Career choice, or, wherever you go, there you are

I once heard DNA co-discoverer James Watson speaking at a lecture. Referring to some research, he said, “We thought we were being stochastic, but we were just guessing.”

I’d like to think that I’m integrative, but mostly I just happen across unassociated things. Like, for instance:

Michael Feldstein at e-Literate has a guest post by Jutta Treviranus. You Say Tomato… looks at designing the user-experience interface for distributed learning. Treviranus notes that UI designed is often left to programmers and often happens at the end of the development process.

As part of her work with the Fluid project, Trivarnus and her colleagues “have found ourselves at odds with common or traditional notions integral to pedagogy, software design, user interaction design, usability, and accessibility.”

The Fluid approach to user experience design and usability testing is also at odds with standard or commercial UI design methods. These methods assume that the user really doesn’t know what is best or what they want. Users are not self-aware, what they report doing is not actually what they do and asking users what they might want does not lead to innovation because they extrapolate from what they know and are most likely to ask for a faster horse carriage than a car. Consequently the assumption is that any proposed design requires extensive user testing with objective observation and data gathering from a large number of representative users.

(I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about tinkering with my off-the-shelf software — I have created buttons In Word to prevent tables from breaking within rows, to insert section breaks, and to print just the current page. That’s pretty low-level customization, but a lot more than the average person tends to do.)

Rosalind Franklin in 1955The apparently unrelated item that came to mind as I read this was John Tierney’s article in Monday’s New York Times blog, A New Frontier for Title IX: Science. (Title IX is the U.S. law barring sexual discrimination in education, and till now has applied mainly to sports. The article deals with the question of similar discrimination in science.)

Lots of things I didn’t know (it’s an ever-growing list):

  • In the U.S., 50% of med students, 60% of biology majors, and 70% of psychology PhDs are women.
  • Less than 20% of physics PhDs are women.

Tierney cites research by David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow suggesting that the differences in choice of field may have more to do with an individual’s preferences than overt discrimination. Similar research by Joshua Rosenbloom and Ronald Ash made this less-than-astonishing conclusion:

…Information technology workers especially enjoyed manipulating objects and machines, whereas workers in other occupations preferred dealing with people.

Once the researchers controlled for that personality variable, the gender gap shrank to statistical insignificance: women who preferred tinkering with inanimate objects were about as likely to go into computer careers as were men with similar personalities. There just happened to be fewer women than men with those preferences.

What struck me (for this post of my own) was not the gender gap per se, but the connection between the object-manipulators in IT, and the end-users of software that Treviranus discussed in her user-interface post.

And I figured a post combining user interface, open source, and potential on-the-job discrimation might stir up a thing or two.

Photo of Rosalind Franklin (whose X-ray images helped lead Watson and Crick to their model for the structure of DNA)
from the National Library of Medicine.

One thought on “Career choice, or, wherever you go, there you are

  1. Kia ora Dave!

    Things are changing, perhaps for the better – who knows? But it takes a long time!

    This is a long comment!

    In 1965, the High School I attended in Scotland had a huge number of sixth-year (seventh form or Y13) students doing Science subjects, bio through chem to phys. It was a mixed comprehensive school. Out of that huge number of senior science scholars there was one solitary girl, and her standard of achievement was mediocre to say the least.

    When I went through uni, there were 3 women and 36 men in my honours year in Chemistry. I graduated honours in 1969, just a few weeks after men first walked the Moon – notably a sigificant time in Science. During the next 3 years I did research alongside 11 male and 1 female postgrads.

    But in the short space of 8 or 9 years things had shifted in Scotland where more women were moving into Science fields in secondary schools.

    When I taught at James Gillespies High School for Girls in 1973, we could provide ALL the women students for Med School in Edinburgh. The competition was fierce.

    What I report above is simply statistical.

    Anecdotally, and at the other side of the world, things were slower to move that way. I’ve lived in New Zealand and taught there since 1974.

    In 1983 a brilliant young seventh former came to me for advice. She wanted to learn about two career fields she was interested in so she could make up her mind which to choose. She was good at Physics and was interested in becoming an engineer. Her family was also encouraging her to go into medicine. I knew what ‘engineering’ was like at uni and in the field, for it was almost exclusively dominated by men, at least in NZ.

    I asked her a simple question about her preferences. Did she mind if she worked in a field dominated exclusively by men? Or was this something that didn’t bother her?

    Her answer was implicit.

    I got offside with the Dean that year for speaking with this student. The fact was I didn’t give any advice. I just stated the facts as I read them. Later that year the young student was accepted to Med School.

    There are many stories I could tell that are similar. Young women ARE swayed by what they see as male dominated areas of study. But now, in Science, the tables have been turned, at least in NZ.

    So evident was it that the ‘system’ favoured boys in many areas of the curriculum that the new curriculum introduced in the 80s was revamped to provide encouragement for young women to advance in secondary education. Affirmative action it was called at the time.

    Now there is a wailing and gnashing of teeth from the business world and from schools and parents, that girls are doing better than boys in senior secondary qualifications including in Science and Mathematics.

    You just can’t win.

    Ka kite

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