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The “Glass Ceiling” Is Misleading

Question: Is there still a “glass ceiling?"

Alice Eagly:  The glass ceiling has been with us for awhile and is a very popular metaphor still, so you’ll read that in journalism in particular, but also in the social science literature the metaphor used. I think that it is not a good metaphor. We certainly still have prejudice against women in leadership roles in various ways, so... you could say well glass ceiling is a metaphor for prejudice. But if you look at it in a more precise or detailed way at that notion of a glass ceiling I think we can see how misleading it is. 

For one thing it suggests that the barriers are way up there in the hierarchy so that a woman would of course have a career in the same way as a man, but then she gets near the top.  She thinks she is going to become executive vice president or maybe CEO and then, whoops, she finds out she can’t.  She didn’t realize that before, according to this notion, but she hits her head on the glass ceiling.  So... that is profoundly misleading because the challenges that women face in having successful careers are not just at the top.  They are all the way along the career from step one through step two, step three, all the way through the career.  So the reason you have so few women at the top of some hierarchies—such as being a chief executive officer in the Fortune 500—is that there are few women at that level right before that, so women progressively drop out of the hierarchy.  It isn’t that the women are there in great numbers and then can’t get to that upper level.  It’s a progressive drop out that occurs for many different reasons, so it is a rather odd metaphor actually in terms of not capturing the phenomenon.

Question: Are women misled about their opportunities?

Alice Eagly: It isn’t anybody systematically misleading them, but there is the idea that there is no prejudice and that they have equal opportunity and they’ve lived a life through school and through college with equal opportunity... fairly much. So it seems that that’s true, but then they don’t look out and see, well, women are systematically doing as well in their careers as men, dropping out more, not rising nearly as fast. And so I think that is not that salient to many young women because they’re not in the career yet and then they may think "Well that's a different generation, we have equal opportunity." And then they enter the labyrinth. 

Ask those women 10 years later when their male colleagues very often have moved forward faster than they have or perhaps they’re at home raising children and may never get back to anything like a fast-track career and so then they have a very different set of ideas about it, through experience.  So the problem is to inform younger women in particular about the labyrinth so that they will approach it thoughtfully and not have regret later on—but yet not be discouraging... so it’s kind of discouraging to tell young women "No, we don’t have equal opportunity and let me tell you why." But the labyrinth idea is meant to be in that middle range that you have challenges that your young men colleagues don’t have, but it’s a labyrinth, not a glass ceiling, so maybe if you figure it out and are very thoughtful about it and learn about the contours of the labyrinth you will reach the goals that you have set for yourself in your life. 

Question: What kinds of women make it to the top?

Alice Eagly:  They’re usually very smart.  I think they have thought it through.  I mean there is accidental features of careers, of course, opportunities that happen to come to a person, but I think those women have been thoughtful about their careers. And they’ve made choices that were enabling in various ways. 

You know, one of the biggest challenges for women in terms of career is family of course.  That is the obvious and that comes often relatively young.  When you have all your training, you have your MBA or your law degree or your whatever and then you’re going out on the career just like your male colleagues and then for many women there are those decisions about marriage and childbearing, which can become, depending on how that is managed, can be quite disabling for the career, because they often involve moving off the fast track.  Either some women would drop out and then other women would want to go part-time, understandably, but then they’re off the fast track.

So you see women who are CEOs.  Occasionally they’ve dropped out and stayed home for a few years, but that is very rare.  Usually they either have not had children, or, if they do, they’ve just managed it in other ways.  Perhaps they have one of those husbands who shares equally or whatever or they’ve managed to...  Many women manage to have families and successful careers, but it’s much more challenging often for women than men because women ordinarily have more responsibility for childrearing.  So that is a challenge that comes very early. 

Perhaps many women don’t realize that in studies that have been done that’s you know not managing that well is very damaging to careers.  It’s hard after dropping out to get back to a successful career.  It shouldn’t be.  The on-ramp should be there, but often it’s not. And then the part-time work it should be good quality work, but that could result in promotion, but in fact, that is not the case.  Ordinarily it’s dumbed-down work compared to what you would have if you work a full-time career, and ordinarily there are limited, if any, promotion possibilities.  So you’re on that sidetrack.  Well maybe you can get back on again, but your male colleagues who didn’t do that are way ahead and there is this whole cohort of young eager men and women coming along too.  So it’s that that’s just one of the turns of the labyrinth is how the family responsibilities are managed by a couple.

Recorded on September 17, 2010

Interviewed by John Cookson

The idea that there is a persistent prejudice against women that keeps them from top roles in society is out of sync with reality.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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