What does a sexist google engineer teach us about women in science? | John Abraham

John Abraham: The Google engineers infamous sexist manifesto is contradicted by the brilliance of women in science.

What does a sexist Google engineer teach us about women in science?


Thats the short answer, but it deserves some commentary. In early August, a young Google computer engineer made lots of news in the US when he penned a manifesto that many described as sexist and which led to his firing. The memo was written as a backlash against efforts to improve diversity in the workplace. However, the arguments articulated by the manifesto were rightly described as offensive by Google executives.

The explosive part in the memo involved comments about how biological differences explain the paucity of women in technology and leadership fields. While there are certainly both physical and mental differences between men and women, the comments about both genders are, in my opinion, misguided and offensive.

This article is not going to focus much on the content of this so-called manifesto. It also wont focus on the author of this document, except to question the basis for how a very young engineer has the experience, training, or education to make such broad-brush generalizations. I mean, has he for instance managed scores of male and female engineers and been able to assess their quality of work and intellectual capacity? I doubt it. Has he studied this in any detail or published on the topic? I doubt it.

I found this manifesto so ironic because I give a lot of thought to differences between male and female scientists. I am not an expert in the area, certainly not in evolutionary biology. But I am a Full Professor with many years of instructing both undergraduate and graduate students in engineering. I am often struck by how small the female population is in my discipline (perhaps 20%), yet it is higher in other technical fields (biology, mathematics, chemistry, etc.). I am also impressed by how well female students do in technical courses and degree programs. I note a statistically significant performance gap between male and female students in courses; females consistently outperform their male peers.

I also have had the fortune to be a consultant for many different engineering companies from industries such as biomedical, aerospace, manufacturing, clean energy and other fields. In my work, I notice that women team members easily hold their own with male co-workers. I also believe (but I have no evidence) that women think differently than men.

In my anecdotal experience, women are able to consider problems from a wider range of perspectives. This perspective has real value to design teams, it encourages companies to pay more for female employees (yes, our female engineering graduates tend to make more than their male counterparts). Diverse teams make effective teams. That includes gender diversity. So, in my 15 or so years as a professor, and in my perhaps 50 consulting positions, I have lived an experience very different from the one this young Google engineer articulated.

With all that said, I thought this event provided an excellent opportunity to showcase some female scientists who are either world-known or becoming world-known in the field of climate science. So, here are some short bios of brilliant women climate scientists.

Dr. Magdalena Balmaseda

Magdalena A. Balmaseda has been working at ECMWF since 1995. She currently leads the Earth System Predictability Section in the Research Department.

Dr. Magdalena Balmaseda. Photograph: ECMWF

Dr. Balmaseda has developed her career by helping us understand weather and climate. She has contributed to building bridges between the climate and weather sciences. Her expertise in ocean modelling in general, and in El Nio in particular, greatly contributed to ECMWFs first steps in seasonal forecasting back in 1995. Now seasonal forecasts are one of the pillars of the EU Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), and the ocean is included in all ECMWF probabilistic forecasting systems, contributing the provision of forecasts of atmospheric conditions from days to months and seasons ahead.

Equally important have been her contributions to the role of the ocean in a warming climate. The apparent slowing of the global rise in surface temperature in the first decade of the 21st century the so-called hiatus had puzzled the scientific community. In 2013 Dr. Balmaseda together with other colleagues demonstrated that a fair amount of energy trapped in the Earth system had actually been absorbed by deep ocean waters. This outcome was only possible thanks to a combination of information from ocean models, atmospheric winds, and ocean observations, using similar combination techniques as those employed for weather forecasting.

Dr. Karina von Schuckmann

Karina von Schuckmann is an oceanographer working in France at Mercator Ocean. She leads the ocean climate monitoring activities of the Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service, which includes the development of a regular Ocean State Report with more than 100 authors. She is also a lead author of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special report on ocean and cryosphere.

Dr. Karina von Schuckmann.

Her research is focused on the oceans role in the Earth energy budget. This means she studies how much heat is stored in and how it flows throughout the ocean waters. Her studies particularly highlight the unique importance of measuring the global ocean as its global heat storage is the most fundamental metric defining the status of global climate change and expectations for continued global warming. With this topic she is also playing a leading role on international scientific collaborations under the framework of the World Climate Research Program.

