Wanted: More WIS (Women In Science)

There they go again, falling ass over teakettle into the gender gap in science.

WASHINGTON — The landscape of scientists and engineers is certainly a lot more diverse than it was 20 years ago, but serious gender gaps remain. That was the consensus here at a hearing of the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Tuesday. The hearing focused on finding ways to attract more female science students.

The analysis, such as it is, is boringly familiar (see here, here, here, and here):

The fact that women are underrepresented in a number of STEM fields shows itself in the proportions of degrees granted to each gender. In 2006, women earned 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, but only 20 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees, 21 percent of physics degrees and 20 percent of engineering degrees, according to data from the National Science Foundation. The same data also found that on the whole, women hold more than half of science and technology degrees, with women earning 77 percent of psychology degrees, 62 percent of biological sciences degrees, and 54 percent of social sciences degrees.

Why, you may ask, are there more women in Biology? Because, explains Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, because there are more women in Biology.

[Leshner] said that role models may already be a proven method of eradicating the gender gap. In biological sciences, one reason that the majority of degrees are now granted to women is because the number of female role models in that field far outnumbers the other STEM fields, leading to what he termed a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Excuse me — not only for asking a rude question but actually repeating the same rude question I’ve asked before (see posts linked above) — why? Why does it matter if there are (as apparently there are) too many women in biological sciences and too few in physics?

One of the reasons for concern frequently cited concerns national competitiveness. A Report from the National Academies, for example (discussed here) argues, among other things, that we need more women in science because “the country faces increasingly stiff global competition in higher education, science and technology, and the marketplace.” But if that’s a reason for concern, I asked (with prompting from my wife), shouldn’t we raise the question of

whether foreign women who are in this country only temporarily should be counted toward “compliance” with the “goals” recommended by the committee. Insofar as it is necessary to displace some men to make room for more women, should American males be displaced to make room for foreign females?

In the hearing that is the occasion for today’s article, however, another reason is given.

“The jobs of the future are going to require of workers a basic understanding of the principles of math and science. If we do not persuade women to pursue these fields, they are already [risking] cutting themselves out of a great job future,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI).

In other words (actually, pretty much the same words), women who choose not to major in math or science don’t know what’s good for them, and need instruction and guidance from their guidance counselors in Congress. Sure, right. Congress has done such a good job managing the economy and other small things, why shouldn’t it tell girls what to major in? And if it runs out of ideas (it wouldn’t be the first time), it can always turn to the Obamanauts in the White House for advice, since in their concern for fairness to the fair gender they recently created a new White House Council on Women and Girls. (See Men And Boys Need Not Apply: Obama Wants Fairness For “Women And Girls”.)

But let’s say we agree this gender gap in science is a problem that needs fixing. What, exactly, is the problem; what, exactly, needs to be fixed? Here are some explanations from today’s article:

The problems with — and thus, possibly the solutions for — getting female students involved in science begin at an early age. Sandra Hanson, professor of sociology at Catholic University and a researcher on women in science, said that the culture of science is often associated with white men. When a study asked little kids to draw pictures of scientists, she said, they often drew white males. When they did draw women, the women looked “severe and unhappy.” Nearly 70 percent of fourth graders of both gender report liking science, but by eighth grade male students report liking STEM fields twice as much as female students. As time goes on, female students face a drop-off in interest, particularly in middle school when students become more self-conscious, during high school when they have to decide whether to put themselves on advanced track math and science curricula, and throughout college and graduate school.

So, I’m tempted to say, we should teach little kids how to draw happier pictures of women scientists, and we should somehow prevent middle school girls from changing their interests, … but I won’t, since that would be too snarky.

O.K., O.K., let’s get (more) serious. Here’s more:

The hearing charter stated, “Issues such as a lack of female role models or a female peer group, and unsupportive classroom environments have been shown to deter women from pursuing or remaining in STEM degree programs in post-secondary school.”

“Unwelcoming classrooms, outdated teaching styles, and a lack of accommodation for different social or cultural experiences can all add up to create an environment that students decide to leave rather than thrive in. This affects men as well as women,” said Barbara Bogue, co-founder of the Society for Women Engineers at Penn State….

