# The Pipeline Problem

One of the things that ends up bothering me about the discussion of how to get more women in science is that it tends to focus on the college and professional elvel. Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.

This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I’m a college physics professor, and I’m not that guy. I’m not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I’m not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.

The bigger problem, though, is that the focus on the college level really misses the point. The real problem happens earlier, and by the time students get to college, all we can do is damage control. (More below the fold.)

We teach a “First-Year Seminar” class every fall, in which five faculty each spend two weeks lecturing about a topic related to our research. I do a two-week module on laser cooling, other colleagues talk about the quark structure of matter, or black holes and cosmology, or quantum measurement. The idea is to expose new students to some of the really interesting ideas in the field, in the hopes that they’ll be inspired to be physics majors.

I’m teaching it for the fourth time this year, bringing the total number of students I’ve seen in the class to 64. 14 of those students have been women, or just under 22%.

The situation isn’t much different in our calculus-based introductory class for science and engineering majors, which I’ve taught eight times. 35 of the 141 students I’ve had have been women, or just under 25%.

Now, maybe we could do a better job of keeping the women who take those classes in the major program (only 25% of the women in the seminar class go on to be physics majors, compared to about 36% of the men (the numbers are small, though, so the statistical uncertainty is large). For reference, a total of 5/141 (all male) from the regular intro class have become majors, or a whopping 3.5%…), but even if we were so brilliantly inspiring that every student in the class became a physics major, the best female:male ratio we could possibly hope for would be about 1:4. I suppose we could improve things by actively discouraging male students, but that’s a little problematic…

If you want to improve the gender balance in physics, beating up college professors isn’t the answer. We can’t be responsible for driving women out of the field if they never take our classes in the first place. The problem starts somewhere before college, and that’s where the effort to fix it needs to be directed.

1. #1 andy.s
September 8, 2006

Isn’t it a bit unrealistic to expect that every major field to be split 50-50 between men and women?

Is it really that terrible that field A is 60-40 men, field B is 55-45 women and field C is 70-30 women?

To paraphrase somebody-or-other the difference between the sexes is not a problem to be solved but a reality to experience.

2. #2 Uncle Al
September 8, 2006

One of the things that ends up bothering me about the discussion of how to get more women in science is the social activist meme that there is a proper ratio of women to men in science. Or Blacks and Browns to Whites (and screw Asians). Or that a blind kid should take chemistry, and we can rig an optic-sonic feedback for titrations without regard to cost.

A cripple can be enabled to run the 100 yd dash. So? How hard can a Gifted runner be pharmacologically juiced before exploding into red mist?

Compassion – evolutionarily stupid act committed at others’ expense.
Discrimination – objective evaluation.
Conflict resolution – stealing what cannot be earned.
Affirmative Action – jobs given to those who cannot do them.
Equal Opportunity – objective qualification is disqualifying.
Inequity – keeping score.
Poverty – the process by which opportunity requires personal responsibility.

3. #3 A Babe in the Universe
September 8, 2006

The problem starts before college. You need to encourage more girls to be interested in science. You also need to take notice of woman scientists who survive this ignorance.

4. #4 Julie Stahlhut
September 8, 2006

Trolls like Uncle Al aside: Things may well change for women when more girls become (and remain) interested in science and technology because their mothers, aunts, and older sisters enjoyed those things as well.

A few years back, I met a young man who went into a particular branch of engineering because it was his mother’s career as well, and he shared her enthusiasm for it. Obviously, not everyone follows their parents’ paths, but if your mother is an engineer or your aunt is a chemistry professor, being around sci-tech savvy women is part of normal life, not something to be treated as weird or threatening.

So, perhaps gender imbalance will turn out to have a half-life. Of course, if we tolerate the kind of workplace behavior that actively discourages women from participating, all bets are off.

5. #5 Bill Hooker
September 8, 2006

Trackback. (Still can’t get my MT install to play nice with ScienceBlogs.)

6. #6 Rob Knop
September 8, 2006

I suspect that the problem starts somewhere around the 5th-7th grade age. That’s where the “math is hard for everybody, but especially girls” thought seems to get into kids’ heads, alas.

Re: beating up on professors, even though the root core of the gender imbalance problem almost certainly happens in high school, but more likely junior high or earlier, the terrible things that are done to the women who do make it to the professional level remains an issue….

I have made the same objection you have : I am not that pig doing these horrible things, and I can’t see (with one or two exceptions) which of my colleagues here are doing this. One woman has said to me that perhaps I don’t know my colleagues as well as I think I do.

Knowing of at least one case of low-level sexual harsasment here, and that other people relatively close to the people involved had *no idea* that anything had gone on, it’s entirely plausible to me that a lot of the bad stuff goes on gets brushed under the rug and hidden from view. There is a real problem : if you get too witch-hunty about it, all it takes is an accusation fo sexual harassment to ruin somebody’s career unjustly. But you can go too far in protecting the creeps in the name of protecting the innocent.

