Men, women, science

What causes the gender gap in science and engineering? It’s gender bias and institutional sexism, says a new National Academies’ report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.”

Cathy Young has doubts, observing that the panel was made up of women who believe sexism is the problem for women in science; dissenters weren’t included.

Motherhood is correlated with slower advancement.

(The report) cites a study that “found single women scientists and engineers [were] 16 percent more likely than single men to be in tenure track jobs five years after the PhD, while married women with children were 45 percent less likely than married men with children to be in tenure track positions.”

Yet these facts are treated as a result of discrimination against people with family responsibilities and of the outmoded assumption that a scientist has a spouse to take care of such matters. Proposed remedies include more family-friendly policies. But what if single-minded devotion to work really is essential to outstanding success in science?

Combining books and babies isn’t easy, say Stanford graduate students.

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Comments

  1. Richard Nieporent says:

    In the Peanuts comic strip Lucy told Charlie Brown that women were smarter than men. How did she know? It was proven by women scientists. Well now we have life imitating the comics when a group a women scientists “prove” that the reason women don’t do as well as men in science is because of prejudice against women. Some of their key findings include:

    Although there are physical differences between men’s brains and women’s brains (taken as groups) there is no convincing explanation available as to why these physical differences should cause different cognitive functioning.

    Women do relatively poorly in top-top end science and engineering. Women do relatively poorly on standardized tests for math. Women do well in top-end education overall. Therefore, the tests must be poor predictors of academic success, and the differential performance in science and engineering can’t be explained by what they measure.

    When they know a priori that women must be (al least) equal to men then the fact that men’s and women’s brains are different and the fact that women do worse than men in math on standardized tests couldn’t possibly have anything to do with men doing better than women in science. In other words they dismiss all empirical evidence that disagrees with their preconceived beliefs. This report uses the same logic that is used by “creation scientists” to disprove the theory of evolution. They know the answer ahead of time and their “research” finds results to agree with their preconceived notions.

  2. What would happen if an all-male panel of sociologists and psychologists studied why there are so many more men than women in prison, ignored all evidence of biological differences, and concluded that it’s the result of systematic discrimination against boys in the public schools and against men in the court system?

  3. silvermine says:

    I quit grad school because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my family. Period. That’s it. I wasn’t discriminated against (my class of 8 was half male half female). Well, okay, maybe they discriminated against the biologist in a sea of physicists, but I could have stayed. 😛

    When it comes down to it, women are more likely to quit and take care of the house/husband/kids/family. Even if you *can* have a family and be a scientist, I think a lot of women will feel they’re being pulled in half and they’ll sacrifice science to keep their family together.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, I have a less demanding job that won’t require me to stay in the lab until 3 am so I can finish my protein purification. Maybe one day, I’ll go back to science, when it can exist alongside my family without either home or job suffering.

  4. What’s new about a politically motivated group ignoring research to come up with a conclusion?

  5. The article discussed the closing SAT math score gap. SAT math test is not a test of advanced math ability. There is not a single moderately different math problem in the SAT. A better test is the AMC series of tests which are used to identify the best math students. In the AMC12 test, average male score is about 9% higher. The top scorers can move on to take AIME test, male qualifiers outnumber female one by more than 3 to 1. The average male AIME score is more than 20% better, and out of those who can score 11 or more out of 15, only 2% are female. The top AIME scorers then move on to the USAMO, and out of the 12 winners every year, usually only 1 is female. It is very clear that as we move up the difficulty ladder in mathematics, the smaller is the percentage of female students who can made it. It does not mean that female cannot do difficult mathematic, every year on the average one female student makes the top 12, which means that she is very very good. However it is more likely more male students are the best in math. There is why more women scientists are in biological sciences and less in physical sciences which usually require more advanced mathematic. Go with your strength and avoid your weakness is a smart move, and not a surrender to an oppressive bias.

  6. I’ll not comment on the correctness of the report or not. However, I will guarantee that as soon as “authorities” acknowledge that there is a biological reason that among the highest performing levels, there are more men than women in math and physics, it will become *much* harder for those women (few or not) to continue in the field.

    Even if you believe that equality of ability is a myth, that myth is what stops a large number of people from publicly pushing “women can’t do science” and “why are we wasting money teaching girls science?” now feeling that the weight of science is behind them.

    Misinterpretation? Of course. But is there anyone who thinks that isn’t how the first sentence will be widely interpreted.

    There are some beliefs, mythic or otherwise, that are useful for producing a just society.

