"Sex and science" and "Ode to Frances"

Readers respond to a story about women in the sciences by Cathy Young. Plus: Russell Hoban's daughter responds to Kate Moses' article on the Frances books.

Published April 20, 2001 8:01PM (EDT)

Read "Sex and science" by Cathy Young.

I graduated from MIT in 1987 with a B.S. in physics. At that time, discussions with my fellow students revealed that sexism varied from department to department and professor to professor. In the School of Science, biology was widely acknowledged as the best department for women, and physics the worst. The School of Engineering was generally worse than the School of Science, though Computer Science was comparable. The worst department institutewide was Nuclear Engineering -- though this was largely blamed on a subculture of ex-Navy nukes; it was pre-Tailhook, remember.

Many older professors treated women with subtle contempt, but younger ones were generally unbiased -- at least when not in the presence of a biased superior. As these older professors have retired, the climate for women must have improved to the point that the women faculty could finally air complaints that no doubt had been festering for decades. So it is likely the report has a certain amount of bias. But any scientist worth his salt will tell you that "scientific objectivity" is a perfection to be sought but is never achieved in reality.

As to why women are underrepresented at the top levels of science and mathematics, I can only speak from personal experience. When I was 9, my teacher told me I couldn't do mathematics because I was a girl. I already knew him for a fool, but his statement undermined my self-confidence -- I stopped getting 100 percent right on every math test. On several other occasions, both teachers and fellow students made it clear that girls who did math were freaks of nature who really shouldn't exist -- and so they pretended I didn't. Few girls find the intellectual beauties of mathematics worth such a social price. I can only hope that girls today experience fewer such barriers.

-- Kat Daley

I am a woman with a Ph.D. in physics which collects dust on a shelf. I tend to agree with those who explain the lack of women in science as a consequence of the culture of science.

Frankly, I think scientific careers as conducted in the traditional institutions (universities, national labs, etc.) are the shittiest careers on the planet. Financial rewards are nonexistent. The lifestyle is stressful, constraining and not well rounded. Scientists degrade themselves daily by fighting like junkyard dogs with their departmental colleagues for scraps of recognition. They fight with colleagues from other institutions so that they might get a slight edge when they go begging (frequently) at the feet of the government for their pittance.

This system filters out humane, self-respecting individuals and turns the future of science over to assholes with abundant self-esteem issues. And then their antisocial, aggressive behavior is hailed as the magic touch necessary to advance science. Whatever.

I now work as an engineer in a corporation that promotes teamwork with one's colleagues, healthy competition with other corporations and cooperative development of standards to advance the industry. We innovate and produce high-quality products. It rules.

-- Ladye Wilkinson

How comforting it is to know that when Phyllis Schlafly's reactionary carcass is finally laid to rest, Cathy Young will be poised to assume her frilly pink mantle.

-- Beth Sundheim
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Thank you for your usual insightful look into what has become a hot topic since MIT began falling all over itself to apologize to women.

Normally, I try to ignore hype and hysteria, but I am afraid what is going on today will only hinder younger women who choose to enter the fields of hard science.

I have much experience in this regard. I received my degree in physics at a school dominated by males. And in the physics department, I was often the only female in most classes, especially at the upper and graduate levels.

I've worked as an engineer for the Department of Defense also, so I know whereof I speak. I was a rocket scientist!

Even though I attended university in the Deep South, where one might expect more in the way of sexism, my experience with men in my field has been, without qualification, positive.

In fact, never have I met a more courteous, gracious, "delighted to have a woman on board" group of guys -- anywhere.

Brilliant job those underachieving women out there who have not done the highest quality work have pulled on the next generation of women coming up. They will really get to experience sexism in the form of hostility and a "you didn't earn that (fill in the blank -- lab space, salary, promotion), you got it because you're a woman!" attitude.

Way to go, girls. You make me ill.

-- Cheryl T. Strauss

With your recent article "Sex and Science," you're contributing to a backlash against the progress of feminists and pro-feminists in academia. I was deeply disturbed by the patriarchal tone of the article. It's a huge mistake to refer to the complaints of some women in academia as trivial or amorphous because these complaints are indicative of the climate in their workplace.

I'd like to recommend that you borrow a video produced by the University of Western Ontario's Caucus on Women's Issues called "The Chilly Climate for Women in Universities and Colleges." In this video, academic women relate the pain they have felt at being excluded and undermined in their working and learning situations within colleges and universities.

-- Tara Baillargeon

I am a male graduate student in the physical sciences. My research partner is a woman who grew up in East Germany. She is a very talented mathematician and I asked her about gender and science. She told me that after the Berlin Wall fell her family moved to Austria. She was surprised to suddenly be one of a few women in her advanced math and science courses. She said that in East Germany it was drilled into her and everyone else's head that the genders were equal. Consequently, her math classes were approximately equally populated with men and women.

I think two things are needed to reach numerical equality in the sciences. First, we need to treat young children the same regardless of gender. I can't imagine what I would be like if my parents had bought me nothing but Barbie dolls and tea party sets. It seems to me that most of my "maleness" stems from the fact that I and every other boy in the city were raised on squirt guns and video games. Second, if we want more women in science we need to make it more prestigious. I am not surprised that the gap in gender has decreased more rapidly in law and medicine. People respect lawyers and doctors. They understand how a doctor or lawyer can serve his/her community. They also see that there is the potential for a big paycheck.

What does science offer? A low-paying job with low community prestige that you can't explain to your friends. Plus, if you're a woman you are outnumbered by men. And since we have been told that girls are different from boys, I see how that could be intimidating and at times maybe even lonely.

-- Kenneth Brown

Read "Ode to Frances" by Kate Moses.

I read your piece about Frances, the character created by my parents, with a mixture of delight and doubt.

Frances, like all classic characters, has a much more complicated -- and at the same time much simpler -- history than the one you created for her.

She was based on an amalgam of the Hoban children and their friends. Her bedtime fears, for instance, derived from my brother Brom, who was convinced a tiger lived under the bed; her obsessive love of bread and jam, from the child of friends of the family.

Frances was the third children's book my father wrote -- before that he did two he illustrated himself. He was a well-known commercial illustrator who did, among other things, covers for Time magazine. My mother, Lillian, who met my father in art school, had wanted to illustrate the Frances books from the start, but Garth Williams already had a name, and Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary Harper & Row editor, paired him with my father for the first book.

After his initial foray, my mother won Harper & Row's approval to do the subsequent Frances books, and became the official illustrator not only of the Frances books but of all my father's children's books for the time that they were married, including his young-adult novel, "The Mouse and His Child." She went on to have a long and successful children's book writing and illustrating career of her own, creating, among other memorable characters, Arthur the chimp and his proto-feminist sister, Violet.

Without getting into too much family history, let's just say that Frances was also very much stamped after her creators' own characters. My father used to share with the family his manuscripts in progress and my mother in particular had a pitch-perfect ear for the character's voice.

Frances' little songs to this day resonate with my father's wit, love of wordplay and pleasure in the joys of the quotidian -- including Lorna Doone cookies.

Take it from me. Frances does not necessarily have a graduate degree or talk to her sibling(s) every day. But she is alive and well and kicking. And thanks to my parents' enduring art, she's not a day older than she was the first day she materialized on the page.

-- Phoebe Hoban

By Salon Staff

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