Saturday, December 11, 2010

It's Science

Just in case you thought that the dearth of female speakers was limited to the foreign policy field, you should check out this upcoming conference hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation on Energy Innovation.

Now, ITIF is a great organization, doing some significant research and outreach on the crisis in American R&D and competitiveness. There is a need for their work that explores American declining manufacturing and S&T education as well as the effect of foreign industrial policy policies on the US economy. But it appears, that they are also contributing to the problem.

They seem a bit oblivous to the fact that a whole segment of the S&T workforce is underdeveloped. Worse, it seems to encourage this model in its own offices. None of ITIF's staff are women, except that pretty redhead who is the executive assistant. Nor are there any people of color, but that is a whole other problem.

Of the 33 speakers at this day-long December 15th event, only three are women. One had to be invited as she holds a governmental position in a relevant agency, the Department of Energy. The other two hold the traditional female slots for conferences. They are moderators. Being a moderator is a form of "spokesmodel" in Washington. You get to be there, introduce the product, but never say any more.

And always keep in mind, that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. Thus, there is a good likelihood that these gals are homely. Note that none of them sent in pictures. Maybe this is a way for men to feel good about themselves--they are not such a mess after all, and they might have a shot at these ladies.

There is no mention on ITIF's site about women in math and science as a specific topic of interest or concern, although it seems an implicit assumption to their campaign to encourage better training and education in those fields. There is a link to a 2008 blog posting about a study in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society titled “Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving” is aimed at rebutting the hypothesis of some scholars that men and women have separate “intrinsic aptitudes” for mathematics.

The report goes a step further and argues that one important reason for the lower numbers of women in graduate level mathematics programs is that “it is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism.”

And unsaid, it never stops. You just become invisible later in life.

This issue was raised in passing at a 2008 Innovation Economics conference co-sponsored by ITIF. A member of the audience asked a panel what the United States should do to boost home grown talent in STEM fields. In response to the question, a male panelist argued that one key factor to improving the supply of domestic talent in STEM fields is to increase the number of women and minorities who pursue these degrees.

But, as you can see little is being done to lead by example. Yes, it is not easy finding willing, women speakers in any field. But, I think meeting organizers should try a lot harder. Indeed, equality is when women are accepted for the same level of mediocrity as their male counterparts.

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