  7. Richard Nieporent says:

    Tom, in the history of the Nobel Prize, only four people have received two Nobel Prizes. One of these was Marie Curie. I believe that is empirical evidence that women can do science.

    There are some beliefs, mythic or otherwise, that are useful for producing a just society.

    What does the number of women scientists have to do with a just society?

  8. In life, there are trade-offs. You cannot have everything and have it to completeness.

    I am a woman in the sciences. I do not have a family. Do I regret that fact? Sometimes.

    I’m not a top-tier scientist, either – I teach at a small, teaching-oriented school. I’m doing well if I publish a paper – in any journal, not just “national” journals – every year.

    But I also have a rich life outside of “work.” I have hobbies. I read widely. I travel. I go to concerts. I do volunteer work. If I wanted to be a “top tier” scientist, I believe I would have to give much or all of that up in return for more hours in the lab or the field.

    Sometimes I feel bad and I feel like a failure because I’m neither producing “new citizens” (i.e., having and properly raising children), nor am I doing research that’s getting me into Science or Nature. I don’t see this as society failing me; I see this as my having insufficient drive or insufficient desire to run with the “big dogs.”

    but then I go home and crack open a novel and forget why I felt bad about not being a top-tier scientist.

    I think the reason more men are top-tier scientists is fairly simple: until very recently, in our society, women expected (and were expected to) be the caretakers of the home. So if a man had a “good wife,” he could go off to the lab and spend many hours there and know that his shirts were getting washed and his dinner was getting cooked. Had we lived in a differently structured society, I don’t doubt that the research would be asking, “Why are “all” the scientists women?”

    I don’t necessarily see this as a problem, however…SOMEONE needs to see to the fact that the children don’t grow up feral. I think the real problem is that there are those among the feminists who devalue ANYTHING that is not the hard-driving, “showing the boys how it’s done” type of science that very few PEOPLE, let alone women, have the focus and desire to do.

    most of us in the sciences, I dare say, would prefer a saner life, where we actually get to have lives outside the lab.

  9. I believe that is empirical evidence that women can do science.

    It appears you have missed my point. What I am saying is that the statement:

    There is a biological reason that among the highest performing levels, there are more men than women in math and physics.

    will be widely interpreted as

    women can’t do science

    Of course they’re not the same thing at all, but I’ll guarantee that’s how it will be widely understood, and that misunderstanding will have consequences for those women who do have aptitude and enthusiasm for the field.

    What does the number of women scientists have to do with a just society?

    The ‘justice’ I was talking about was not the number of women in science, but the opportunity of women of ability and interest to pursue the hard sciences.

    As a Teaching Assistant 20 years ago, I saw two hyper-capable women abandon careers in hard sciences for very successful careers elsewhere largely because an amazing number of men could not accept that the fact that they were truly capable. It was the “women can’t do science” belief in their professors and their peers. (I so badly wanted to point out to some of the students that the “air-head” (i.e. she was friendly) had consistently blown their test scores out of the water, but confidentiality prevented me.)

    One I talked with later pointed out that the physics she was interested in was collaborative, and if she wasn’t going to be taken seriously, she’d better switch fields.

    Both big losses (if not to themselves, to the fields they abandoned).

    Anyway, that belief in equality of ability is what keeps the situation from being even worse than it is.

  10. Tom West wrote:

    Of course they’re not the same thing at all, but I’ll guarantee that’s how it will be widely understood, and that misunderstanding will have consequences for those women who do have aptitude and enthusiasm for the field.

    However, the remedy that’s been prescribed over the past couple of decades does nothing to address the misunderstanding preferring instead criminalize the results of that misunderstanding without, it should be noted, proving that the bias existed or continues to exist. Thus the seamless shift from “opening up opportunities” to “redressing past wrongs”.

    The ‘justice’ I was talking about was not the number of women in science, but the opportunity of women of ability and interest to pursue the hard sciences.

    Then your standard of evidence is rather low since there’s none presented to prove the injustice. Simply pointing out a gender disparity as proof of some injustice may have worked as a political measure but as matter of justice it’s undefensible. The, or any, injustice springs from providing, under law, advantage to a group due only to group membership.

    If the the law doesn’t support and enforce the non-functional distinction then the choice to make the distinction is made by individuals and the outcome falls on that individual. A little known fact of the Montgomery bus boycott was that the law broken by Rosa Parks was passed over the objections of the management of the bus company. The people who forced the non-functional distinction of race on the bus company were comforted by the knowledge that they couldn’t suffer from the results of their decision.

