Why are there still so few women in science?

Why are the still so few women in science?

So versions of this article get written all the time, but this most recent version, in the NYT, is particularly well done.  Her main point is, there are a lot of pervasive cultural biases that both men and women hold, and the accumulation of these biases makes it a lot harder to succeed as a woman in the sciences.  There are a lot of good nuggets in the article, but I think my favorite thing is the way the author insists on looking at things in a broader context.

  • If girls are just innately either worse at, or not as interested in math as boys, why are there such vast differences in gendered math performance based on country of origin? A lot of girls in Bulgaria do well in the international math olympiad.  The US sent only 3 girls over the course of 50 years.  If there were a biological reason for girls to be worse than boys, you’d expect gender ratios to be stable across countries.
  • The infamous argument that women women are underrepresented in science because they aren’t equally represented at the highest IQ levels is suspect in two ways:

    First, the evidence that their IQs are lower is weak. Much of it is based on a study of 7th graders taking the SAT, where among kids scoring over 700 on math, the ratio of boys to girls was 13:1. In recent years, this gap has closed to 3:1, meaning that innate intellectual differences don’t really explain the gap. (Whether there *is* a test that could measure innate intellectual ability while disentangling cultural effects is an open question, as is the question of whether that’s even a meaningful question to ask.)

    Second, the evidence that what it takes to succeed in science is a high IQ is even weaker.  Among white male computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and physical scientists, less than 1/3 of them scored over 650 on the math SATs when they took the exam in high school. Even if you believe the SATs do meaningfully describe IQ, clearly high IQ isn’t a good predictor of success in the sciences.  Furthermore, as is common sense to anyone who’s done an undergrad or a graduate degree in the sciences, hard work and determination are key factors for success that are entirely independent of IQ.

  • If the “scientist lifestyle” is what’s driving women away, why are there so many female doctors and lawyers? Both of those professions also require long hours and are hard to balance if you have kids and want to spend time with them. (The author argues that while women do cite “lifestyle” as a reason for dropping out, in reality, they’re slowly driven out by an unfriendly atmosphere.)

Also, on a different note, this article has an anecdote with some of my favorite advice for grad students, which applies broadly, not just to women, and not just to people in the sciences:

“Just swim in your own lane,” he said. Seeing my confusion, he told me that he had been on the swimming team at Stanford. His stroke was as good as anyone’s. But he kept coming in second. “Zeller,” the coach said, “your problem is you keep looking around to see how the other guys are doing. Keep your eyes on your own lane, swim your fastest and you’ll win.”

<3, Sasha


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