Bogue warned against “negative role models” who give the impression that they are overly obsessed with their work and drive people away by making the field seem too demanding.

I sent the Inside Higher Ed article I’m discussing to my daughter, Jessie, who has just finished her 5th year of a Ph.D. program in Applied Physics at Caltech (she’ll probably get her degree in October, just before her 23rd birthday). Her reply bears repeating (which I do with permission):

I particularly like this quote:

Bogue warned against “negative role models” who give the impression that they are overly obsessed with their work and drive people away by making the field seem too demanding.

Because of course we wouldn’t want anyone giving an honest impression of the field…

Aside from the issue of whether scientists should be “overly obsessed with their work” and demand (even if only by “role model” example) that obsession of their students, how, exactly, should science instruction go about “accomodat[ing] … different social or cultural experiences”? What are the “outdated teaching styles,” the newer, presumably better ones? How can classrooms be made more “welcoming”?

Finally, there’s a lingering question I’m not sure anyone has considered. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that women scientists, or women who are potential scientists, really are “different,” that they have “different social or cultural experiences” and so require a different type of classroom, a different style of teaching, a more relaxed (or at least not “overly” obsessive) attitude toward their work. If all aspects of the vocation of science — recruiting, teaching, mentoring, work habits and expectations, etc. — were transformed to attract more women, would not those very changes tend to discourage and drive away men, who by (this) definition are different and don’t like or want any of those things?

Just asking.

Say What? (18)

  1. ACF July 22, 2009 at 10:33 pm | | Reply

    Bogue warned against “negative role models” who give the impression that they are overly obsessed with their work and drive people away by making the field seem too demanding.

    Because of course we wouldn’t want anyone giving an honest impression of the field…


    Unfortunately, there are strong pressures to portray science as “fun” and “easy,” almost like entertainment. While this does draw in more “diverse” people, they ultimately fail when they realize how hard “science” is. Or, I have also seen another method whereby affirmative discrimination has to be continued through the granting of “fake” PhD’s, and then offers into “fake” jobs in a “team” environment where the genuine scientists have to cover for the affirmative discrimination babies.

    By the way, I read Jessie’s preprint – impressive. What did you feed her?

  2. revisionist July 22, 2009 at 11:36 pm | | Reply

    “with women earning 77 percent of psychology degrees, 62 percent of biological sciences degrees”

    So what is being done to encourage more men to major in psychology and biology? Women are nearly 80% of veterinary students — same question.

  3. meep July 23, 2009 at 7:11 am | | Reply

    Is that a serious question?

    Because I think you know the answer already: they don’t give a crap if men are “underrepresented” in any field. I’ve not heard much from such a group that men are underrepresented in Elementary Education, as an example.

    A better question is this: if scientists take a relaxed view of their work, will any new science get done?

  4. Den July 23, 2009 at 8:45 am | | Reply

    These people have such short memories, or no memories at all.

    There was once a time, last century, when it was adjudged by many, that there were too many Jews in law and medicine, and perhaps other fields, and if by too many one means hugely disproportionate, this was then and is now indisputably so.

    I am still waiting, but not holding my breath, for the left to demand quotas for Jews in law and medical schools, so that proportionately more of the proper people can be admitted to these schools, which is the very same argument as the one for more women in science, or firefighting, or construction, or whereever…

    I even have a name for a movie which could be made about this new, informed, culturally sensitive arrangement: we could call it a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to do the right thing.

    Why won’t the left do that John?

  5. John Rosenberg July 23, 2009 at 12:31 pm | | Reply

    Den – Re why won’t the left make a new “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” I’m afraid you’ll have to ask someone of that persuasion.

    ACF- Thanks for mentioning Jessie’s preprint. I assume the one you saw — her first “first author,” peer-reviewed article — will appear momentarily in NATURE PHOTONICS. The preprint version (almost identical to the impending published version) can be found here:


    My wife and I, of course, can’t read it, but we are mightily impressed by the Figures (Illustrations/Graphics), all of which she did herself.

