Tag Archives: stem

Why Brilliant Girls Tend to Favor Non-STEM Careers

Do girls avoid STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields because of ongoing, widespread discrimination? Or do girls with the skill sets that would give them entrance to STEM fields prefer fields that involve working with people over fields that involve working with things?

(A note on the correct use of language. Women are justifiably offended when people, especially a man, refers to them as “girls.” I do not do that in this essay. The title of this essay is based on the fact that, as described below, it is skills and interests that develop as girls that lead girls who only later become adult women down different paths that contribute to adult women being less likely to work in STEM).

The go-to explanation for the gender gap in STEM is bias.  Old fashioned sexism, “implicit” (or unconscious) sexism, “obstacles,” stereotypes, and the like.

There are many problems with such explanations, including but not restricted to:

  1. Much of the “evidence” cited in support of discrimination does not actually demonstrate discrimination.  For example, some gender gaps in funding and in graduate admissions have been conclusively shown to result, not from discrimination, but from the fact that women disproportionately apply in more competitive fields.
  2. Some of the “evidence” is correlational (e.g., correlating beliefs with some gap), and is interpreted as causal, without any evidence of causality.
  3. Those making “gaps (do, probably do, likely do) reflect discrimination occurring right now” arguments rarely consider the vast literature identifying alternative explanations for such gaps.  Instead, they tell “compelling narratives” based on historical evidence of discrimination, anecdotes, and cherry-picked studies that actually do demonstrate bias, and they argue (or imply by omission) that those, and only those, studies apply to understanding the gap in question (as if large bodies of literature contesting either the generalizability or even validity of those studies, or putting forward strong evidence for alternative explanations, simply do not exist).

The purpose of this blog entry is not to evaluate whether discrimination against women and girls “exists,” because it surely does under some conditions and in some contexts.  Instead, the purpose is to explore two questions: Is it possible that something other than discrimination is the main source of gender gaps in STEM? And is it possible that scientists cherry-pick evidence to support narratives of bias?

Gender Differences in Interests

Things versus people.  Su et al (2009) performed a meta-analysis of studies including a total of over 500,000 people examining gender differences in interests.  Despite claims that gender differences are typically “small” (Hyde, 2005), Su et al found a gigantic gender difference in interests.  Women preferred working with people, whereas men preferred working with things, a preference that is detectable within the first two days of birth and among our close species relatives, rhesus monkeys!  To be sure, these differences were not absolute.  Not every man prefers working with things and not every woman prefers working with people.  But the effect size was d= .93, and even if you are not familiar with effect sizes, this would make it one of the largest effects in social psychology; it is gigantic.

JUST math skills versus math and verbal skills.  This same issue of differing interests was approached in a different way by Wang, Eccles, and Kenny (2013). Disclosure: Eccles was my dissertation advisor and long-term collaborator; I am pretty sure she identifies as a feminist, has long been committed to combating barriers to women, and is one of the most objective, balanced social scientists I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In a national study of over 1,000 high school students, they found that:

  1. 70 percent more girls than boys had strong math and verbal skills;
  2. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have strong math skills but not strong verbal skills;
  3. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) who had only strong math skills as students were more likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were other students;
  4. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) with strong math and verbal skills as students were less likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were those with only strong math skills.

Here are their conclusions, in their own words:

“Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males…

Our study provides evidence that it is not lack of ability that causes females to pursue non-STEM careers, but rather the greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability and thus can consider a wider range of occupations than their male peers with high math ability, who are more likely to have moderate verbal ability.”

To be clear, neither Wang et al nor I am arguing this is the only reason for the gap in STEM; and neither Wang et al nor I have argued that there are no biases against girls and women. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that the words “bias,” “discrimination,” and “obstacle(s)” do not appear anywhere in their article.  “Sexism” also appears nowhere in their text, though it does appear in one of their references.

The Numbers

The Council of Graduate Schools puts out regular reports, such as this one, that includes the gender distribution in various fields.

