August 3 2011

Why Are There So Few Women in the Hard Sciences? Maybe Preferences, Maybe Something Else

Libby Jacobson

A lot has been written here in the past about the gender pay gap and how women's preferences to work shorter hours in lower-paying occupations usually explain away the differences between men's and women's earnings. Wednesday's report from the Department of Commerce that showed the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering, or computer science (STEM) fields has predictably caused some hand-wringing about the status of women. The report also piqued my interest; as a former computer science student, I'm automatically interested in anything involving women's achievement in what is conventionally considered "men's work."

The Commerce report found that only 24% of the jobs in STEM fields are held by women, a statistic which Secretary Rebecca Blank called "unacceptable." According to the report, the gender pay gap in STEM jobs is much less than that in other fields. Blank theorized that the lack of family-friendly working hours and female role models in STEM professions may explain why few women pursue them.

--Before going any further, I'd like to say congratulations and "way to go!" to those women out there working in tech-related fields. Rather than "mommy tracking" themselves into a professional standstill, they're standing up and being the change that feminists want to see in the work force. Nice job, ladies!--

Still, I wonder how much of the gender disparity is the result of preference versus other factors. Luckily, researchers at Carnegie Mellon are conducting ongoing studies of female STEM majors with the goal of learning how to close the sciences gender gap.

In one fascinating working paper, Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller interviewed several female international computer science students - many of whom had barely touched a computer before starting college in America - to understand what drove these women to succeed in a field where so few American women dare to tread. Some of their answers are predictable; job security, wanting to be able to help their families financially, or just wanting to study in America were common reasons given. Many of these women had virtually no interest in computers, and furthermore many reported being overwhelmingly intimidated by how computer-savvy and knowledgeable their American male classmates already were on the first day of class. Yet despite having little prior experience and seemingly no "innate" ability to write algorithms and debug programs, the women worked hard and succeeded, and attributed their success to their perseverance and effort. Not only that, but the more they put into their studies, the more they actually began to really love their subject.

Unfortunately, few of the American women interviewed had the same drive, and the Americans were more apt to switch majors than to stick it out. The authors remark that US education tends to focus on innate ability and allowing students to find what they're "naturally" good at, whereas other cultures stress mastery through effort and gradual improvements, as well as equal levels of science and math education for boys and girls.

What can we learn from the researchers at Carnegie Mellon? Many have argued the gender disparity in the sciences is an expression of women's innate preferences to make babies and not work more than 40 hours a week. My takeaway from this research is that there are other factors that shape women's choices, beyond just a biological need to breed. If we're serious about encouraging women to enter the hard sciences (and I definitely am!), there are a couple of ways to pursue that end. We could demand some appointed bureaucrat from the Ministry of Equality and Feel-Goodisms to come up with a plan to incentivize science and tech firms to hire more women (nevermind the limited numbers from which to draw). Or we could take a more bottom-up approach, and try to instill the same expectation of hard work and perseverance for our daughters, granddaughters and nieces as we seem to do automatically for their brothers.

I'm optimistic that eventually (maybe a just few decades from now), women will work their way up into the hard sciences, just like they've broken into and excelled at languages, humanities, arts, business, and every other academic subject that was once thought to be the province of men. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up kicking the science-boys' butts!

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