    For anyone interested, there are two additional preprints available:

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/0907.2945v1 (this one is based on what is now her older research)

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/0905.2716v1 (Qiang Lin, the first author of this one, is the postdoc Jessie’s been working with.)

  6. EW July 23, 2009 at 1:31 pm | | Reply

    It is worse than you think. A few years ago, I researched the numbers for Ph.D.’s in chemistry for an NSF proposal. There the percentage of degrees going to women had increased from 27.8% in 1994 to 31.8% in 2004, but the actual number of women receiving the degrees increased by 6! The percentage gains were really driven by fewer men getting degrees, since the number of Ph.D.’s dropped from 2246 to 1981. So, you could really argue we already need to work on recruiting men, and these apparent percentage gains are really nothing to celebrate!

  7. Thomas Hannen July 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm | | Reply

    Times are changing for female STEM students just fine without Government interference. Both of my daughters earned STEM degrees in June; the oldest an MS in Chemistry from Ohio State (3.8 GPA, has a job), the youngest a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati (3.97 GPA, best in her major). She has a job, but will go to grad school for her MS and PHD. Full disclosure: her dad is an Engineering professor, as is her Uncle and Grandfather. Her Mom and Aunt are Computer Scientists. In the immediate family we hold fifteen STEM degrees, mainly in Engineering. All earned in the last 60 years or so. Times change.

  8. Paul July 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm | | Reply

    ACF’s question is great! (“What did you feed her?”) I, too, was astonished to read of someone with an STEM PhD at age 23, from Caltech, no less. (Took me until 29 at the U of Chicago in Astronomy and Astrophysics.) Where was she an undergrad??

    However, while being properly intimidated by her dewy young age, I’m also relieved to see that she misspelled “separate” on the second page of her first-author paper. Hah, wet-behind-the-ears youth!

    Anyway, what does she think, more generally, about the notion of “underrepresentation” of women in science? Does she think she’s been at a disadvantage? Does she think women bring something different to science than we (almost dead) white males do?

  9. John Rosenberg July 24, 2009 at 10:28 am | | Reply

    Thomas Hannen – What an impressive family tree! Jessie, to her credit, has nothing like that in her family. Both her mother and I, in fact, dropped out of math before arithmetic got hard. One of the officials in one of her summer gifted programs (the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth) actually told us one time that it was unusual for a girl with no STEMs on her family tree, especially mother or father, to have the ability or desire to pursue advanced science.

    Paul (and ACF) – Re the food, I’m not sure. Probably Southern fried everything. You ask interesting questions about Jessie’s views of women in science. I have my own opinions, and I also have opinions about her opinions, but before saying anything I should see if she’s interested in commenting herself. As you can imagine, she doesn’t have much time — 12-13 hour days in the lab every day, combined with an effort to have a life outside (competitive ballroom dancing, Caltech Choir). But I’ll see if she wants to say anything.

    No problem with telling you, however, that she graduated from Bryn Mawr College (at 17), missing one of their few summas by .02 of a point. (Bryn Mawr is one of the few remaining places practicing grade deflation). She skipped high school altogether, entering a special program for gifted young girls at Mary Baldwin College, a liberal arts college across the mountain from us. She used up the physics there, however, and transferred to Bryn Mawr as a 14 yr old sophomore.

    As for her spelling, I’m afraid she inherited that talent from her father.

  10. dchamil July 24, 2009 at 10:58 am | | Reply

    John Rosenberg, you have just been removed from the list of possible Harvard presidents. Women different? Why what an outrageous idea!

  11. David July 24, 2009 at 11:01 am | | Reply

    Check out the NAS report “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty”, which according to Chemical & Engineering News (June 8) suggests that “women fare as well or better than men in the hiring process. Once hired… women have essentially equal access to resources such as lab space start-up packages, and reduced teaching loads. And when women come up for tenure, they’re more likely than men to get it…” The proportion of women applicants for tenure track at Research 1 institutions is pretty close to their proportion of PhD’s earned (which is to say less than 25%), except in biology (45% of PhD’s are women) and chemistry (32 %), where they apply at a slightly more than half of their proportion of the PhD’s earned .

