Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why Aren't More Women in Science?

Marcia Linn (professor of Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Program, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley) reviews of the book Why Aren't More Women in Science? Top Researches Debate the Evidence in the July 13 issue of Science. The book includes 15 essays that primarily focus on women with PhDs or in doctoral programs. Beyond that, the essayists look at the issue of the gap between the participation of men and women in science from different perspectives.

Against this encouraging backdrop of women's increasing participation in science, the essayists focus on three main areas of scholarship. They largely agree that subtle beliefs about who can participate in science--held both by those who instruct and select participants and by those who decide whether to participate--affect participation and persistence. They offer disparate interpretations of well-documented findings about cognitive abilities that might contribute to success in science, as indicated by mathematics test scores and spatial reasoning scores. They discuss the emerging methodologies and findings about a wide range of biological indicators, including prenatal hormones, brain development, brain lateralization, evolutionary processes, and brain activation patterns measured while individuals engage in science-related tasks.
In some cases, very similar data is given disparate interpretations. Does the narrowing gap between SAT mathematics scores mean that there is actually very little difference between the mathematical abilities of men and women? or does the very existence of a gap show that men have innately superior ability at mathematics? The essays do not appear to have been selected to support any one position, so the compilation gives an overview of the range of opinions in the field.

The authors clearly weren't forced to mince words:
In the most dramatic statement, Doreen Kimura argues that giving special scholarships or grants exclusively to women "bribes them to enter fields they may neither excel in nor enjoy.
I'll admit I'm curious about the context of that statement. I'm finding it hard to imagine young women being effectively "bribed" to study physics or engineering. High school students that excel in science and mathematics in high school usually enjoy those subjects. In my personal experience as a bioscience major, most students who ended up majoring in the life sciences against their own desires were those under extreme parental pressure to attend medical school. It's harder for me to imagine similarly pressured students studying one of the physical sciences or engineering.

Anyway, Why Aren't More Women in Science? looks like an interesting overview of current opinion. As Linn sums it up:
Despite the disagreements among the contributors, they all concur that scientific talent is desperately needed to address the challenges facing us. They express in delightful, thoughtful, and encouraging ways their commitment to the goal of attracting able and interested individuals to science. At the same time, they endorse research on the full range of factors that might contribute to success in science. Why Aren't More Women in Science? raises important questions. The volume will stimulate all readers to think more deeply about their own beliefs, commitments, and activities as they consider participation in science and how we can ensure that all individuals have the opportunities they deserve.

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Anonymous said...

Hi! I just finished reading this book, and I think you'll find it very interesting. The essay by Kimura will infuriate you, as will several others, but at least you'll get a clear sense of the position of the biological essentialists and the data they are using to bolster their positions (it's quite weak and easy to dismantle, in my opinion). And there are other essays that are quite good in terms of recognizing that there may be gender differences in cognition, but that these are highly unlikely to account for the huge gender disparity that exists in most sciences. The conclusion by the editors is, for the most part, fair, although not quite as satisfying as I had hoped. There is one essay in particular that I want to make sure I give to the tenure and promotion committee at my school!