Why aren’t more women in science?

As I mentioned a while back, I came across a compilation of essays by researchers in the field debating the question: “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?” I saw it by chance in the library at work, and grabbed it.

It wasn’t a particularly easy read. I quickly became entangled in a spaghetti bowl of different strands of questions and answers as I read my way through the essays. As is the way with research! But I’ll do my best to organise what I learned and explain what I’ve concluded.

Much of the book focused on the question of whether there are any cognitive or aptitude-related barriers to women succeeding in science careers. Do men just make better scientists?

One obvious place to look for clues of any ability discrepancy between the genders is in school test results. Apparently, girls tend to outperform boys in maths exams up to high school level; but on the other hand, boys do better in the SAT-M. I gather that the latter is intended to test raw ability, rather than being a test on learned material that can be prepared for. So, this is seen by some researchers to indicate that girls aren’t as good at independent problem-solving. However, the author of chapter 4 points out another way of looking at it: the SAT-M underpredicts girls’ success in school and college maths exams, and thus may not be a good test of maths aptitude at all. (After all, who’s to say what is a good test?) Also, differences in maths and science ability through time and across geography are generally bigger than any gender differences, so there must at least be other factors involved.

An intriguing study described in chapter 3 revealed that bright girls don’t cope well with confusion; the brighter the girl, the more readily she would tend to become despondent and give up on the confusing tasks set in the experiments. This turns out to be due to these girls having a belief in the importance of innate talent (or lack thereof), and the relative unimportance of learning. With this belief, finding things confusing or hard made them conclude they just didn’t have the natural ability and that was that. It wasn’t clear to me why this should be the case, when the reverse seemed to be true in boys. The author suggested it may come from a different way that bright girls are praised for their ability as they are growing up. I don’t know if that is the case, but certainly one factor in the time-and-geography variation could be whether the culture emphasises learning or talent.

Another common approach is to look at tests of more basic cognitive abilities that perhaps provide the building blocks for higher-level skills such as maths or science. These do seem to differ by gender – males perform better on some spatial visualisation tasks, although this is a skill that responds well to training, and it’s suggested the difference may be to do with boys getting to play outside more as children. Conversely girls perform better at tests of verbal fluency.

Whether looking at school subjects, IQ, or basic abilities, male populations often show a broader distribution of abilities – boys’ abilities range a bit more widely from very poor to excellent, while girls’ tend to be a bit less extreme. The result being that there may be more males at the gifted end of the ability spectrum than females, even if the average ability in the two populations is the same. This seems to me a rather narrow, fatalistic view of career destination (not to mention a self-congratulatory one, coming from scientists!): you have to be the top of your class at school to make it as a scientist?! Try telling that to Einstein…

Other researchers recognise that a science career can draw on many different basic cognitive abilities, verbal communication actually being one of them, and it would be hard to identify any particular set that is critical for success – different scientists may well be talented in quite different ways. A science education equips people with skills in science, but the underlying ways that different people are implementing those skills in their brains may well be different (and harmlessly so). Chapter 8 discusses some structural and functional differences in male and female brains.

It begins to seem as if differences in patterns of interest may explain the dearth of women in science better than differences in ability. Chapter 6 reports that women tend to be more interested in people than in ‘things’. Chapter 12 characterises males as systemisers and females as empathisers. Interest, abilities, and experience clearly are not independent, though – they go round in a kind of feedback loop, and we become “cultured into” our careers, as chapter 9 puts it.

Could it just be that fewer women are drawn to the male-dominated culture of academic science*? If this culture changed, I think we would see more women going into science and sticking with it. Science would be done a bit differently but it would still be done, and done well.

This still begs the question of how the ‘yang’ culture in sciences such as physics and maths has remained well-established long after women’s liberation, while much more of a ‘yin’ presence has grown in sciences like biology. I think in the end I can’t get away from the notion that innate differences – probably in average interests and personality more than ability – do play a role. But I think their role is greatly amplified by stereotypes, gendered socialisation from childhood onwards, and cultural ideas about professions. If it were possible to remove those (which of course it isn’t), I think the ‘yin’-ification of physics would have happened much more quickly.

It was a relief to come to this understanding – I’ve never been able to accept either that all gender differences are innate, or that they are all socially conditioned. It seems obvious to say it’s a mixture of the two but this idea of amplification was a “lightbulb” moment for me.

Stereotypes are usually a coarse reflection of some view of reality that contains partial truth. They don’t come from nowhere. It’s unfortunate that they don’t just reflect, but also feed back into, and define, the world they describe. If girls tend to believe in the importance of innate abilities, they will be particularly susceptible to negative stereotypes around women’s goodness of fit in various fields of work.

