Thursday, 11 November 2010

Vive la différence?

By Dave Stevens, Marrella Communications
Written for the QUEST project team

Nature recently reported (Oct 28) the EU was admitting failure in attempts to reach its (fairly modest) gender targets for the research workforce that it set itself back in 1999, citing lack of political support for the shortfall.

So I was particularly struck when glancing through the references cited in Interdisciplinary Research Journeys, the new book by Catherine Lyall, Ann Bruce, Joyce Tait and Laura Meagher, that the majority of authors listed were women.

Whilst trying to reconcile these two facts, I got to thinking – was this unexpected bibliographical skew a blip? To use the language of statisticians (and I’m guessing, like birdwatchers, train spotters and other fearless hunter-gatherer types, they too are mostly men) was it just sampling error?

Or was there something about interdisciplinary working that inherently favoured, or attracted, women? (And we cannot ignore the flip side: was it an approach that in some way repelled men?)

Armed with just a digital spear and a virtual loin cloth, I strode off manfully into the vast plains of the Internet in search of a herd of answers...

Writing in Research Policy, Diana Rhoten and Stephanie Pfirman previously identified four modes of practice within interdisciplinary working – and looked at various strands of evidence to see whether women had a predilection for them.

They found women more likely to cross fertilise (weave together information, approaches and ideas from different disciplines) which they suggested is because women are “more apt to make connections between language, ideas and the larger context”.

There was less evidence to support the idea that women were more likely to collaborate in teams, which is perhaps surprising given the strong theoretical support for the idea from numerous psychological studies.

The suggestions that women are more drawn to new areas, or ‘interdisciplines’ (field creation) and that they are more attracted to questions involving the real world (problem orientation) were backed up by data on the proportion of female students enrolling on certain interdisciplinary courses, and the greater number of female faculty holding joint appointments across areas that connected directly with society - such as business, biology and law.

Whilst the evidence isn’t extensive, it does seem that interdisciplinary working is, by its nature, inherently more attractive to women.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? After all, interdisciplinary research is set to play a much greater role, right across the board. More and more science is becoming focused on problem solving (read one such example) where no single area can understand the problem or provide the answers, whilst technological breakthroughs like systems biology, regenerative medicine, and nanotechnology have already started blurring the traditional boundaries.

Well, not entirely. Current academic reward structures don’t favour interdisciplinary fields. For starters, it is very difficult to disentangle the individual’s contribution to team work – which makes it difficult to apply the usual criteria for measuring success, thereby hampering career enhancement. Researchers may then have to be judged against a different set of criteria to their discipline based counterparts if these fields are to burgeon.

If this and the various other hurdles facing interdisciplinary work can be overcome, then we might also see a rise in the number of women staying in science. And whilst not suggesting that interdisciplinary science should be encouraged purely in the interests of equality, it certainly gives those wishing to realign the gender balance some food for thought.

So let’s try to be optimistic. It took us awhile, but if we can accept that women and men are different but equal, can we not do the same for the disciplinary and the interdisciplinary?

Now, you’ll have to excuse me but I have a CD collection to alphabetize...

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