Archive for: April, 2011

Ant Talk

Apr 19 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Ant on a mustard flowerWhen a wood thrush flew by the Trailhead mound carrying a grasshopper to her own nest and dropped part of the crushed insect to the ground, a patrolling worker found it in less than a minute and triggered a chain action. The worker examined the grasshopper, tasted it briefly, then ran back to the nest entrance. On the way, she touched the tip of her abdomen repeatedly to the ground, laying down a thin trail of chemicals. Entering the nest, she rushed up to each nest mate she passed, brushing her face close to theirs. With their antennae, her nest mates detected both the trail substance and the smell of grasshopper. The signals now proclaimed, Food. I have found food. Follow my trail! Soon a mob of ants ran out, followed the trail, and gathered around the delicious grasshopper haunch.
~ From E.O. Wilson's "Trailhead"

When I think of ants it's with a mixture of fascination and loathing.

Loathing because of the seemingly constant battle required to keep them from taking up residence in my kitchen. It's not just the unpleasantness of having to remove all the contents of my cabinets to figure out how the ants are getting in.  It's the lingering sensation after handling ant-covered bowls and plates or wiping down ant-strewn counters that the little buggers are still crawling on me.  Intellectually I know it's unlikely they can cause any real harm, but just thinking about it gives me the creepy-crawlies.

But out in the wild - or at least my back yard - ants are really interesting to watch, especially when scouts lead their colony-mates to a food source or mobilize when their colony is in danger. Clearly while not particularly clever as individuals, communication between colony members allows them to function effectively as a group.

Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson is one of the world's leading experts on ants. Here he explains at World Science Festival how ants use chemical signals communicate:

The quote at the beginning of this post is from E.O. Wilson's history of an ant colony - "Trailhead" - published in the New Yorker. Wilson's anthropomorphic descriptions of ant communication work pretty well as fiction, but he may be oversimplifying what happens in an ant colony.

For more detailed look on the complexities of how an ant colony functions check out Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon's TED talk about her research on harvester ant colonies in the Arizona desert:

(note: you can view the video with captions on the TED talk page)

The "haphazard" interactions she's observed sound a lot messier as a form of communication than the chemical "statements" described by Wilson.

Why does that matter? Figuring out the details of how ants are directed to perform specific tasks could be used to develop ways of naturally controlling invasive ant populations or preventing home invasions with some sort of "Danger, keep out!" signal. That's a result I'd like to see.

Top Image: ant on a mustard flower by me

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Equal Pay Day: Why don't women just ask for more?

Apr 12 2011 Published by under Miscellany

Today is Equal Pay Day. It's not a celebration like Mother's Day or Independence Day or Labor Day, at least for half the US population.  Instead April 12th symbolizes how far into 2011 women must work to earn what men earned in 2010 - it's not an exact date because the 2010 earnings data has not yet been released.

If you take a look at the US labor statistics for 2009 the difference between the median full-time weekly earnings of women and men are striking: women earned $687 per week while men earned $873 per week. There's a disparity no matter what level of education the employee attained: women with only a high school diploma earned 75.7% of what men earned ($542 vs $716), while earnings of women with a doctoral degree was only 70.9% that of their male counterparts  ($1243 vs $1754). (fcs has the numbers in pretty graph form)

The reasons for wage disparity are complicated. Part of it has to do with many traditionally male-dominated professions paying better than female-dominated professions.  Part of it has to do with some women taking time off from their careers to have children or "choosing" to spend their time doing housework or childcare rather than spending long hours in the lab or office. But that's not the whole story.

Just last week an article in Inside Higher Ed reported a study that showed that all things being equal (other than gender), women faculty members still get paid less than their male colleagues. The bottom line, according to the article:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

That difference is smaller than the overall wage gap, but still significant, especially considered over the course of a career.

It's not just a problem in academia. WhizBANG! has posted about a study that showed similar results for starting salaries of newly trained physicians.