-Rob

7. #7 andy.s
September 8, 2006

Rob & Chad: re piggish professors.

I don’t know if the Piggishness Hypothesis can account for the statistical deficit. After all, physics isn’t the only field where the men are a bunch of jerks. That’s pretty much true in every field.

In fact the hypothesis that the outflux of female students is due to piggishness implies (through the continuity equation) that d/dt(S_f) + div(P) = 0.

A negative d/dt (actually a partial d, but I can’t make that character on this keyboard) predicts a positive divergence in P(x) (piggishness of field x) for x=Physics, and no-one has yet presented any evidence that this is true.

8. #8 Agnostic
September 8, 2006

Unfortunately, if daughters emulate their mothers in choosing a career, this will serve to decrease the proportion of women in science. Before women’s lib, women won proportionally more Nobels in hard disciplines / gained recognition as mathematicians. Afterwards, women flooded all areas, but especially the non-academic professions like law, medicine, and business. So, in freeing women to choose the path they truly desired, women’s lib resulted in proportionally fewer women in nerdy areas like science, and greater representation is higher profile / more stylish areas like the professions. If that’s what they want, let them do it!

There will always be a certain fraction of male fashion design students at top design schools, but try to get a 50-50 ratio. As you hinted, the only sure-fire way to achieve this is to discourage / kick out a decent chunk of the female students. Not a problem in architecture, though, which is less girly than fashion.

9. #9 Markk
September 8, 2006

“There will always be a certain fraction of male fashion design students at top design schools, but try to get a 50-50 ratio. As you hinted, the only sure-fire way to achieve this is to discourage / kick out a decent chunk of the female students. Not a problem in architecture, though, which is less girly than fashion.”

On the other hand look at medicine which went from almost zero female doctors 70 years ago to over 50% now. There might be some lessons learned there.

10. #10 razib
September 8, 2006

On the other hand look at medicine which went from almost zero female doctors 70 years ago to over 50% now.

i think that goes to agnostic’s point-medicine is a relatively well compensated and glamorous profession with lots of requisite people-to-people interaction.

11. #11 Barry
September 8, 2006

And 30 years ago, medicine was that way, also. But there were *far fewer* women in the field. It’s not the money, glamour or interaction with people which has changed.

12. #12 EJ
September 9, 2006

Agreed that gender imbalance does not begin with college science and math classroom experience. Agreed that, among other things, middle school classroom experience also has an impact.

But where is it that the teachers of grades 5-8 are trained? University math and science departments are concerned about the pipeline, but how much attention are these departments paying to the college students who will become these teachers? I’m not offering a concrete suggestion here, and I don’t think that the education departments (or schools of education) that mostly train these teachers are anything but zealous in their efforts to eliminate gender stereotyping. But I like my questions anyway.

September 9, 2006

I think the medicine field is a red herring. Its far more high profile than most science related fields. For proof just look at the number of students who enter college as pre-med and find out with in the first semester that they can’t cut it.

Doctor, lawyer and something else I’m too drunk to remeber are the fields that everybody chooses when they are placed on the spot to choose something when applying to college.

September 9, 2006

But where is it that the teachers of grades 5-8 are trained? University math and science departments are concerned about the pipeline, but how much attention are these departments paying to the college students who will become these teachers? I’m not offering a concrete suggestion here, and I don’t think that the education departments (or schools of education) that mostly train these teachers are anything but zealous in their efforts to eliminate gender stereotyping. But I like my questions anyway.

Well, you sort of answer your own question– many of the students who will become middle school teachers aren’t in math and science departments, but rather are being trained by education departments. And as with students in general, their discomfort with science probably pre-dates college.

It’s a good point, though, and it’s consistent with my larger point, which is that the emphasis of discussions of how to improve gender balance is somewhat misplaced. The main focus ought to be on how to get better science teachers in the lower grade levels, not on what’s going on in colleges and graduate schools. Which is not to say that colleges and grad schools can’t improve, just that you can have more overall effect by starting earlier.

15. #15 GF
September 9, 2006

When I got my education degree at the U of WI (graduated ’96), consideration of gender bias/stereotypes was a really big deal. Granted, I was in science education, so the purpose behind that awareness is precisely what is being discussed here. As has already been mentioned, and I agree, most of these attitudes have already been established in primary level courses. There was talk at the UW at that time about increasing the math/science requirements of primary education majors so they don’t have the fear of math and science that is typical of many of those teachers. Where (pure speculation to follow) I think that some of the gender bias comes from is that most of the lower grade level teachers dislike math and science. Coincidentally or not, the vast majority of those teachers are female. However, when students get to the junior high and high school levels, they find that the male/female ratio of their instructors in math and physical science has either evened out our reversed to mostly male. (This was the case at both high schools I taught at, but may not be true everywhere).