I recently read about the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (in a book about economics, of all things) – and it was another lightbulb moment. I really like these terms as a way of grouping together a bunch of traits; male and female are in the lists of traits, but aren’t defined by them. Yin and yang might be a good simple way to describe things like a working culture, as they satisfy our need for reduction and classification, without making gender the focus of it – yin and yang are merely associated with gender. Perhaps we could benefit from thinking more like that. I know I will try to, from now on.

(* Several essays also discussed discrimination, and the work-life balance problem in academic science, but to me, these are just another aspect of the fact that science has a ‘yang’-dominated culture.)

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6 Responses to Why aren’t more women in science?

  1. caraboska says:

    I don’t agree that it is impossible to remove culture. My parents managed to pull it off. I was raised on the assumption that there is exactly one difference between men and women, namely their plumbing. I am 100% sure that my parents would have had exactly the same goals for raising me, had I been a boy. I would have been socialized in exactly the same manner – except that most likely I would not have been given skirts and dresses to wear.

    Perhaps different issues might have come up, for example, what to do about it if I were discovered to be playing war games. This element would have been ruthlessly removed from my life if it were found to be happening. No TV shows or other media, no books, no toys, no video games. Friends found to be exposing me to such things would probably be removed. But most likely they would have been sufficiently proactive before I was even exposed to such people that I would not have been interested.

    And then of course what to do about draft registration once I turned 18 (the States re-instituted it shortly before I graduated high school). In the event, I ended up going to a school which, since draft registration was not an issue, was one of several options. Had I been a boy, it could have ended up being essentially the only option, as I would have been expected to at very least register as a conscientious objector, but let’s say my parents would most likely have been proud of me if I had chosen to engage in civil disobedience and refuse to register at all, thereby rendering myself ineligible for Federal aid for my education.

    As far as science goes, I grew up in the home of two chemists (both now retired). My father is the best feminist you’ll ever meet. He devoted his 45-year career to the advancement of women in science. And of course my stepmother *was* a woman in science 😛 So the fact that I did not go into science had to do with other factors, namely that I had gone into classical music at the more-or-less tender age of 8.

    Apparently my having done this had a huge effect on the development of my parents’ cultural interests as well. And as for me, well, let’s say that it was a very unpleasant surprise to discover, while attending my first baseball game at age 11, that not everyone shared my absolute conviction that the proper way to behave there is identical to the way one behaves at the opera 😛

    • Sarah says:

      It would be interesting to know how many women that go into science had this kind of upbringing. For myself, I never even considered whether being female and being a scientist would clash in any way, until university, when I found very few other females in the physics classes. I started to be much more conscious of whether, and how much, femininity I could display (I fluctuated between none and lots). I started to feel I didn’t fit in to the “culture” and I was lonely. But I got good results, so I didn’t start to believe that I couldn’t do science. Even now, I would say I enjoy science and have some success in what I do, yet I have a very ‘yin’ personality and this makes me miserable trying to fit in in the culture. I also identify strongly with the study on females not reacting as well to confusion and struggle – this is probably the other major negative emotional experience that pushes me away from research as a career.

      • caraboska says:

        I don’t know. I do know that there are quite large numbers of women in chemistry now. I don’t know if it’s half the total number of chemists, but it seems to be taking great strides in that direction.

        I don’t think it would have bothered me to be, for example, the only woman in a class. I remember I was one of the very few women at a certain gym I used to go to. It was frequented by serious (but I think most if not all natural) male bodybuilders. I even preferred it that way, because gyms that cater to and are frequented by women did not really offer what I wanted. And I worked hard and got respect.

        But then again… my problem was actually that I was extremely both yin and yang, and the two sides of me had very different and often conflicting priorities. It was only after several decades that I managed to put it all together. What I ended up doing was jumping off the continuum, so that I am not yin or yang. I’m just… me.

        I think this is what my parents wanted, but were not quite able to tell me how to do. I mean, they were going very much against the grain of their own upbringing, they were in some way ‘making it up as they went along’. So I was in considerable measure left to my own devices to figure it out. It damn near killed me, but finally I did it…

        Is it possible you have a yang side that was not developed much because of your upbringing and experiences? I always wonder about that if someone is very much at one end of the continuum.

        • Sarah says:

          Yes, at my university the current Head of Chemistry is female, and an advocate for women in science. I’m sure I’ve heard her say that she’s experienced a lot of sexism though.

          I guess any kind of classification is a simplification and can sometimes do more harm than good. It sounds like that was the case for you.

          I think how a person reacts to finding themselves in a minority gender depends on their personality as well as how they’ve been led to think about it. I was never told I didn’t belong in science so I think it was just my ‘yin’ side that stood out too much and didn’t like it. Perhaps the appeal of science and the way it has influenced my thinking is the ‘yang’ side. I’m just less conscious of it because it does fit in!

  2. Pingback: My journey into feminism… and out of science | Meaning and Truth

  3. Pingback: Delusions of Gender: social identities are powerful | Meaning and Truth

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