Women and Science Careers

From NPR:

You don’t need to be a social scientist to know there is a gender diversity problem in technology. The tech industry in Silicon Valley and across the nation is overwhelmingly male-dominated….

new study by University of Texas sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb in the journal Social Science Quarterly offers an interesting new perspective on this divide. Along with co-author Chelsea Moore, Riegle-Crumb decided to dive into the gender divide in high school physics courses. (Even as the gender divide in some areas of science has diminished, a stubborn gap has persisted for decades in high school physics.)

Riegle-Crumb had a simple question: The national divide showed boys were more likely to take physics than girls. But was this divide constant across the country?… [No.]

But when Riegle-Crumb controlled for those and other possibilities, she found one reason remained: “What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely.”

Riegle-Crumb’s finding about the importance of local role models meshes with a broad range of earlier work that shows the decision to pursue math and science is not about innate differences between boys and girls, but about social context and norms. Countries with greater gender equality, for example, reveal more equal math test scores among boys and girls.

Teenage girls growing up in communities where women are better represented in tech are more likely to see women commenting on tech issues in public forums and in school discussions — and more likely to run into a friend’s astrophysicist mom at a birthday party.


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  • Kent Anderson

    I find it interesting that this “inequity” is percieved as a problem, or it is defined that way. Is it problem because women/girls are being barred from taking classes in the sciences or are they being shut out of careers in the sciences or math? Why is it every time there is not a 50/50 slpit is seen as problem. More women attend church than men, but hardly anyone even cares about that issue. Have we gotten to the place where everything has to have a even distribution? Obviously opportunity must be given to all, but it seems artificial to expect that there is always going to be an even distribution.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m not sure what the ratios over there in the US are, but I have been told that here at the University of Saskatchewan, there is parity to slight female dominance in all STEM fields, except engineering, which is still totally male dominated.

  • HgsDctr

    Interesting but see also Roy Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men.” He argues that the gender discrepancy is partly a product of real gender differences (he uses an evolutionary psychology perspective which admittedly has flaws). Thus, the feminist thesis is that the gender inequity is due to systematic and structural discrimination and gender inequality (likely partly true), whereas an alternative hypothesis is that there are real gender differences in interests, motivation, etc. which is certainly also true–and arguably rooted in human nature (whether from evolution or design or brain differences) and not just learning history. So sometimes when men dominate a field it’s because they like that field more than women, and are willing to put up with the difficulty inherent in getting into that field. Conversely, men sometimes shun fields that do not appeal to them or which appear to have poor prospects. Having read the original source, my suggestion is that having a higher proportion of women in STEM occupations in the community where the high school is located does reduce or eliminate the high school physics gender gap, but that taking a high school physics course is not the same as entering a STEM field (still only 7% women in STEM in the communities with the highest proportion). I do not think that more women in high school STEM courses will translate to gender equivalence in STEM majors in college or careers, given real gender differences in interest and motivation.

  • Dianne P

    I think that a lot of this issue relates to encouragement given/withheld at an impressionable age. A gazillion years ago, I was one of 4 girls in the advanced math/science high school program out of a class of 600+. Despite this, and outstanding test scores, I was directed to hairdresser school so I would have “something to fall back on.” Not one of the teachers or counselors spoke to my parents. A few years later, I went on to get a degree in nursing… a socially acceptable career for women good in math and science.

    I married a scientist, and we both energetically encouraged our children – one boy, one girl – in science and math. I fondly remember a vacation stop at a volcano in Hawaii at which they were arguing about terminal velocity should they jump into the volcano. The boy’s passion was electrical engineering and computers. Due to a disability, he can’t work, but this passion gives him much joy. The girl double majored in physics and biology at college, then onto law school and a degree in public health. She has an excellent job at the FDA.

    IMHO, this inequity is important for 2 reasons.
    First, there’s the obvious one of salary and high employment in the STEM fields.Engineering major? History major? Which has the better job opportunities? With her undergrad science majors, my daughter was planning on med school, then changed her mind to law school, where the STEM background was much in demand. Choices abound. She could have easily chosen patent law. A college female friend majored in engineering, then ended up in med school. Again, opportunities.

    Second, the issue of innate interests being validated by one’s career opportunities. My passion has always and continues to be science, and while I loved nursing, I know I would have been able to explore my love of science even more so had I been encouraged toward a STEM career.

    The times are certainly different now then when I grew up, but the low level of women in STEM fields in this country continues to be a concern.

    BTW, Kent, many churches do care very much about the fact that more women than men attend church. Many have programs targeted toward men, especially young men. Of course, everything doesn’t have to be 50/50, but the women in STEM isn’t even close. And I do think it’s right to ask “why”?, especially when this is far from a universal finding across other cultures.

  • Dianne P

    Sorry, I meant to do this as an independent post, not as a reply to Kent’s post.

  • Susan_G1

    I hate math. I think that’s inherent, because I was always top in my small parochial school at it, but while I had to study through Calc. 2 in college, I’ve always hated it. On the other hand, I’ve always loved science though I was never encouraged in it. I was patently expected to get married and have kids. In med school interviews, EVERY interviewer asked me why I should get a spot in their med school when I would probably drop out of the workforce to raise children. I answered honestly, but I resented the sexism.

    I had to fight gender discrimination in both my doctoral program in Molecular Biology and my medical school. I saw, in a government-funded research facility (Oak Ridge National Lab) how (esp. some idiot) men were given more financial and technical support while highly qualified women ran bare-bones labs. That’s why I decided to get out of research. Unless you had a well-connected good-old-boy on your arm, women struggled to get grants. I didn’t want to fight tooth and nail all my life to do what I loved to do.

    When I was in residency, it was long enough ago that I was the first female doc many patients had. One of my patients called me “Sir” all the time, even though I told him it was ok not to; he answered, I just can’t imagine a woman as my doctor. So he called me Sir for a couple of years. More than one patient told me they wanted a “real” doctor. On pre-rounds, patients asked me to perform nursing duties (e.g., “can you take this bed pan away?” I was happy to, but it didn’t escape my notice that I was singled out among the residents.) When I moved from Family practice to the ER, people would assume the male nurse who took their vitals was the doc and would ask me why I was asking them questions. I was and remain the only female member of an eleven-doc team.

    I am not at all bitter about any of this. If anything, it taught me compassion and empathy (and, i hope, humility). But did I face gender discrimination in the sciences? Absolutely. Do I think it’s unfair or unjust? Absolutely. Was I looked upon as an anomaly? Yes, Sir. Do I care? No, I really feel blessed to have had the opportunities God gave me. But do I believe teachers treat girls differently from boys still? I don’t know, but I suspect so. Is that part of God’s plan, to keep women out of the Sciences and applied mathematics fields? No, I don’t think He cares an iota about gender. Even to this day, Rosalind Franklin’s true value to the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA is downplayed (From Harvard’s applied mathematics program, “The discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick was presaged by Crick’s calculation of the Fourier transform of a helix. Armed with this knowledge he was able to interpret Rosalind Franklin’s data when nobody else could.” Um, Rosalind could. Her work, used against her knowledge, allowed Watson and Crick to figure out the structure of DNA. They freely admit this now, after her death.

    I fought my fight. I’m glad I did. I believe that sexual discrimination is sinful. But I’m happy to be where I am, and to help anyone who wants it to fight gender discriminaion.