Dr. von Schuckmanns rsum reads like a seasoned superstars; she has worked at some of the best research labs in France, the USA, Germany. I was so surprised to find she only recently received her PhD (in 2006). I want to know how she has become a leader in the field so quickly. I guess talent will do that. Her dissertation topic was on ocean climate variability in the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Jessica Conroy

Dr Jessica Conroy is a faculty member at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She holds a dual appointment in the departments of Geology and Plant Biology. Another young and upcoming research scientist, she has been at the forefront of connecting modern climate observations and climate model outputs with long-past climate measurements (paleoclimate data). Her work has helped improve our understanding of past Earth climate.

Dr. Jessica Conroy. Photograph: Jessica Moerman

In addition, she has developed long paleoclimate records from regions that are very sensitive to climate change. For instance, remote islands across the tropical Pacific and the Tibetan Plateau. She goes where few scientists have gone to make measurements that even fewer can.

Part of her work relies upon lake sediment samples and on the use of stable isotopes (oxygen and hydrogen) to give clues about what past climate was like. Not only does this give information about past temperatures but these data also, perhaps more importantly, tell us what the water cycle was like in the past. She was recently selected as a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow.

Dr. Sarah Myhre

Dr. Myhre is skilled in climate science as well as climate communication. Her area of research is in paleoceanography (the study of past climate and biology through the oceans). Her research requires her team to gather sediment cores from the seafloor, to analyze the chemical compositions and the shells of creatures that are contained within such cores, or to observe deep sea ecosystem using remotely operated submersibles. Her publications have appeared in some of the most prestigious scientific journals.

She may become even better known, however, for her work not only communicating about climate science to the general public but in training other scientists to be communicators. We scientists are often good at talking amongst ourselves, but we are less skilled at explaining why our research is important and how society can use our research to make informed decisions. This is where Dr. Myhre shines. She is a board member of the organization 500 Women Scientists and the Center for Women and Democracy, and is an uncompromising advocate for womens leadership in science and society.

Dr. Myhre and her son at the North Cascades Institute.

Dr. Rita Colwell

World-renowned expert in infectious diseases and health, Dr. Colwell has degrees in bacteriology, genetics, and oceanography; her pioneering use of computational tools and DNA sequencing helped lay the foundation for the bioinformatics revolution. This unique background has allowed her to make connections across these disciplines and enhance our understanding of water availability, disease, safe drinking water, and the effects of climate change on waterborne pathogens.

Dr. Colwell has won numerous national and international awards, such as the 2006 National Medal of Science, the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize, and the 2017 International Prize for Biology, and has and been elected to multiple Halls of Fame. She served as the director of the NSF and has served on numerous advisory roles throughout her career. As with some of the other women discussed here, Dr. Colwell prioritizes scientific communication and engagement with the public, particularly children, and expanding participation of minorities and women in the STEM fields.

Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig

Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies is fortunate to employ Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig. Her technical focus is on climate change impacts how society will be affected by a changing climate. In addition to her technical research, she has been a tireless service worker in the field, serving as a Coordinating Lead Author on the Fourth IPCC report as well as numerous editing and directorship roles with various climate and adaptation organizations. She also has an appointment at the Center for Climate Systems Research and Columbia University.

Perhaps her most current area of research is on climate and crop productivity. She wants to know how agricultural outputs will change as the climate warms and changes to water availability occur.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Dr. Lubchenco is well known as a world leader in the field of environmental science. After decades of innovative research at the intersection of climate change and the ocean, President Obama tapped her to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the federal agency that keeps the nations climate records, produces much of the federal agency climate science, and leads the U.S. National Climate Assessment. She has focused squarely on the intersection between climate change and human well-being, and the opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change through smarter coastal and oceanic policies and practices.

With a technical record extending back more than four decades, it is challenging to find anyone with a stronger pedigree. She has used her prestige to raise the importance of scientific communication amongst her colleagues. In the past, communicating science to the larger public was an afterthought. Dr. Lubchenco made it a critical measure of ones career. Most recently, she has issued a new call-to-arms for scientists to become more engaged with society to counter the post-truth mentality, enable citizens and leaders to have confidence in evidence and science and work together to solve climate and other urgent environmental changes.

None of these short biographies do the scientists justice, but hopefully they give a sense of how some of our top female scientists are contributing to our understanding of the world in which we live. I know they are making a sexist engineer formally employed at Google look a bit silly.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/oct/25/what-does-a-sexist-google-engineer-teach-us-about-women-in-science