19 March 2020

Women in the past and now

Women in the past and now

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician ought to be recognised as one of the most important persons who has done more for women and women’s health. But you’ll be excused if you don’t know anything about him. Basically, Semmelweis* saw the connection between the washing of hands after handling cadavers and then moving on to handle female patients in the Obstetrical clinic: the main cause of childbed fever. Unfortunately, his initial work was rejected by his peers to the extent of ridiculing him and some even argue murdering him. It wasn’t until some twenty years after his death that the profession saw the value of Semmelweis’s efforts when Louis Pasteur presented his germ theory of disease. Semmelweis is know as the "saviour of mothers" since his observations saved a lot of women.

The historical context of Semmelweis, discoveries show how progress is not always a straightforward affair. Indeed a key problem with the profession at the time was to reject the “empirical” evidence with established prejudice, for example the idea of doctors being responsible for the childbed fever. Of course, they were but not because they were doctors but because they did not take precaution when handling corpses. And only doctors handled corpses.

The underlying problem with the Semmelweis story is not that his peers were prejudiced against women or that Semmelweis saw childbed fever as a discrimination against women. But rather the empirical fact of having a high mortality rate during childbirth was a condition of being a woman giving childbirth.

In effect what have not changed over time are our prejudices and assumptions. It is however, important to distinguish discrimination from prejudice: prejudice is an epistemic problem whereas discrimination is an intentional act to disadvantage people.

I would argue that the debate about the earning gap between women and men is one of discrimination some would even say exploitation. This would imply that the problem is a political one, if not a legal problem. Of course, financial discrimination is not only limited to gender to disfavour women but affects males and females. People are discriminated throughout the world and people take advantage of others on a daily basis. So identifying the real motives as opposed to succumbing to some misguided prejudice is key to teasing out the philosophical issue.

In 2017 it was reported** by AAMC that for the first time more women enrolled in medical schools than men. However, Junming Huang et al published a paper in 2020 “Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines”** refer to what they call the ““productivity puzzle”. The authors studied the publishing results of male and female scientists. The productivity puzzle is that although both genders publish the same amount of papers, women tend to have different publishing careers and might even drop out.

This paper seems to have two key shortcomings: it covered 83 countries and did not account for cultural differences. An attempt to explain the productivity puzzle by men staying longer in their career or some other reason such as earnings is somewhat flawed.

The scientific method does not depend on how much money a person earns for it be accepted as good science. Secondly the problem of applying mathematical analysis to data to answer social hypothesis is that there are too many factors influencing a decision why a journal publishes a paper or not. For example, is there a language bias against some authors given that most High Impact journals are published in English speaking countries.

I am inclined to believe and argue that the problem is linked to money. But not to the earnings of the scientist; better income is always an incentive to work harder, but  the scope is very limited. Crappy wages do not necessarily make crappy science.

I would argue that this discrimination is based on limited access to funding to carry out the science in the first place. Junming Huang et al do identify such key factors as, academic rank, and indeed resource allocation. In effect by simply looking at income disparity rather than the career discrimination we have shifted the problem to somewhere else.

Of course, the more we become a knowledge bases society, the less the disparity between males and females.

Best Lawrence

*Ignaz Semmelweis

**More Women Than Men Enrolled in U.S. Medical Schools in 2017

***Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines

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