Lo and behold, there is no “pervasive evidence of” a gender gap in graduate enrollments, though there is a gap in some STEM fields. Completely consistent with the work by Su et al and by Wang et al, in nearly all fields that are about people, not only is there no gap disadvantaging women, there are actually more women than men! (Healtheducation, social and behavioral sciences, public administration, arts and humanities, and even biological sciences).  The same report found that, overall, across all fields, the “gap” is in the “wrong” direction: 57 percent of enrollees in graduate programs are women.

Even if there is discrimination against women in these fields, it is not preventing women from entering those fields in droves. (Indeed, the logic of “gap = discrimination”—a logic I have repeatedly rejected but which runs rampant throughout the social sciences and general public—would have us believe there is widespread discrimination against men in most fields now).

Furthermore, this pattern is completely consistent with the idea that girls and women have different interests (Su et al) and skills (Wang et al) that lead them to prefer non-STEM careers.

There Is Bias!

Surely girls and women have, historically, been discriminated against in such fields.  But discrimination in 1950 or 1970 does not constitute evidence of ongoing discrimination.  Furthermore, the evidence that girls and women prefer non-STEM fields is not an argument to avoid combating sexist discrimination where it can still be found.  Nonetheless, the list of social science victim2 groups is so long, that, most likely, almost all of us have been the target of discrimination or hostility at some point in our lives, rendering the question of whether some groups are more victimized than others muddier than it seems.

However equivocal the evidence for “bias” in the present may be an explanation for the gender gap in STEM fields, there is ample evidence of bias. Scientific bias! Social scientists clearly “prefer” bias explanations over other, deeply important, scientifically rigorous, social developmental evidence, such as that offered by Su et al and Wang et al.  This table reveals just how extreme this bias is:

The key entry here is the citation counts in the far right.  The Moss-Racusin study is, by conventional standards, the weakest of the studies.  Its sample size is a fraction of that of the others.  It studies a relatively minor situation (hiring lab managers).  It was a single study (Su et al is a meta-analysis of scores of studies; Williams and Ceci reported five separate studies).  In contrast to Wang et al, it only studied an event at a single time point; it did not follow people’s career trajectories.

This does not make Moss-Racusin et al a “bad” study; it is merely weaker on virtually all important scientific grounds than the others.  This is not to argue that the other studies are “perfect,” either; all studies have imperfections.  But by conventional scientific standards, Su et al’s meta-analysis, the replications in Williams and Ceci, the longitudinal Wang et al study, and the far larger sample sizes in all three mean that, on most scientific methodological standards, they are superior to the Moss-Racusin et al study.

And yet, look at the citation counts.  Others are citing the Moss-Racusin et al study out the wazoo. Now, Wang et al and Williams and Ceci came out later, so probably the most useful column is the last.  Since 2015, the weaker Moss-Racusin study has been cited 50% more often than the other three combined!  That means there are probably more papers citing the Moss-Racusin et al study and completely ignoring the other three than there are papers citing even one of the other three! What kind of “science” are we, that so many “scientists” can get away with so systematically ignoring relevant data in our scientific journals?

(Again, this does not make the Moss-Racusin study “bad.” The bias here reflects a far broader field problem, it does not constitute a weakness in the paper itself).

And that, gentle reader, is a gigantic scientific bias.  It might even be beyond bias. Some might call it an “obsession” with discrimination and bias so severe that it is blinding many in our field to major findings regarding gender differences that contribute to preferences for different types of fields.

If this analysis has any validity, the societal push to equalize gender distributions may be deeply dysfunctional, because it can succeed only by having the perverse effect of pushing people into fields they do not prefer. Of course, on moral grounds, we want to ensure that all people have equal opportunities to enter any particular career.  But if there are bona fide gender differences in preferences and interests, equal opportunities may never translate into equal outcomes.

Reprinted from Psychology Today, courtesy of Lee Jussim.

