So in theory, I’ve claimed this blog will look at science and society, not just scientific advances. And now I’ll finally make that true. While staying at a hotel out of town earlier this week, I read the free newspaper of choice at hotels all over the country: USA today. What caught my eye was an op-ed with the headline “Girls don’t need Obama’s help with math”, written by Kirsten Powers, one of Fox News Channel’s liberal commentators.
Powers is responding to a recent effort by the Obama administration to use Title IX to ensure equal opportunities for both male and female students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. One major part of her argument is “The End of Men” thesis. While I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea that our education system seems to be failing a large population of boys (and as a male, my concern isn’t entirely unselfish), that doesn’t mean that the way our culture perceives STEM education and fields can’t also harm girls at the same time.
Powers cites several statistics about women earning degrees, but I’m not sure this all translates to women entering STEM careers. Let’s break it down.
- “women rule in biology with nearly 60% of all bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates awarded to women”: Okay, that actually probably speaks well for biology education (I tend to think gender ratios in the 60:40 ballpark are pretty reasonable). But what becomes of all these women trained in biology? Lots of biology undergrads end up going into medicine, which isn’t bad, but also is not as male-dominated a profession as science and engineering. Biology doctorates are likely to become professors (look at Table 3). If they’re becoming professors, though, academia isn’t known for being the most hospitable field for women. For example, one study has suggested women win fewer science awards than would be expected based on how many doctorates they hold. And the tenure track is notorious for making it hard to start a family.
- “40% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the physical sciences and math go to women” This statistic actually is higher than I would have expected. But again, what do these students do after school? I don’t have official numbers for the trends, but I remember lots of my friends from college. Of the five girls in my physics class, one decided to go into consulting and the other went to med school. Out of the eight guys, only one of us wasn’t planning on doing technical work or going to graduate school in physics or engineering. Of the four female chemistry majors I knew, two of them were pre-meds and one decided to become a teacher.
- “72 % of [psychology] degrees go to women” Okay, there’s probably something pulling men away from studying psych, but that’s not equivalent to overcoming older prejudices that push women away from science and engineering. Also, having known lots of psych majors of both genders in college, I would be willing to hazard a guess that male psych students don’t feel pressure due to their gender.
- Just throwing out “bachelor’s degree” without description can be kind of misleading. At some schools, students in science and engineering majors can choose between a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a Bachelor of Arts (BA). If a school makes that distinction, one of these degrees will involve more technical coursework and lab work than the other. (Typically a BS will be the technical one, but my understanding is that can vary) People who get the less technical degree may be preparing more for medicine, law, or other careers besides science/engineering.
- It also seems like something must be going on for women to represent only 18% of engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees given the above stats. Engineering, the E in STEM, isn’t something completely unrelated to math or science. It’s applying science with design thinking to solve problems. For women to represent such a large portion of pure science students while having a much smaller presence in the application of these sciences would seem to suggest that something more than academics is at play.
What does it all mean? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think many US colleges are blocking women from studying STEM fields, and so in some sense, I probably agree with the central idea of Powers’ argument. It seems to be a bigger cultural problem. Does that require government intervention at the college level? Maybe not. But considering some of the uncertainty in how women transition from being STEM students to being STEM professionals, I’m not sure I’m ready to discount the idea of this program. I would also say it seems naive to think we can have such a culture and not expect it to affect the behavior of some individual officials at the college level, such as an older professor who may discourage women from declaring a major in his department. As we hear more stories of brogramming or just outright sexism in the tech industry, maybe it’s worth checking to see if that comes from the universities producing these workers.