    If justice is what you seek you’ll never find it if it requires a thumb on the scales.

  11. “Of course they’re not the same thing at all, but I’ll guarantee that’s how it will be widely understood, and that misunderstanding will have consequences for those women who do have aptitude and enthusiasm for the field.”

    A common logical fallacy, arguing from consequences, but a fallacy nonetheless. It doesn’t make any difference what some might think; the research is the research, and the conclusions are the conslusions.

    In this day of utter irresponsibility and playing victim will some use this as an excuse for not going into math or science? Undoubtedly. But that’s not an argument for perpetuating a fiction.

  12. Tom West–“I so badly wanted to point out to some of the students that the “air-head” (i.e. she was friendly) had consistently blown their test scores out of the water”…her social skills were evidently superior to theirs; hence, it was psychologically difficult for them to admit that she was *also* their equal or superior in scientific matters.

    This is the flip side of the journalist who refers to scientists/engineers as geeks or nerds because of his own lack of ability to comprehend anything scientific–hence, he must assume that he is their superior in some other way, ie, with-it-ness.

    If it’s really true that women are on the average better at men than social skills, then this may be threatening to some male academics.

  13. Wayne Martin says:

    I started life as a geologist at a time when the digital computer was still programmed with cards, and the only telecommunications interfaces ran at 10 cps. Field geology often meant spending 4-6 months (or more) in the field. Some jobs were available with petroleum companies, and some with State/Federal geologic survey operations. One of my friends ended up working for the Canadian Geologic Survey, with postings in the Canadian outback (where his only friends were Jack Daniels and very large Canadian black flies) and eventually a posting in the Artic. Another friend spent years wandering around the jungles of South America and Asia looking for impact craters (pretty much by himself).

    While a lot of science goes on in nice, well managed laboratories, a lot doesn’t. It’s understandable why many women chose other fields that do not make such harsh demands on them and their lives.

  14. “Misinterpretation? Of course. But is there anyone who thinks that isn’t how the first sentence will be widely interpreted.”

    Anyone who makes that misinterpretation has proven that they are too incompetent at math and statistics to do science. If that accurately describes laboratory heads or department heads at universities, then there’s a problem there…

  15. Richard Nieporent says:

    Tom, I have not missed your point, I just don’t agree with it. If mere perception that women can’t succeed in a profession were that significant, then you wouldn’t have any women firefighters or policewomen. I always marvel at how academia on one hand purports to be so liberal and on the other hand these same academics are accused of being contemptuous of women’s ability. So which is it? Are academics paragons of liberal virtue or bigots who believe that women have no place in science?

    I find your anecdotal story to be somewhat suspect. You certainly didn’t believe that women can’t do science. Didn’t you encourage these women to continue? Are you saying that the professors you worked for openly made disparaging remarks to these women? As someone who got a Ph.D. in physics many years ago, I can tell you that this supposed open hostility towards women did not exist. I even took classes from women Professors. Wouldn’t the presence of these professors indicate that at least some women can succeed? All I can say is that anyone who would abandon a career in physics because of what a fellow student supposedly said to her was not really interested in physics in the first place. You comment that she dropped out of physics because the physics she was interested in was collaborative does not ring true. All types of physics require collaboration. Long gone are the days when you can sit it a patent office and do physics by yourself.

  16. edgeworthy says:

    As others have pointed out elsewhere, if bias against women in the sciences were the primary reason for their underrepresentation, they should do worse in areas requiring funding, teamwork, and labs and better in areas where brilliant outsiders can shine. But this is the opposite of reality.

    Women do better in bio/medical areas which are lab/money hungry than in math-heavy subjects such as theoretical physics. In pure math, it is possible for lone geniuses to succeed even in the most underfunded, undeveloped countries. Yet there are few women at the very top of the math hierarchy. Women usually underperform relative to men in all countries at the International Math Olympiads. No woman has ever won a Fields medal. I doubt that any country could have a non-disciminatory policy which would produce prize winning math teams in the IMO that were consistently at least a third women in the next few decades.

  17. Nearly all of the studies done in this area have been severely flawed — not doubt partly due to the interest in finding a particular result. One of the very few that hasn’t been flawed was the Project Talent study done in 1960, which found that the difference between men and women in math ability is in the variance, that is, there are more men in either tail of the distribution (math morons and math aces) than there are women, even though the means for the two groups are nearly identical.

    Here is an overview of Project Talent.