Shaky Studies on Women and STEM

Readers of the higher education press and literature may be forgiven for supposing that there is more research on why there are not more women in STEM fields than there is actual research in the STEM fields themselves. The latest addition to this growing pile of studies appeared a few months ago in Science, and now Science has just published a new study refuting the earlier one.

In the earlier study, “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines,” Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton, and several co-authors surveyed more than 1800 academics across 30 disciplines — graduate students, postdocs, junior and senior faculty — to determine the extent of their agreement with such statements as, “Being a top scholar of [your field] requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” and whether “men are more often suited than women to do high-level work in [your field.]”

Fields that believe innate brilliance is essential to high success, such as physics and philosophy, have a significantly smaller proportion of women than fields that don’t, such as Psychology and Molecular Biology.

Shunning Women?

This study caused a big stir. It was deemed so important that it was accompanied in Science by an introductory article explaining its findings and significance, “Gender Inequality in Science,” by Prof. Andrew Penner, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Admiring summaries and discussions can also be found at the National Science Foundation, in a long piece from the Princeton news service, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Science Mag, and Scientific American, just to name a few. Reuters was typical: “fields that cherish sheer genius shun women.”

Leslie et al. conclude that “women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success” and this underrepresentation occurs “because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.” The authors hedge their bets, however, about the actual causal mechanism at work. They note, for example, “The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may … exhibit biases” against women, but on the other hand “[t]he emphasis on raw aptitude may activate the negative stereotypes in women’s own minds [leading them to] internalize the stereotypes [and] decide that these fields are not for them.”

The Role of Brilliance

The study is cagey, in short, in glossing over the border between facts and stereotypes, and its significance. On one hand, they insist that the “pervasive cultural associations” linking men more than women with raw talent are stereotypes that do not reflect reality. On the other, they ask, are women “less likely to have the natural brilliance that some fields believe is required for top-level success?” and answer: “our assessment of the literature is that the case has not been made.”

It also appears that the authors doubt that high levels of success depend on native brilliance even in those fields that claim it does. Lead author Sarah-Jane Leslie, for example, told a Princeton interviewer that “in her own field of philosophy in the 1980s, philosophers would sometimes speak of ‘the beam’ — the idea that some lucky individuals were born with a metaphorical beam of light coming from their foreheads, which they could shine on any subject matter they chose, thereby illuminating it without prior study.” But “the fact is,” she added, “that any of us who are successful in our fields only got there through incredible amounts of hard work and dedication.”

If it is a “fact” that highly successful women even in fields that claim to require brilliance “only” succeeded through hard work, then the practitioners of those fields — significantly, they find, both women and men — are somehow mistaken about what their fields require.

A Smoking Analogy

Grappling unsuccessfully with this caginess, Prof. Andrew Penner, writing in Science’s article introducing and explaining the brilliance study, concludes, “It is likely impossible to disentangle the effects of societal bias and individual preferences, because people’s understanding of gender differences shape their preferences.” That conclusion, however, is a non-sequitur. The fact that an individual preference may be affected by — even to some degree the result of — social bias does not mean it does not exist as an individual preference. (See my “The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity for an extreme example of the belief that stereotypes rob women of free will altogether.)

Leslie et al., in short, do not resolve the central questions their study raises: Do certain fields actually reward brilliance more than hard work; are there in fact fewer brilliant women available and interested in joining those fields?

Now comes a new study that throws considerable light on those questions. In a “Technical Comment” recently published in Science, Prof. Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas, and Prof. Shulamit Kahn of the Questrom School of Business, Boston University, reexamined the data and analysis of the Leslie et al. study “and found that “[f]emale representation was associated with the field’s math-intensive content — especially relative to the field’s verbal content — and, controlling for this, faculty beliefs about innate ability were irrelevant.”

Math-Intensive Fields

What Ginther and Kahn found, in short, is that it was not “expectations of brilliance” that predicted the representation of women in various fields “but mathematical ability, especially relative to verbal ability…. While field-specific ability beliefs were negatively correlated with the percentage of female Ph.D.s in a field, this correlation is likely explained by women being less likely than men to study these math-intensive fields.”

