Friday, June 18, 2010

Women, Society and the Sciences: Smarts or Socialization?

Generally, there’s a fair amount of hand-wringing over the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, especially now that the myth that “women can’t do science” has been dispelled—or has it? In the Science section of last week’s New York Times, John Tierney wrote about a recent finding that high-achieving boys outnumber girls substantially in the top 5% of math and science scores on the SAT and ACT, and that they have done so in a relatively stable way for the past twenty years.

In light of a piece of legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives which would “require the White House science adviser to oversee regular ‘workshops to enhance gender equity,’” Tierney asked,

1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting [former Harvard University president Dr. Lawrence H. Summers’] controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

2) How could these workshops reconcile the “existence of gender bias” with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?

In his exploration of the first of these questions, however, Tierney employs a relatively narrow definition of bias. He fails to demonstrate understanding of the subtler implications of experiencing a biased environment as a minority. Although that’s not exactly surprising, it is troubling, because the message I heard growing up wasn’t that women can’t do science—it’s just that they don’t. Bill Nye the Science Guy is just that, after all: a guy.

A girl who never had a female science teacher or pediatrician might never picture herself in that role. And a girl who knows from the age of twelve that she wants to be a second-grade teacher isn’t going to be motivated to try as hard to do well in her science class, because it’s never going to serve her, and it doesn’t hold her interest. In that way, the gender disparity in STEM fields has a tendency to be self-reinforcing.

The bottom line is that if Tierney looks for bias against women in STEM fields, I don’t think he’s going to find very much of it. The problem isn’t keeping women who enter STEM fields from leaving; it’s getting them to enter in the first place.

Getting women to enter STEM fields in the first place circles back to the natural-aptitude argument. Certainly there are different kinds of intelligences, and it may be that different innate aptitudes are distributed differentially between the genders. As a society, we treat boys and girls radically differently literally from the day they are born, and there is no way to predict how that may influence what happens in the classroom later on.

To me, it seems far more likely that the way we socialize male and female children encourages one kind of thinking in boys, one that may be more suited to STEM fields, and another kind of thinking in girls. I don’t think it’s valid to even consider the question of natural aptitude in a society where the vast majority of toys and children’s books are gendered, because there’s no telling what kind of effect that has on the brain. We don’t have anything to compare it to.

At the very least, we ought to hold off on drawing biologically-based conclusions until the gender gap in math and science scores is eliminated. Even if the theory that greater variability leads to more male super-achievers in math and science holds water, the gender gap in mean scores speaks to me of the tremendous and well-documented influence of socialization on achievement.

This week’s follow-up piece supports the conclusions I drew from last week’s column, and features this gem in the closing paragraphs: If more women prefer to study psychology and medicine than physics and engineering, why is that a problem for Washington to fix? I’d love to see more girls pursuing careers in science (and more women reading science columns), but I wish we’d encourage their individual aspirations instead of obsessing about group disparities. While I don’t necessarily think that mandatory workshops are going to fix the problem—because, really, mandatory workshops?—this reads like he intentionally missed the point.

In other words, Mr. Tierney, your privilege is showing. Until we can demonstrate unequivocally that various forms of systemic bias in our education and employment structures have have zero effect on the apparent finding that "more women prefer to study psychology and medicine," this is systemic discrimination, which makes it absolutely Washington's problem.

(Further reading: Dr. Isis takes on Tierney here.)

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