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Insidious imprecision

November 13, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 46

As a woman in chemistry, I applaud C&EN's continued efforts to educate our community about gender issues in the sciences. This magazine is dedicated to positive change, and I am sure I join many in objecting to Phyllis Schlafly's letter (C&EN, Aug. 14, page 6). Schlafly's diatribe will undoubtedly be rebutted by other voices. To me, the letter raised questions about how we discuss gender in the scientific community. C&EN's recent summary of a relevant Science article highlights these questions (Aug. 7, page 46).

The title, "Gender Affects Patenting Behavior," clearly mistakes correlation for causation. A better title would have been, "Female Scientists Submit Fewer Patents." While the original wording posits a hypothesis that can never be tested, the revised version simply states a fact. As scientists, we are accustomed to using language with precision, and many of us are irritated by careless phrasing. In the politically charged discourse about gender, however, such lapses can be insidious. Misplaced causal reasoning was used to justify discrimination in the past; the use of such reasoning today fosters confusion and discord within the community.

The concluding sentence, which reads, "The gender gap in patenting behavior is shrinking, with younger female faculty behaving more like their male colleagues," is also problematic. Should C&EN strike a tone that encourages young female faculty members to mimic their male counterparts? This sentence closely mirrors a concluding sentence in the Science article, but again, a slight difference in wording alters the message.

These points are subtle. The missteps in C&EN's useful reporting were no doubt unintentional; however, the words we use reveal our unspoken preconceptions about the origins of, and remedies for, the gender gap. To change the culture we must question our assumptions.

Jennifer Krumper
Pocatello, Idaho



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