Ginther’s and Kahn’s argument was anticipated and developed even beyond theirs by psychiatrist Scott Alexander in a brilliant long entry on his widely read Slate Codex blog, “Perceptions of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap.” His criticism of Leslie et al. is even more devastating:

Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes.”) Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude, “Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer,” and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do.”

This is the basic principle behind Leslie et al.

Like Ginther and Kahn, who did not cite his work, Alexander disaggregated the quantitative from the verbal GRE scores and found that the correlation between quantitative GRE score and percent of women in a discipline to be “among the strongest correlations I have ever seen in social science data. It is much larger than Leslie et al’s correlation with perceived innate ability. Alexander’s piece, and in fact his entire blog, should be required reading.

Change the Message?

Gintner and Kahn also make the seemingly required bow to stereotypes, concluding that “it is the stereotypical beliefs of the teachers and parents of younger children that become part of the self-fulfilling belief systems of the children themselves from a very early age” that prevent young women from choosing to pursue math, and thus they that “the message” delivered to young women needs to be changed.

Certainly Leslie et al. blow that horn with enthusiasm, and their message, sadly, need not even be accurate. “Is natural brilliance truly more important to success in some fields than others?” they ask.

The data presented here are silent on this question. However, even if a field’s beliefs about the importance of brilliance were to some extent true, they may still discourage participation among members of groups that are currently stereotyped as not having this sort of brilliance. As a result, fields that wished to increase their diversity may nonetheless need to adjust their achievement messages.

Well, of course! If brilliance really is required, that would certainly tend to discourage interest on the part of people who do not think of themselves as brilliant, “stereotyped” or not. But is that a justification to “adjust the message” to downplay the importance of brilliance in those fields where the belief in its importance is accurate?

Several years ago I sent a piece I’d written, “Wanted: More WIS (Women in Science),” to my daughter, Jessie, a talented young research physicist who was then a fifth-year graduate student at Caltech (she finished her Ph.D. work just before her 23rd birthday). In the piece I quoted Prof. Barbara Bogue of Penn State , the co-founder of the Society of Women Engineers, who “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.”

Jessie replied that she particularly liked the Bogue quote — “Because of course we wouldn’t want anyone giving an honest impression of the field.”

Should We Charge Different Fees for Different Majors?

Rick Scott.jpg

In the first couple weeks of any survey course in the
principles of economics, students are taught that prices are determined by the
interactions of consumers (demand) and producers (supply). Prices for many
things, such as oil, or of common stocks, constantly change with the frequent
shifts in the willingness of consumers and producers to buy or sell the good or
service in question.

Yet the price of college–tuition fees–seems to be
determined differently. For starters, tuition fees change but once a year, not
constantly. Universities are like restaurants, with “menus” giving prices for a
variety of different offerings, with the menu changing once a year.  For many schools, however, the listed price
is not what economists call an “equilibrium” price–a price equating quantity
demanded with quantity supplied. Rather, thousands are turned away at the
listed price at selective admission universities.  Also, massive price discrimination exists, so
many customers–often a majority–pay less than the stated or sticker price.

Amidst all of this, schools typically charge students the
same regardless of their major. A committee advising Florida Governor Rick
Scott has recommended a move to differential pricing–majors would pay
differing amounts. The goal is partly to entice students into the STEM
disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) on grounds that our
future would be enhanced by having more scientists relative to, say, English
majors or anthropologists. By making STEM tuition fees lower, we will encourage
enrollment expansion in those fields. Ohio University’s Board of Trustees
recently considered (but did not yet adopt) a multiple-price approach, and
other schools are doing so. 

Continue reading Should We Charge Different Fees for Different Majors?

