Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Is the gender gap in academic science because women are dumb, or simply lack ambition?

If you read one or more liberal blogs (or subscribe to the Washington Post), you will be familiar with Charlotte Allen's recent column that points out how silly, dumb and generally inferior to men women are. Of course she included the "fact" that the reason why women are underrepresented in science and engineering is because of our inherent inferiority.

I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills, two areas where, researchers agree, women consistently outpace men.[ . . .]

The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons. Yes, they can do their jobs and do them well, and I don't think anyone should put obstacles in their paths. I predict that over the long run, however, even with all the special mentoring and role-modeling the 21st century can provide, the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason.

It's all written in a cutesy style that allowed the Washington Post editor John Pomfret to claim that it was just a joke, written "tongue in cheek". Tongue-in-cheek humor only works if your audience knows you don't seriously believe what you've written. There is the possibility that Allen is just a poor writer. So, is that the case?

The Post hosted a live Q&A session with Allen this afternoon, and she clarified her position:

Washington: When I read this, I immediately thought it was written ironically. Were you surprised that so many people took it literally?

Charlotte Allen: I wouldn't quite use the word "ironic," but yes, I meant to be funny but with a serious point--that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don't act serious. Also, that women and men really are different.

And specifically on the point about women in traditionally male careers:

Washington: You write that you doubt women's representation in such fields as law (the Supreme Court) and medicine (brain surgeons) will rise much in the 21st century. However more women than men currently are graduating from law school and medical school. Could you please comment on this apparent contradiction?

Charlotte Allen: That's absolutely true, but the proportion of women at the highest levels of these fields is going to remain relatively small, I predict.

Could that be due to sexism instead of women's inferiority?

West Lafayette, Ind.: Your idea of fun is to paint a (horribly inaccurate) picture of your sex as stupid?

Charlotte Allen: How about an accurate picture?

And women must be inferior, because there is no discrimination, no sir. It's just the opposite!
Charlotte Allen: I don't think that women are at all discouraged these days from careers in math and science, gently and subtly or otherwise. In fact, schools and colleges these days bend over backwards to urge girls and women to take science courses, major in science, etc.
So no, the column wasn't at all tongue-in-cheek or a joke. It's easy to chuckle and suggest that Ms. Allen should only speak for herself. However, I think that in allowing Allen's column to run without comment or clarification, the Washington Post is just helping reinforce the idea that there is a level playing field for men and women in the sciences, and that the reason for the gender gap in scientific fields because women aren't interested or can't hack it intellectually, rather than because of problems within the system and inherent sexist biases.

Allen's column got lots of attention, but she isn't alone. Christina Hoff Sommers suggests in the latest issue of The American that the reason for gender differences is that women just aren't interested. She attacks both the National Academy of Science report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, and and Wenneras and Wold's study that showed gender bias in peer review, and comes to the conclusion that trying to eliminate gender inequity is an anti-intellectual conspiracy that is actually dangerous to the American way of life:

The power and glory of science and engineer­ing is that they are, adamantly, evidence-based. But the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious. When the bastions of science pay obsequious attention to the flimsy and turn a blind eye to the serious, it is hard to maintain the view that the science enterprise is somehow immune to the enthu­siasms that have corrupted other, supposedly “softer” academic fields.

[. . .]

American scientific excellence is a precious national resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation’s health and safety. Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and Burton Richter, Nobel laureate in physics, once pointed out that MIT alone—its faculty, alumni, and staff—started more than 5,000 companies in the past 50 years. Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results? So far, no one in Congress has even thought to ask.

She makes it sound so scary. Apparently cooperatively could be the death knell of American innovation, or something*. However, as pointed out by Reality-Based Community blogger Jonathan Kulik, the numbers of women getting PhDs in scientific fields and engineering has been steadily increasing since the early 1970s, as shown in this graph from the NAS study.
I find it highly unlikely that women receiving PhDs in physics or mathematics or biology were either coerced into studying a subject they weren't interested in, or were admitted to their programs with weak credentials under the guise of filling a gender quota. According to that graph, the percentage of women receiving PhDs in the biological sciences in the mid-1960s was about 12%, and that has increased to about 45% today. Maybe 40 years from now (hopefully sooner), women will be similarly represented in physics and engineering.

Are the organizations and activists currently pushing for a more equitable system simply trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist? I personally don't think so. Programs that encourage girls to pursue engineering or chemistry or physics act as a counterbalance to social pressures telling them that they can't or shouldn't enter those fields. No one is forcing girls to become scientists.

I also think that changing the way science departments are run to allow more flexible hours and time for child care, or other non-work matters are good for both women and men. Fewer and fewer male scientists have the luxury of a full-time homemaking wife or the money for a housekeeper, nanny and cook, and, in what might come as a surprise to Ms. Sommers, many men want to spend time with their families too.

It's no coincidence that Christina Hoff Sommers is the National Advisory Board Chairman of the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), and Charlotte Allen is one of their frequent contributors. Like Sommers, Allen has also written about the terrible feminists who are trying to artificially increase the representation of women in science (see "Maneaters: Women who make the world worse (and the men who do what they say) got the best of Larry Summers"). The IWF's policy stance is anti-feminist, anti-Title IX, and seems to fight very hard for the maintenance of the status-quo gender-wise. Based on their philosophy of "personal responsibility" they argue that the "gender gap" in wages is due to women preferring flexible work schedules and shorter working hours, and, since women clearly aren't setting money as their highest priority, that's not a problem (and traditional marriage is the solution to any worries about financial insecurity, anyway). In their world, there are no biases against women, and, in fact, the feminists have created a system that actually discriminates against boys.

