Five years ago Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, made headlines when he suggested that women are not as well represented in science because of “issues of intrinsic aptitude.” By proposing that women are biologically less capable of succeeding in science he gained the anger of many of his colleagues and continued his reputation for divisive management (African-American Studies professor Cornel West reportedly left Harvard for Princeton based on disagreements he had with Summers).
Now, a report released today on the representation of women in science reveals that, while there are still barriers to gender equality, over the last forty years women PhDs in the sciences have increased from less than 5% to 30%.
As reported in The New York Times:
At the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the report found that the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among mathematically precocious youth — sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT — 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.
“That’s not biology at play, it doesn’t change so fast,” Ms. Hill said. “Even if there are biological factors in boys outnumbering girls, they’re clearly not the whole story. There’s a real danger in assuming that innate differences are important in determining who will succeed, so we looked at the cultural factors, to see what evidence there is on the nurture side of nature or nurture.”
The report found multiple reasons to suggest that cultural bias remains the primary barrier. For example, one study of postdoctoral applicants found that women were required to publish on average 3 more papers in highly regarded journals (and as many as 20 more in lesser known publications) to be considered as productive as male applicants.
Despite the gains that women have made in the sciences their representation isn’t evenly distributed as one would expect if all things were equal. For example, three months ago Harvard tenured their first female mathematics professor in 375 years. Was that gap based strictly on ability, Mr. Summers?