About All Those STEM Dropouts…

science_lab_students.jpgThe New York Times proclaimed recently that science educators and others are vitally concerned that high dropout rates of students studying math, science, and engineering (the “STEM” disciplines) will imperil our nation’s technological leadership. There is a shortage of people in these fields, it is argued, and efforts to increase numbers are thwarted by dropout rates that run from 40 to as high as 60 percent (for those originally pre-med majors).

I want to make two points. First, the high dropout rates are not only far from surprising; indeed, they should be expected, and we should rejoice that someone in higher education is trying to maintain standards of academic excellence. Second, for well over half of a century, STEM advocates have cried “shortages of key personnel” and “crisis” when none really existed, showing a lamentable lack of scientific objectivity and intellectual honesty in the process. I fear this may be happening again.

Continue reading About All Those STEM Dropouts…

Another Weird STEM Study

Writing here over a year ago in The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity, I noted that “Sometimes it seems as though the most heavily researched, richly funded area of American science today involves studies of why there aren’t more women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and efforts to induce, recruit, and retain more of them.”

Now, Inside Higher Ed reports in Why They Chose STEM, Microsoft and Harris Interactive, a polling company, have added to the pile by surveying 500 STEM-studying undergraduates across the country about when and why they decided to study STEM. Unsurprisingly, there were no surprises.

The new study largely reinforces what was already known: that good teaching and preparation are key to attracting and keeping students’ interest, said Jane Broom, director of community affairs at Microsoft. “We as a country have to find the political will and make the hard decisions to actually implement what research is telling us,” she said.

Continue reading Another Weird STEM Study

Romance Hinders Women in STEM Courses?

Another day, another bunch of dollars thrown at studies lamenting “the gender gap in science and technology fields.” The most recent comes from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.

From its Executive Summary:

Our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is crucial to America’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness. Yet women are vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs and among STEM degree holders despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and half of the college-educated workforce. That leaves an untapped opportunity to expand STEM employment in the United States, even as there is wide agreement that the nation must do more to improve its competitiveness.

Continue reading Romance Hinders Women in STEM Courses?

New Attempt To Reduce STEM “Diversity” In Industry

Inside Higher Ed reports that a workshop at the University of Washington is attempting to reduce the number of women who work in STEM fields in industry. Neither the IHE article nor the organizers of the workshop put it quite that way, of course, but that nevertheless is clearly the workshop’s purpose. “The organizers of the On-Ramps into Academia workshop taking place Monday and today [May 16 and 17] at the University of Washington,” the article states, are “encouraging and coaching talented and accomplished women to leave their positions in private industry and return to campus.”

On-Ramps into Academia “strives to increase the participation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering.” Nothing wrong with that (except when it involves preferential treatment in funding, admitting, hiring, promoting, etc., based on sex), but the diversiphiles who permeate higher education, the foundations, and scientific organizations never seem to recognize that “diversity” is zero-sum game. If Harvard gets more blacks or Hispanics, Yale and the state universities get fewer. A woman who decides to pursue a career in chemistry by definition decides not to become a physician or a tax attorney. There’s no way around this zero-sumness: Women who leave industry to go back to academia … leave industry.

“The effort at Washington is notable,” IHE reports,

because it seeks to woo back scientists who may, in turn, serve as role models for younger women about to consider their career options. Some experts on women in science have warned that industry has been attracting talented women away from academe. Many of these women may have left the academic track because of a lack of opportunity, or because they wanted to avoid the insecurity of tenure-seeking while starting a family.

Warning! Warning! Industry woos women! Heads up, academic STEM women! Be on the lookout for corporate raiders offering your women graduates (whom you have so carefully nurtured to be just like you) better working conditions and, who knows? maybe even more money.

Perhaps women students do need “role models” of the same sex to teach them, but aren’t women scientists and engineers who succeed in industry also role models? Would the nation really be better off if there were fewer of them? What sort of role model would they be if they left in droves to return to the academic nest?

In the bad old days one of the common arguments against hiring women is that they would quit their jobs to raise a family. Encouraging them to quit their jobs to return to campus hardly seems like progress.

Do Female Students Need ‘Stereotype Inoculation’?

