Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Outliers

First, I want to give a brief shout-out to those who attended the DPS Women's Lunch at last week's DPS Meeting in Pasadena! I found it to be a great opportunity to network and share ways to support fellow women astronomers. Susan Niebur has a nice recap of some meeting highlights at the Women in Planetary Science Blog.


I recently read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of the book is basically that those we consider geniuses didn't really get there strictly on talent alone. Rather, luck, opportunity, and hard work play as much, if not a larger role than any innate ability.

An example of luck might be being born just after the cutoff date for youth sports teams: Gladwell demonstrates that NHL players' birthdays are heavily biased toward the beginning of the year for precisely this reason. Opportunity is like Bill Gates' middle school PTA buying a computer. Hard work is summed up in Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, which says that it takes that many hours of practice to become and expert at something.

It isn't too far a stretch to apply the same ideas to the question of women and minorities in science. If factors such as luck, opportunity, and hard work play such a large role in creating geniuses, then unluckiness, misguidance, and discouragement clearly play a role in preventing people from achieving as well.

Let us consider the case of a hypothetical Jane, who is quite bright, but whose parents never even consider that she might use a computer, who is encouraged to follow her proclivities in writing rather than science, who pays a high social cost for devoting herself to her studies, and who experiences hostility from her male peers for beating them at what they consider their own game. Her brother John, who is equally bright, might be presented with different opportunities and encouragement. Would it then be any wonder that Jane might be directed toward becoming an English major while John studies math and science?

All this supports arguments that expanding opportunities for minorities and women and encouraging them to pursue math and science are effective ways to increase their representation. The question, really, is how to put that into practice.