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February 10 2017

Researchers Blame "Prestige Segregation" for "Underrepresentation" of Women in Science

Charlotte Allen

Another day, another study in which researchers scratch their heads and try to figure out reasons why on earth women are “underrepresented” in fields that require a lot of training in math and science.

The latest explanation: something called “prestige segregation.”

The name is the concoction of Kim A. Weeden, Sarah Thebaud, and Dafna Gelbhiser, three sociologists at Cornell and the University of California-Santa Barbara, in a paper titled “Degrees of Difference: Gender Segregation of U.S. Doctorates by Field and Program Prestige.”

The trio’s findings confirm what we already know: that while women may earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 46 percent of academic doctoral degrees, those degrees overwhelmingly  tend to be in, yes, you guessed it, English, art history, anthropology, and, um, sociology (like our three female researchers!). That is to say, they’re in“soft” fields that don’t require a lot of facility with mathematical concepts or abstract reasoning. And needless to say, they’re the fields more likely to get you a job as a barista with your newly minted Ph.D. rather than a programming position at Google.

Furthermore, and here’s where “prestige segregation” comes into play: the more elite and highly regarded the Ph.D. program (physics at Harvard versus physics at Podunk State U.), the more “overrepresented” in enrollment are male students

Prestige segregation is weaker than field segregation but substantively important….On average, between 11 and 13 percent of female doctoral students would need to “trade” programs with men in order to eliminate prestige segregation.

As Inside Higher Education reports:

The authors were unsurprised to see that gender segregation by field in doctoral education is extensive, with men or women overrepresented in the average field by a factor of 2.12, and a third of male or female doctorates needing to change their disciplines for men and women to receive the same percentage of Ph.D.s in all fields.

Indeed, the only scientific fields in which women are “overrepresented” are the biological sciences, that is, the least math-oriented sciences. Elsewhere, as the researchers’ graphs show, every “hard-science” field, from aerospace engineering to astrophysics (plus the lone humanities field of philosophy) is a mostly male preserve.

Furthermore, the researchers are pretty blunt about the reason for the disparities: math. Women as a whole score considerably lower than men as a whole on the math portion of the Graduate Record Examination that’s key to acceptance in grad school.

“Close to two-thirds of the net association between gender and field is captured by a five-category measure of math skills,” the paper says.

But it’s highly politically incorrect to observe that innate differences between the sexes might have something to do with this de facto scholarly segregation.

So instead, let’s blame society: “Cultural beliefs about gender and aptitude are deep-seated and hard to change,” says Inside Higher Ed:

Weeden said that if women are selecting out of the applicant pools at elite programs, “one possible point of intervention is the undergraduate advisers, who can encourage their most talented female students to apply to elite programs.” Elite programs can also help by making sure that their admissions processes “don’t overlook talented women who may not rise to the very top on GRE scores, but who show exceptional promise on less easily ranked dimensions,” she added.

In other words, lower the math standards for women, and maybe they, too, armed with newly minted doctorates from MIT, will be designing our bridges and airplanes.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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