080103-painfulshot-hmed-2p.widec.jpg

Are you a female STEM student (or wannabe STEM student) suffering from a stereotype infection? Then, according to new research recently described in Inside Higher Ed (“Inoculation Against Stereotype”), you should take a course from a female instructor to inoculate yourself.

The research, based on a study at U Mass Amherst by Nilanjana Dasgupta, associate professor of psychology  and some graduate students there,
found notable benefits for female students (and for male students as well, though to a lesser degree) to being taught by women — and may point to strategies that would keep more women in STEM fields. The idea behind the research is that certain strategies “inoculate” female students against the sense that they don’t belong or are not likely to succeed in math and science courses.
 
…. Dasgupta said that the evidence suggests that women who are exposed to women doing math and science successfully end up with “stereotype inoculation” in which they gain confidence. The obvious solution from the new research — which Dasgupta said wasn’t realistic — would be to have only women teach introductory STEM courses.

Continue reading Do Female Students Need ‘Stereotype Inoculation’?

Woman’s Work

——————————————-
This piece appeared originally in the June 2010 issue of Liberty
———————————————
Women can’t get any satisfaction these days. Yet another report, this by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), asks why there are so few women in the STEM professions. (For those outside the education community, this acronym refers to the prestigious disciplines of “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”) The putative exclusion of women from STEM fields is a hot topic in higher education; there is even talk of instituting programs such as the federal law known as Title IX, which expanded college sports to encompass more women.
There are no shades of Larry Summers in the AAUW report. It skirts the possibility that something inherent in women, either their brains or the lifestyle they value, leads them to choose other fields. Instead, the report is all about self-esteem and overcoming bias and low expectations. The chapter on “Beliefs about Intelligence” does not discuss research on intelligence per se, but rather how to overcome the “mindset” that one’s intelligence is not as high as it should be.
Yet, as Susan Pinker commented on the Minding the Campus website in April, women are well-represented in science-related disciplines, at least at the university level. She lists “biology, medicine, dentistry, econology, pharmacology, neuroscience, or veterinary science” as “science programs that were mostly male 40 years ago but are now dominated by women on every university campus.” In fact, AAUW’s colorful charts reveal plainly that more women receive bachelor’s degrees in biology and the biological sciences than do men.
Furthermore, there’s something sinister about this report – or at least it’s out of date: STEM jobs are not all that attractive. The Ohio University economist Richard Vedder suggests that the pressure to push people (of either sex) into STEM smacks of scandal – a retread of the post-Sputnik pressures of the late 1950s, with less justification . STEM fields are not that highly paid (which would be a sign of great demand), he says and “it is not uncommon for science graduates to have trouble getting a job in their field.” Nor does the Bureau of Labor Statistics expect the number of jobs in these fields to grow substantially (in percentage terms, yes, but not in absolute numbers.)
Exactly why STEM has fallen out of favor Vedder doesn’t say. Others, however, have pointed to the international outsourcing of such jobs and to the changing nature of technology, which now automates procedures that previously required highly skilled technicians.
Why don’t we just let women do what they want to do? If that means avoiding some academic fields because they like others better or because they envision a life that is more compatible with being a mother, let them. Isn’t freedom what “women’s liberation” was all about?.

More “Diversity” STEM-Selling

A few weeks ago I discussed The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity, noting that every month or so (or so it seems) a new report appears pointing with alarm to the “underrepresentation” of women or blacks or Hispanics or Aleuts (or usually all of the above) in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, math and outlining STEM-“diversity” steps that must be taken in order to save the nation from destruction by competition in the “new global economy” with those more diverse than we (like the Japanese?).
I’ve written about these reports here, here, and here. I’m venturing down this well-trod path yet again because — you guessed it! — there’s yet another call for increasing diversity, this one from the high-powered duo of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of American Universities. “Navigating A Complex Landscape To Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education” claims to be “a first-of-its-kind” handbook offering “in-depth, cross-referenced legal resources to help promote effective diversity programs for science faculty and students,” explaining how U.S. universities can “draw more women and underrepresented minorities into science fields to boost economic and security goals—while minimizing any unreasonable legal risks.”
Like all the reports I discussed earlier, this one attempts to answer the question, “Why Is Diversity Important To Science?” (a section of the press release announcing the publication of the handbook), by … repeating the assertion that diversity is important to science.

