Counting the numbers of women in science.
Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By SABRINA L. SCHAEFFER
The Science on Women and Science
Washington coughs up a new commission or report almost every day. Typically, they’re products of an executive order or congressional act calling for a “comprehensive analysis” of X, Y, or Z. Not too long ago the Agriculture Department’s Household Food Security report made headlines; most do not. So it would hardly be surprising if readers somehow missed the National Academies’ Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, the latest contribution to the line of reasoning that forced Lawrence Summers to resign as president of Harvard following his observation that innate biological differences might account for some gender disparities in math and science. Despite the fact that roughly 50 percent of medical school students are female, and veterinary classes are (on average) 75 percent women, Congress and several federal agencies are determined to solve the “crisis” of women in science—more specifically, the underrepresentation of women in the hard sciences.
Christina Hoff Sommers’s new anthology is a response, and the ideal antidote to this vision of gender. Rather than cling to a dead-end paradigm, The Science on Women and Science opens up the debate and brings new evidence to bear on the vexed issue of gender and the sciences. Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former professor of philosophy at Clark University, is known for her critique of the second wave of feminism. Specifically, she objects to 20th century “gender feminism” which, she claims, uses and abuses sex differences in order to manufacture equal outcomes in every societal nook and cranny—even in the science classroom. By bringing together scholars from clinical psychology, evolutionary biology, and pediatric neurology, among other fields, she offers a comprehensive investigation into why women are underrepresented in certain fields of mathematics and science.
While there are many shades of gray, the contributors fall broadly into two camps: Those who claim societal constraints such as bias and outright discrimination are to blame for gender inequality in the sciences, and those who point to other, namely biological, reasons. But unlike the National Academies, which is dogmatic in its assertion that there are “no significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics,” Sommers’s work proposes a wide range of explanations, including genetic makeup, brain structure, evolutionary development, even natural proclivities, values, and motivation.
Simon Baron-Cohen argues that men are naturally prone to systematize while women are inclined to empathize. But Rosalind Chait Barnett and Laura Sabattini fear that highlighting biological differences such as these only helps to solidify preconceived notions that women are, in fact, less capable of the time-intensive, detail-oriented work required for math and science. After working through what is, at times, some dense academic research, it is clear to the reader that the gender gap is not the result of any one factor; there are many different variables at play. In fact, a theme throughout this collection is the scientific uncertainty among researchers but the political certainty in Washington. By concluding definitively that biological differences between men and women do not account for “average abilities,” the NAS committee (and Congress) is overlooking fascinating research, and putting politics ahead of what’s good for science and the nation.
Ultimately that’s what troubles Sommers, and others on the biological side of the argument, about the NAS report. There’s an assumption in Washington that the academic sciences are openly hostile to women, and that the federal government must step in to create a more female-friendly environment. The National Science Foundation’s goal is to make university science departments more “cooperative, democratic, and interdisciplinary, as well as less obsessive and stressful.” And Congress aims to “transform the culture of American science to make it gender-fair.” But if that isn’t sexism, what is? What are statements like these saying about women other than that they can only succeed in nice, polite environments? More than a few female physicians, judges, and academics might object.
Beyond Bias is the first step toward implementing Title IX-style legislation for physics, mathematics, and engineering departments. But Sommers reminds us that “the physical sciences are the exception, not the rule . . . women now earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 59 percent of master’s degrees overall.” And Charles Murray offers a series of comparisons from the 1950s to today: “In math and statistics,” he writes, “women got 27 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 6 percent of the doctorates in 1960. In 2005, the comparable figures were 45 percent and 30 percent.”
The Science on Women and Science remains optimistic about women’s prospects. There is consensus among most of the contributors that women are in a considerably better professional position today than a half-century ago, and that they expect to see even more success in the future. Barnett and Sabattini acknowledge that “between 1966 and 2004, the percentage of women completing a PhD went from 5.8 to 30.3; similarly, the proportion of women completing an S&E master’s program went from 9.6 percent to 32 percent.” And Joshua Aronson, who writes about the “stereotype threat” on the social-construct side of the argument, stresses that the gender gap “shows signs of closing. . . . For the past three decades women have been catching up to men, even overtaking them, in many other areas of academics.”
But the question remains: Is full parity in the sciences necessary for women to achieve equality with men? Or can society accept that men and women will, no matter how balanced the circumstances, always have some different preferences and aptitudes? And what does this mean for the future of science? It’s obvious that considerable uncertainty persists regarding what causes women to gravitate toward some fields and what causes men to gravitate toward others. What is certain is that readers should fear the notion of the federal government micromanaging academia, implementing quotas, and changing the culture of science in America in the name of gender equality.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is the managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.
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