes. Guess what happened:
    a) I was having an affair at the bar I worked
    b) She was the one having an affair

    That said, I have a problem with “need”. Do we “need” women’s studies PhDs? Are people lining up to give you money and take the courses? Well, there you go then.

    Correct answer was “A” and “B”. Pffft…college.

  32. #32 |  albatross | 

    Deoxy:

    The way I see it, this is the problem:

    a. There are biological differences between the sexes big enough to explain all kinds of differences in desires and aptitudes.

    b. Women don’t seem to do as well in math-oriented fields as men do in 2011, though it’s a small subset of the male or female population who have any interest in doing so.

    These two can explain the current pattern we see really well. It’s easy to look at the facts as they appear now and say “Well, some very rare outlier women may want to be in math-oriented fields, but really, it’s just not something that appeals to very many women, nor is it something many women have any aptitude for, so the engineering department will probably always be mostly men.”

    But then, we hit this snag: Let’s imagine a hypothetical version of me having this conversation in a faculty lounge, 60 years ago. I could say the exact same thing about the law and medical departments. “Well, you know, there are a few women with the intellect and drive to become perfectly good doctors/lawyers, but really, it’s just not something that appeals to many women, nor is it something many women have any aptitude for, so the medical/law school will probably always be mostly men.”

    That sentence would have been *exactly* as plausible in 1951 as my first sentence is today, given the available evidence. And yet, my hypothetical counterpart in 1951 would have been *completely wrong* on the evidence we have now, when women are half or more of law and medical school graduates.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that the smaller number of women in math-oriented fields *isn’t* a reflection of difference between men and women in mental abilities or interests. But it *does* mean that it’s hard to have much confidence in any conclusions I draw in that direction now, given that the same logic would have led me off a cliff in the past.

  33. #33 |  yonemoto | 

    I’m going to say it. One of my female acquaintances is an insanely successful math professor in a rediculously difficult field, so you can’t say any given woman can’t do math, or that women in general are incapable of doing math. But if you’re *expecting* women *as a collective* to post equal or better numbers than men as a collective, that might be stupid. I believe there are fewer female Gigori Perelmans or Pal Erdoses. And I’m not talking about mathematical ability, but “that type of person”. Fewer women are afflicted by asperger’s and autism than men, and maybe, just maybe, insane mathematical ability (which can help when doing certain cutting edge mathematics) is positively correlated with those attributes. I don’t know. I was a math major in a place that turned out pretty amazing theoretical mathematicians, and that’s what I saw. It also scared the shit out of me and pushed me into the biological/physical sciences (which I loved better anyway).

    On the other hand, women might be inherently better than men at math. But putting an “expectation on parity” is flat stupid. Having worked in majority female labs for most of my career, it’s my opinion that women are generally better than men in the non-mathematics “hard sciences”, but that’s mostly because they’re equally as smart and less willing to commit fraud.

  34. #34 |  Quick follow up on that Feminism-is-Doing post | The Agitator | 

    […] friend, Dara, politely disagreed with what I had to say on my Zombie Marie Curie post the other day. You can read her post here. Here’s an excerpt: It never really makes […]

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