Continue reading More “Diversity” STEM-Selling

On Women, STEM and Hidden Bias

If only Carole Carrier and her peers felt more aggrieved, the new report released by the American Association of University Women on women in science would make more sense. On the day the AAUW report was released, Carrier, a 34 year-old mechanical engineer who works part-time, was walking down the street in early spring with her 20 month old son, Luke, and her mother, Anita. They were on their way to see the spring flower display in the municipal greenhouse when we all stopped for a neighborly chat. “I’ve never experienced bias,” said Carrier, her pale eyes registering surprise when I described the gist of the report. Standing on the sidewalk, I summarized its main points: that women avoid going into STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math) because hidden cultural signals have persuaded them that women don’t have what it takes to succeed in those fields. The few women who do buck these stereotypes then tend to abandon their career plans due to implicit gender biases and university science programs that make women feel unwelcome. Hence, a ratio of women in physical science and math that won’t budge past 20 percent, and the title of the report,”Why So Few?”
But Carrier, like many female engineers and scientists I’ve spoken to over the past five years, was frankly puzzled about why anyone might see her as a victim. All along she has felt her choices were entirely her own. She always liked math and was encouraged by her parents, especially her father, who also likes numbers, to study Pure and Applied Science. Then she went into a Forestry program, but she switched out of that because “it was too touchy-feely. It was like, is this environment good for squirrels? I needed to go into something where there’s a right answer.” So she transferred into agricultural engineering, and told me she enjoyed it immensely—the university program, as well as the work that came afterwards. So, what about the AAUW’s conclusion that women avoid studying engineering because role models are scarce, and university programs are hostile to women? “Hostile environment? Not at all. We had excellent professors. Many female professors, too.” There were also many other young women in the program, she said, because students could specialize in food or water treatment and most of the women planned to work in the developing world. Not Carole. “From university I went to work at a cement company because of my love of heavy machinery. They have their own open pit mine, and it was fantastic! I loved every minute of it. I loved the work, and the people there. We worked extremely well together. I started out as a mechanical engineer working on reliability issues, then worked on production, then on machinery output.” The company was good at staff development, offering courses and the opportunity to advance, she added, and she “mixed well” with employees, and was well-liked, especially on the shop floor, where she considered other employees’ real life expertise as instructive as her academic training. She even had an octengenarian male mentor. Hers seemed like an unequivocally happy story, so thin on the ground these days.

Continue reading On Women, STEM and Hidden Bias

The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity

Sometimes it seems as though the most heavily researched, richly funded area of American science today involves studies of why there aren’t more women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and efforts to induce, recruit, and retain more of them.
In her article for Minding the Campus, Susan Pinker deftly punctures the omissions and evasions of the most recent such study, the AAUW’s “Why So Few?”, pointing out how that study’s predictable bogeymen of “stereotyping” and “unconscious bias” denigrate the choices many women freely make.
There is nothing new about this attempt (dare one call it patronizing?) to deny and denigrate women’s choices. A generation ago, for example, in its spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to hold Sears, Roebuck responsible for the “underrepresentation” of women in such jobs as installing home heating and cooling systems, (EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. 628 F. Supp. 1264 (1986), 839 F.2d 302 (1988)), the EEOC submitted testimony from an expert witness (Alice Kessler Harris, a prominent women’s historian) that discrimination was the only possible explanation for such “underrepresentation” because “where opportunity has existed, women have never failed to take the job offered…. Failure to find women in so-called non-traditional jobs can thus only be interpreted as a consequence of employers’ discrimination.”

Continue reading The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity