So I’m futzing around on the internets when I suddenly get a chime on IM from my homeboy out at one of those fine UC schools telling me some wicked story about a guy, a girl and a fellowship. As I sat there in my spartan wooden chair which provides no comfort at all, I began to actually feel for the guy.
The story is familiar: girl has good looking transcripts but about equivalent to boy so they give a hearty fellowship to girl because, as you may have guessed, she’s got too many X chromosomes and this burden must be ameliorated with fellowships, grants and pats on the back at undeserving times.
Guy goes on to be a rock star chemist while girl is conspicuously loony and incapable of bench work. The guy is forced back into teaching, even though he’s obviously the better chemist, while the girl continues to mutter to herself intermittently, and doing obnoxiously stupid shit to get attention.
Whilst there is an articulated need to get women in science, the whole thing struck me as substantially unfair since 1) this girl chemist turned out to be a flake and 2) they had no way of knowing that to begin with. If we make the “special” applicants (those with bisomy X chromosomal disorder) take “special” tests (like the ‘are you patently nutso’ test) then we’ve made these special people special in a decidedly bad way. Whereas if we just give them money gratis then we’ve made them special in a very good way. Therefore, we either have to assume they’re useful and just take that risk, which is a seemingly very nonacademic thing to do, or do the un-PC thing and just give them money ’cause they did well as an undergrad, despite the realities (and imaginaries) their gender provided them.
Now, that said, I’m all for enticing women to come into sciences by offering fellowships to qualified candidates, but not at the expense of someone else more qualified. Which presents a unique issue here… how do you get around this problem? How do you make women feel more welcome into science without offering cash rewards for being… there.
Of course, it’s politics, which is academic in every unbelievably nuanced way, so to my friend I simply offered the most logical advice: in the end, peer review doesn’t take the gender of the non PI author into account anyway, ultimately her failure will be transparent, even if it will come at a higher cost for the school. And when she fails, you can mock her relentlessly until she starts cutting herself or jumps off the library.
UPDATE: You’ll notice, I bolded a sentence up there. That’s for the benefit of the tin-foil hat brigade that assumes it’s alright to read, comment and not think. The sentence is my affirmation that I am totally in favor of scholarships and fellowships for women and/or minorities. This Fellowship happened to be very poorly applied, in which gender was an excuse for triage. NOW, some commenters have clearly not understood this point. But it’s their right to comment and get all pissy.
In the interest of fairness, professional victim Suzanne E Franks has her take on it here.