Thursday, December 18, 2008

On women & plant biology

I believe I am driving my husband a bit crazy with my interest in issues related to women in science. I've been reading FSP's book and many postings in the blog wide world. Last time I tried to discuss my new findings with him, he came back with the "Is it really that bad?" reply. That was a rhetorical question, because he knows it is. He proceeded to tell me how bad the last tenure decisions were. I will not post it because it is too depressing.

Interestingly, I have noticed discrimination more in my postdoc years than in my graduate years. I thought that this was due to the loss of women through the academic pipeline. Many graduate students, less postdocs, not so many faculty. However, I am also seeing the differences between subfields of study. There were many more prominent female scientists in plant biology. Why?

I went looking for answers and came up with some historical reasons. Most of them describing botany as a women's subject. I even found this article in Science from 1887 promoting botany as a suitable field of study for young men.

AN idea seems to exist in the minds of some young men that botany is not a manly study; that it is merely one of the ornamental branches, suitable enough for young ladies and effeminate youths, but not adapted for able-bodied and vigorous-brained young men who wish to make the best use of their powers. I wish to show that this idea is wholly unfounded, but that, on the contrary, botany ought to be ranked as one of the most useful and most manly of studies, and an important, if not an indispensable, part of a well-rounded education.
Would this idea be the reason why there are so many women in plant biology? This is not to say that women in plant biology have an easy time climbing the academic ladder. And maybe some of the difficulties they face have to do with these "young men" making sure they appear manly enough.

However, in the biological sciences scope of things, plant biologists seem to have a harder time justifying their worth. One needs to be twice as good to be considered good. One needs a complete story to publish in a general interest journal. While some observations are published comparing different cell lines, plants are plants. One does not get much prestige for working on plants, let alone recognition for big discoveries unless it is proven to occur in animals too. (Don't get me started on the RNAi business...) Does this have to do with botany being a women's field?

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I've often wondered that too.

    You know that when Linnaeus developed a classification/naming system based on flower structure, some people protested that he was a 'plant pornographer' and that his system would make botany unsuitable for young woman since it relied on ::gasp:: sexual parts...