    C&EN also reports that this reports conclusions “contrast with those of the 2006 National Academies study “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering”, which was being conducted at the same time but by a different committee.” The co-chair of the new report Sally Shaywitz of Yale contrasted the statistical methods developed for the new report with the different methodology of “Beyond Bias”, which she said was “based on cumulative experience of people on the report committee”. Sounds like empathy strikes again!

  12. youngalexander July 25, 2009 at 4:40 am | | Reply

    You have brought tears (of laughter) to my eyes.

    Despite my subtle endeavours to persuade my daughter that her abilities in maths/physics were suited to a Radiologist career (very lucrative re post-war baby boomers) she insisted upon embarking in a joint Business-Civil Engineering degree. After 18 months she declared that she loathed engineering & wanted to pursue the Business only.

    All is well. 15yrs later she is the project officer writing our States health policy.

  13. Jessie Rosenberg July 26, 2009 at 7:31 pm | | Reply

    I feel like I should defend myself — even late — by mentioning that my advisor was the one who had the final say on making text changes before the submission, and the spelling mistakes are his. They’re fixed on the final version. (Which was just published today!)

    Regarding women in science, I’m not sure how many generalizations I can make. The situation is different in each field, just as the environment is different in each field. I do think that on the whole, science is science, and women bring neither more nor less to the table than their male counterparts — that seems like an essentially obvious point, given the purely objective nature of scientific study.

    As far as underrepresentation, I imagine that’s largely a matter of choice, and probably has to do with the way the fields have evolved. There’s no question in my mind that physics (as the area I have experience with) is a very intense field and, especially in some sub-fields (like mine), you really have to play hard-ball to survive. Would I rather it was different? Yes. Do I think the field should be changed in order to be more welcoming? No. It’s a market like any other, and if there are people who are interested in the topic and willing to work hard, they’re always going to rise to the top.

    Which is not to say that I like constantly working 14-hour days…

  14. John Rosenberg July 26, 2009 at 8:31 pm | | Reply

    Well, now I can say that I was quite surprised to learn of a “seperate” creeping in to Jessie’s paper. It’s not like her to make spelling mistakes (ironically perhaps, an arithmetic mistake would be less surprising), or not to catch it before submission. Good advisors, or at least ones who don’t introduce errors of their own, are apparently hard to find.

    For those of you interested, the official version of Jessie’s paper was published online today on the Nature Photonics website. It is available here:


    I suspect that two months from submission to publication, which included both peer review and revision, may be some sort of record.

  15. Helene Rosenberg July 26, 2009 at 10:43 pm | | Reply

    Maybe I should add my two cents for what it’s worth. I think Jessie had a lot of opportunities throughout her childhood that allowed her to explore a range of options many young boys and girls don’t have. That being said, she brought her innate curiosity, focus, and cleverness to those experiences and those successful endeavors only fueled her interest in challenging mental puzzles. Physics was probably one of the most mathematically related and intellectually challenging. Why wouldn’t she choose the most intense one, if that was the one she was most interested in?

    At the same time, her father is quite a challenge in his own right and stubborn as well. [Editor: On the contrary, Mr. Rosenberg is the very embodiment of sweet reason. He offered Jessie a sounding board for her ideas at every turn. As she grew up Jessie found her own interests and challenges. How delightful it is to a parent to have a daughter who is so much her own person.

    While she may be in a field her father knows nothing about, it is obvious to me that having a strong and supportive father is a critical element in the success of a daughter in any field. [ED: Having a strong and supportive mother doesn’t hurt, either, although there apparently aren’t many girls whose parents are math/science illiterates who go on to advanced science.]

  16. dustbury.com » Of lab and love August 28, 2011 at 2:01 pm |

    […] underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields, except Biology. There are more women in Biology, Leshner explained, because there are more women in Biology: “In biological sciences, one reason that the […]

  17. […] choices, not sexism or sex discrimination by schools, notes researcher John Rosenberg, the proud father of a daughter who got a Ph.D. from CalTech Based on this evidence, the result of Obama's grand […]

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