This week’s post is in response to Mike‘s request for a discussion about women in math and science careers. Mike said, “women in math and science careers – or how young girls meet or exceed the achievement of young boys in this area – but at a certain point, the % of girls in advanced classes drop off.”
He also asked what the reasons might be for “the lack of young men going to college… women outnumber men at most colleges… it is especially dramatic for minority groups.”
OK… well, I admittedly don’t know too much about this topic, so I had to do some research. I found a few great sites dedicated to women in math and science careers, some of which provided some stats that clearly show there are far more men than women in math and science – as well as far more whites than people of other races. This site shows stats for the top 50 schools in the US and the diversity in their math and science faculties. The highest % of women was to be found in the psychology department, at 60%. The lowest % of women were found in electrical engineering programs, at 6.5%, followed by physics at 6.6%, mechanical engineering at 6.7%, and math and statistics at 8.3%. These are teaching faculty. White people were most populous in these faculties, followed closely by those of Asian descent, then Black, then Hispanic. The measliest, saddest numbers showed the % of Native Americans teaching at universities. Another site gave some interesting facts about women and technology, for example that women tend toward classes on the low end of technology like data entry, that parents tend to buy computers for boy children rather than girl children, and that women’s participation in computer science programs at university is one of the few that have declined over time – despite the fact that women make up 56% of university students in total – scary when 75% of jobs require computer skills.
Does anyone remember a few months ago when Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made the wild claim that men perform better in high level math and science due to genetics? (Sexist jackass.) Well, Harvard psychology prof Elizabeth Spelke decided she would tackle his ridiculous claim with some actual research, and published a study in which she found there were NO differences between male and female babies, children, and adults in terms of cognitive capabilities and aptitude in mathematical and scientific reasoning. And, jumping on the band-wagon to rebut Dr. Spelke was Steven Pinker, noted cognitive scientist and fellow professor at Harvard in the field of language acquisition in children. (I’ve studied his work thrice in my philoosphy studies: in my cognitive science class, in my philosophy of mind class, and in my philosophy of language class. I did’nt find his work too bad to understand – unlike others I studied in those classes!) The two held a joint debate, outlined online at The Edge. It’s long, but the jist of it is that Pinker takes a “nature” line of argument and Spelke takes a “nurture” line of argument.
All of Pinker’s points about “biological” differences between men and women have, in my mind (and Spelke’s), a sociological explanation. For example, Pinker says that men have different motivations than do women: men are more motivated by status than by family. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will probably be able to predict my response to that point – this has nothing to do with biology. Come on! Women are taught from childhood to care for other people, and men are taught that they must be providers. Is this difference in priorities really surprising?
In any case, my analysis of why there are fewer women in high-level math and science careers is that women are not encouraged and directed towards these classes from a rather early age, and not necessarily by their teachers, but by the world around them. We are bombarded with images of women and what kind of value they have to society, which basically amounts to looking pretty and having babies. Even when we are encouraged by teachers, and by parents, the message is loud and clear that women have a place and it doesn’t include a whole lot of abstract thinking, number-crunching, or laboratory experiments. We don’t have great images of women making important scientific discoveries, or building amazing structures that are feats of engineering, or solving notoriously difficult mathematical problems. We have images of starving blonde dummies whose main function in life is shopping and applying lip gloss while living off the money earned by a man. Even if a woman perseveres through these crappy societal images, and takes the higher-level math and science classes, she is likely to be in a very substantial minority in those classes, she is less likely to be hired after her education is completed, she will be paid less, and she is still subjected to societal pressures like being the primary care-giver for her family and putting her career on hold – which won’t be that difficult a choice since she is the only woman in her workplace and she earns WAY less money than her husband/partner.
I’m with Spelke. I don’t think there are significant statistical differences in the cognitive abilities of women and men. I do think there are significant differences in the ways men and women are encouraged to think. This is backed up by a study at U of Michigan, which suggests that women tend to choose careers based on their values more than on their skills.
Now, the second part of Mike’s question: why are there fewer men attending university than women?
Well, there are more women earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but there are more men earning PhD’s. (Could this be because when women get to PhD-age, they start having babies and abandon their studies?) This report puts things in perspective a bit – there isn’t exactly a crisis in boys’ education going on. Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist philosopher, has suggested that society is encouraging greater aggression and less academia in boys. Maybe less boys are going on to post-secondary educations because they are getting recruited into the military right in their own high schools.
My last point is that girls and boys of non-white racial descent and those of disadvantaged economic means are not making it to university to study any subject. University is increasingly expensive, and student loans are harder to get. Scholarship programs are extremely competitive. Kids who grow up in economically depressed areas have poorer educational opportunities. And poverty is extremely racialized and feminized in all societies; in ours, the worst off are our Native populations, whom we generally treat disgracefully. This is a major problem that needs serious attention.
Mike, I hope you enjoyed this post, and thanks for the inspiration – it was a really interesting subject to look into!