Of the two opinion pieces, I actually find Allen's to be the most troubling, even though it is less targeted at women in science, since the Washington Post gave her such a prominent stage to showcase her opinions. Is it such a strange notion that telling girls that they just aren't biologically capable of doing well at mathematics or science actually has a negative influence on girls' perceived interest in those subjects? After all, if the common wisdom (it was in the Post!) is that girls don't like science, liking science is a sure sign that one is not "a real girl" (not to mention the effect of stereotype threat on achievement). The "women can't do science" stereotype likely also affects the perceptions of both men and women as to the competence and qualifications of women scientists and engineers. I think it's unfortunate that the Washington Post decided to publish Allen's column. It certainly doesn't make me interested in reading the rest of their paper.

(Jenn at Fairer Science has also posted about Allen's column.)

* Perhaps Sommers should be more concerned about the influx of foreign PhD students and postdocs who are depressing wages for native-born PhDs because of their apparent willingness to work for lower wages.

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Brian said...

Wow Peg, those stories are pretty scary. It seems hard to believe that a women would write a story about how dumb women are compared to men. That's insane.

As for reason to be a scientist, I would hope most would do it for noble reasons and not how to make a profit. Thats how we get new pills we don't need with slick TV advertising I would think.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. I'm glad someone was able to get past their fuming (unlike me) and write a good analysis.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent piece, Peggy. I made some observations regarding the situation in Asia a few days ago, but you have written such a good analysis out of it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting, although not completely shocking, that your piece didn't respond to a single one of the substantive points in Sommers's article, preferring instead to attack her most general, broad conclusions without acknowledging any of the evidence she presented in support of them.

Anonymous said...

Years ago I was a substitute elementary education teacher in northern RI. I would say that at most schools I went to 10 to 20 percent of the staff was male. On more than one occasion, when I walked into the classroom I heard gasps, and then things like, "A man! The substitute teacher is a man!" The reaction was due to the fact that the kids weren't used to male teachers. Since then I've often wondered how I'd be received if I tried to start a class action suit against the school districts for not hiring more male elementary education teachers. But I know in my head as well as my heart that as a rule men who want to teach do not want to teach little boys and girls. Does that make me a traitor to my sex for pointing out the obvious? And I kid you not about my numbers, and I'm willing to bet a year's salary that it's the same all over the US. Mind you, my wife has two education degrees, one in elementary ed, the other in special ed. My sister is an elementary ed teacher, as is my sister-in-law and her daughter (my neice). The all have master's level degrees or higher. And they all tell me that their schools are the same way. So tell me, should I re-consider a law suit or other action of some kind? Is there some systematic pushback against men in elementary academia that the government needs to stop?

Peggy K said...

Benjamin: the main reason why I didn't go into detail refuting Sommers essay was that this post was primarily about Allen's column. But here are a couple of points: Sommers claims that "feminists" are cherry-picking data to support the contention that there is a bias against women in science in engineering, then goes on to cherry-pick data to support her thesis. The claims of Pinker and Baron-Cohen about the differences in male and female brains are by no means universally accepted within the scientific establishment. The National Academies Report ("Beyond Bias") goes into great detail about the issues - with lots of citations in peer-reviewed journals. Sommer's main problem with the report seems to be the involvement of Donna Shalala (maybe because she was the head of HHS under Clinton? It's not clear). Read the report - it's free and I've linked to it. Finally, Sommers quotes women in the sciences who haven't noticed any bias. That ignores the numerous women who have experienced bias in their own studies and careers. Since in real life no one is suggesting that women should be forced to go into science or engineering as a career, and no one is suggesting that women with less stellar credentials should be given a pass, we get to what is seemingly Sommers' greatest concern: that changing the culture of academic science to be more "woman friendly" would be detrimental to American scientific productivity. Going past the issue of equating forming of companies with scientific achievement, which I think is arguable, she doesn't cite any evidence that shows that a culture that is hostile to anyone who wants to spend time with their families is actually the optimal one.

Peggy K said...

Brian #2: I don't really know much about how elementary school positions are filled. If you have been discriminated against because you are a man, you may have a legal case. I suspect that some women may be hostile to men claiming discrimination in elementary school hiring simply because historically many women went into teaching because other professions were closed to them. The important thing to note is that the movement to improve the representation of women in science doesn't involve suing academic departments to let women in, but are focused on letting girls and young women know that science and engineering are viable career choices (ones that don't make them any less feminine), highlighting studies that show that the common stereotypes aren't based in solid science, and yes, making the culture more friendly to women, who - obviously - are the ones to get pregnant, and who are still expected to bear the primary responsibility for child care. You could do the same for men in elementary school education - introduce the field as a career option, round up studies that are stereotype-busting, and encourage young men who do want to become elementary school teachers.

Anonymous said...

Sommers is brilliant, thanks for the link!

I agree that women's studies majors should be required to spend a semester in Saudi Arabia before going on for graduate studies.

B said...

What a great post! I'm saddened to hear that some women still want to pretend that they are inferior because they are a woman. It is a horrible message to send out to young woman that if they are struggling with something that it is because they are a female and not other possible real variables.

Dave Bradley said...

I wrote a feature article on women in science for the late HMSBeagle Adapt or Die careers column many years ago. I've re-posted this on my personal blog under the title - Cracks in the Glass Ceiling. I suspect a lot of it is rather out of date now, but there may be a few quotes that are still pertinent to this discussion.


abby said...

oh my god, I'm sorry, but I can't even bring myself to read this entire thing! I guess it's all just too much for my tiny little brain to handle.
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