Sunday, April 26, 2009

Women in Science

While women’s rights have lead to amazing strides for women in science, unfortunately, those who do choose the field may still have to put up with chauvinism and exclusionary attitudes.
 For example, the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, while acting in his duties as the institution’s president gave a talk in which he speculated that women may statistically have lesser aptitude for work in the highest levels of math and science. To come to this conclusion he cited the book (Women in Science) by Yu Xie and Kimberlee Shauman, which by his own admission he only perused casually, drawing his conclusions from calculations that were ‘wrong and unsubtle” (in his own words) [1]. From this he observed that men outweigh women 2 to 1 in the top 5% of grade twelve students in math and science, and that therefore men had an inherently superior aptitude for high level math and science. What a silly and unsupported conclusion to draw! Especially when you factor in that Xie and Shauman, the authors of the work he cited, specifically refuted the conclusions he came to.
Some very basic questions need to be answered before giving any weight to Mr. Summers’ words: What is the ratio of men to women who actually sign up for these grade 12 math and science courses? He seems to assume that there are an equal number of males and females signing up in the first place - personal experience would indicate otherwise. Also, how has this ratio of top performing males and females been changing with time? We know that a long time ago the top performing math and science students were all male (as all the students were male in our chauvinistic society). Now, apparently it is about 33% female – has this number been increasing with time? Is it on the road to 50%? How do these gender ratios among top performing math and science students compare when we look at nations with historically more equitable treatment towards women?
(Addendum: interestingly, a recent article in the Globe and Mail (one of Canada's national newspapers) indicated that the vast majority of top performing students in science in Canada are female - this was determined from the set of top performing students at Canada's annual nationally organized science fair. Incidentally this involves upper year high school students - the same age group that was being cited by Lawrence Summers)
Although I have a number of problems with Summers’ analysis and will be ordering Xie and Shauman’s book to look through this issue more carefully, perhaps the best way to sum up the problems with what Summers said is not by looking at what is factually incorrect about it, but to look at the obvious negative effects of his words:
As MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins said: “For him to say that ‘aptitude’ is the second most important reason that women don’t get to the top when he leads an institution that is 50 percent women students – that’s profoundly disturbing to me,” Hopkins said. “He shouldn’t admit women to Harvard if he’s going to announce when they come that, hey, we don’t feel that you can make it to the top.”

If someone is embarking on their education towards obtaining a job, that person is liable to consider the obvious: How much education/training will I require to obtain this job and how much does the job tend to pay? On this measure careers in math and science do not tend to perform well – requiring enormous amounts of education/training but not yielding the top salaries. Given this issue and all the other science complaints presented at Spotlight-on-Science, perhaps women’s under-representation in math/science is because they’re smart enough to choose something else.