And as an AAUW report  - "Behind the Pay Gap" (pdf) - points out, there's even a pay gap in professions dominated by women.  It's just smaller.  Women in education earn 95% as much as men, woo hoo!  Their conclusion:

Women and men who received bachelor’s degrees in 1999–2000 attended similar kinds of colleges. Women earned slightly higher grades, on average, and in other respects appear to be men’s equals in the classroom. Most women entered full-time employment following graduation. One year later, women earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn—about the same as the pay gap for the workforce as a whole. Gender segregation in undergraduate majorsand the subsequent segregation of the work force partly explain the pay gap. Yet the pay gap within fields of study and occupations suggests that the answer is not so simple. Indeed, after accounting for all factors known to affect wages, about one-quarter of the gap remains unexplained and may be attributed to discrimination.

So why the difference?

Sexism and discrimination? Almost certainly part of the problem, even if people aren't conscious of their biases.

Women don't negotiate better salaries for themselves? Also true.

There's not a lot that women can do about sexist employers, especially if their biases aren't overtly expressed.  But salary negotiations are under our control, right?  As the helpful mainsplainers who usually pop into these discussions usually point out: if women want better pay, why don't they just ask for more?

It's not necessarily that simple.

For one thing, a  number of studies have shown that women expect lower pay then men. A recently published study by Melissa Williams of the Stanford School of Business and her colleagues suggest that this may be due at least in part to unconscious biases. They had participants in the study estimate the salaries of men or women in the same profession. Women were consistently estimated to be paid less. Their conclusion:

First, we suggest that the salary estimation effect is not primarily driven by an awareness of the societal phenomenon of the gender gap in wages. Second,we suggest that the operative factor driving the salary estimation effect is a generalized stereotype linking men (more than women) with wealth. Social role theory would hold that this stereotype emerged from repeated observations of men occupying breadwinning roles, holding the highest-earning occupations, and managing household income at a greater frequency than women. Third, we argue that this male wealth stereotype can operate outside of awareness, guiding salary estimates and thus increasing the likelihood that the stereotype can perpetuate real gender salary differences even among the well intentioned.

But even when women do figure out what their work should be worth, the negotiation itself can be a stumbling block.

It's not just that women often aren't trained to assertively negotiate on their own behalf. It's that women who do so  may actually be penalized, particularly if the other negotiator is male.  As one recent study observed:

Men were significantly more inclined to work with nicer and less demanding women who accepted their compensation offers without comment than they were with those who attempted to negotiate for higher compensation, even though they perceived women who spoke up to be just as competent as women who demurred.

So that's the double bind for women:  if you don't ask for a higher salary, you likely won't receive one, but if you do, you may not be hired or promoted.

I doubt there is a simple solution.

But I hope discussion of the gender pay gap isn't pushed aside by Congress as simply a "women's issue".  It's always a bit mind-boggling that issues affecting half the population are treated as unimportant or unreasonable. And I hope the family values folks keep in mind that that the pay gap doesn't just affect the half of the population who are women, but any household where a woman's income contributes to household income. The husband is the sole breadwinner in only 18% of married couple families in the U.S. The pay gap is a family issue as well as a fairness issue.

Tell your Senators you support the Paycheck Fairness Act.  It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.


Dey J.G. & Hill C. "Behind the Pay Gap" AAUW Educational Foundation (2007)

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook (2010 Edition)

Williams, M. J., Paluck, E. L., & Spencer-Rodgers, J. "The masculinity of money: Nonconscious stereotypes predict gender differences in estimated salaries." Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 107-120. (2010)

Bowles H.R., Babcock L. & Lai L. "Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103:84-103 (2007)

Kolb D.M., "Too Bad for the Women or Does  It Have to Be? Gender and Negotiation Research over the Past Twenty-Five Years" Negotiation Journal (2009)

Related Scientopia Posts:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day (gerty-z @ Balanced Instability)
Equal Pay Day! (proflikesubstance @ The Spandrel Shop)
$16,819 for a Penis (Whiz BANG!)
Penis Parity Day (grrlscientist @ This Scientific Life)
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day (FCS @ The Difference Engine)
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL (Dr. Becca @ Fumbling Towards Tenure)
Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union
(Janet Stemwedel @ Adventures in Ethics and Science)

Image borrowed from feminist blogs in english.

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We're Not Evolved for Typing Email

Apr 01 2011 Published by under Humor

Our bodies did not evolve to sit at a desk on a rigid position all day. Our fingers are not designed to move independently. We are graspers, we are killers, our bodies evolved to do particular things.

More about Gmail Motion.

(I totally want this for real - I could use some increased physical activity as I email)

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