What you say vs. what I hear

I told you I had more to say.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that power and prestige is associated with white men. The upper echelons—the company executives, department chairs, deans of universities—of most (if not all) fields are populated largely by white men. White men generally earn more money (often significantly more) than their counterparts in any other demographic.

But that doesn’t mitigate my ire at reading statements like this (emphasis mine)—both from articles written by Beryl Lieff Benderly* on the problems with America’s scientific labor supply:

A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America’s top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation’s research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. —  Miller-McCune, “The Real Science Gap”

and similarly

But the demographic that historically provided America’s scientists, native-born white men, is down by about 1,000 a year, although minority (mainly Asian-American) and female PhDs are up markedly. But because white men are traditionally the highest-earning segment of the American population and the group with the widest career options, many observers believe that the decline in their numbers indicates a drop in the desirability of science careers. Scientific American, “Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?”

I am not here to debate the data—meaning the actual numbers. I also realize that these statements do not necessarily represent Benderly’s personal opinion on the matter;  this is a broader viewpoint that has been applied to other fields over the years. Moreover, I would agree that there are issues in the current system of training, doing, and funding science in the U.S. (we’ll get to that later), which may very well translate to lost interest in scientific careers. But I have a problem with equating fluctuations in the number of white d00ds in a field to career desirability because it conflates disparate issues and propagates a particular mindset in our culture.

Confounding the issue

The first question—which I cannot answer—is why are “many observers” linking demographics with job allure. When I posed a question about this connection,  DrugMonkey commented that “there is the mediating variable of [money]”. In the context of the quote from the Scientific American article, one wonders whether the assertion is based on the demographic or the money. Certainly the two are linked, but this is in part because that demographic still holds the majority of the highest positions; and at most levels, they earn more than their counterparts, in part because they ask for more (and more often).

The next question is why are fewer white males starting careers in science—that is the point of these observers, after all, that entry is down. The number of women enrolling in college has increased dramatically over decades. Women have outstripped men in earning degrees, for quite some time now. So I don’t think it’s a huge leap to expect increased enrollment of women in Ph.D. programs—which wouldn’t occur without a concomitant decrease in male enrollment unless the programs expanded.

Furthermore the assertion does not account for efforts by funding agencies and institutions to enhance diversity in science. These efforts have largely focused on increasing enrollment of women and minorities in Ph.D. programs. If a field is actively working to change its demographic distribution, it hardly seems reasonable to point to that change as evidence that careers in that field are somehow less attractive.

Piercing perceptions

When I read statements like those quoted above, I react with something ranging from mild annoyance to being outright pissed off, depending on my frame of mind. That is because I see within them an implicit message, whether the author or the “observers” (whoever they are) intend to send it or not.

You’ll never be as good as a white guy.

You’re here because he doesn’t want it anymore.

You’re picking up the scraps that he no longer wants.

You’re second rate—always have been, always will be.

You’ll never be as good as a white guy.

Did any of those commentators ever say that? Of course not. At least not for publication. And there’s a (good?) chance they don’t even think it. But the thing is there is still an undercurrent—often subtle, almost imperceptible—that white men maintain supremacy. Here we are in the 21st century, and we’re still using the white male segment of the populace to define success, to construe what we should and should not desire, and to exemplify, by their departure, where the problems lie.

Of course, most white guys out there have no control over their use as a benchmark standard. I don’t hate them for it. I simply detest the oft unspoken implications, the things left unsaid that remain so time and time again. Those are the things that sneak in, that settle down in some dark little corner of the mind, waiting, growing, congregating, and if you don’t find them, you don’t expose them, they can turn into vicious creatures that undermine your confidence and seed doubt. They may be of our own making, but rarely come without at least a little help from society.

This entry was posted in attitudes, subconscious messages, troubles of science. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What you say vs. what I hear

  1. Arlenna says:

    I had the exact same reaction to this article!!! I am going to ping you.

  2. Isis the Scientist says:

    Lovely post, Biochembelle. You’ve got it right on the money.

  3. biochembelle says:

    Thanks for the comments, ladies.

  4. msphd says:

    Oh, this made me laugh. As in,

    Right, the reason I’m not in science now because there aren’t ENOUGH white guys around anymore.


  5. Great post. I wonder if the authors of these articles even consider that there are people who aren’t white dudes who might read them.

    • biochembelle says:

      I would hope that they do, particularly in this instance, as the author is female and a contributing editor for the Science mag website. I think perhaps in trying to report objectively, however, they don’t consider how the assertion may be interpreted by a diverse audience.

  6. anon says:


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