The gender disparity between subject areas is largely self-selecting, and therefore not something that can be easily changed around. On top of that, education is becoming increasingly (no statistic, just perception) a female profession, especially as the boomer generation retires. While getting more female math and science teachers is good, perhaps getting more male primary school teachers is equally important. Probably more significant than either of those is simply improving the math and science skills of primary school teachers as a whole.

Having said that, these are not simple issues. For one thing, it isn’t easy to change the demographics of teachers. This will continue to be the case as long as the teaching profession is a low paid, low prestige endeavor. Its interesting, generally people like and trust their teachers (when polled people cite teachers as being among the most trusted professionals, about the same as doctors), but very few people respect them on that same level (“those that can…”). These comments only scratch the surface of a very large issue.

16. #16 Cambias
September 9, 2006

I definitely think the problem lies in junior high and high school. Somewhere around puberty, science becomes Uncool. I don’t know why, but it does. And girls seem more vulnerable to the pressure of Coolness than boys of the same age (possibly because boys are somewhat more egotistical at that point).

Personal anecdote: all through high school (and I went to a preppy private school) one girl always seemed like a tremendous ditz — asking dumb questions, rolling her eyes whenever the teachers tried to explain things, etc. A total airhead.

Until Awards Night our senior year. Turns out she had one of the best GPAs in the class — even in science. She was _pretending to be stupid_. I expect there are lots of girls out there who don’t just pretend, but actually dumb themselves down.

I’m normally dubious about the whole idea of “role models” specific to different groups, but I must say I think teenage girls need to be told loudly and often that being smart is sexy. (It doesn’t help that the most attractive celebrities all seem to be dumber than mulch.)

Cambias

17. #17 MaryKaye
September 10, 2006

I apologize for the rant…

This whole discussion really (I don’t know whether to say, chaps my butt, or leaves me sputtering). I’m an economist-wannabe, and my dissertation falls within the field of labor economics. So I ought to have something rational to day about the issue but, for me, it’s personal as well.

I’ll swallow hard on the personal side of the issue, and simply acknowledge that my high school graduation pre-dated Title 9. And, allow myself to wonder if the chickens aren’t coming home to roost given the length of time that it takes to become established in the academic world (as opposed to a first professional world) coupled with an apparent human need for some ‘critical mass’ to attract other entrants (what economics refers to as aggregation). However, I will note that the observation that the socialization to discipline process does begin much earlier than the undergraduate freshman year. I was lucky. I attended a co-ed Catholic high school. Most of my teachers for math and science were members of the Sisters of St. Joseph; and many had their PhD’s, were Rhodes Scholars, or Oxford Scholars. At least for those intellectually and academically gifted women, their career choices were limited to the classroom. Which perhaps is just another way of saying that the expanded career opportunities for women generally could be further working to defeat women in the STEM areas on an institutional level.

18. #18 Zuska
September 11, 2006

Consider this: maybe you ARE actually a tiny part of the problem. Maybe, despite your best intentions, your teaching style turns off women students. Maybe you interrupt your female colleagues in faculty meetings or ignore their ideas or don’t notice when one of your colleagues takes credit for their ideas. Or you don’t notice or don’t protest when the speaker slate at a conference is all-male. Or awards nominations are all-male. Or the awards selection committee is all male. Or your seminar series on campus just happens to include all male invitees. Or your list of candidates for an open faculty line just, miraculously, happens to include NO FEMALES! Because nobody made an effort to recruit any! Maybe you should go take some Implicit Association tests and consider your results and what you might like to do differently in the future. I’m not saying you are not a nice person. I’m just saying we all have a set of implicit cultural associations that affect how we behave even when we aren’t aware of it, and that these things matter.

Women undergraduates at Bryn Mawr college are 30 times more likely to earn a degree in physics as college women nationwide. Why do you suppose that is? Bryn Mawr women are also 10 times more likely to earn a degree in chemistry and 8 times more likely to earn a degree in math. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/7/06, p. A16, “Center Honors Spirit of Hepburn and Family”). Bryn Mawr promotes the notion of a career in scientific research for women and it promotes a culture of success for women. Somehow they have no trouble attracting and retaining young women into scientific careers. It’s been that way at Bryn Mawr since its inception (see Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America). There is a difference between an active culture that is intended to promote women’s success in science, and views science as a pursuit that rightfully and logically belongs to women, versus a passive culture that throws up its hands and says “gosh darn it, we don’t know why those silly women don’t want to come over here into OUR wonderful world of physics.” Guess which one you are living in right now?

19. #19 Frumious B
September 11, 2006

The problem starts somewhere before college, and that’s where the effort to fix it needs to be directed.

sorry, dude, you are not off the hook. the problem starts before college and continues into college, into grad school, and into the professional and professorial world. how much of that “I don’t want to be bothered with this” attitude might be driving off women?

20. #20 anon
September 11, 2006

“The problem starts somewhere before college, and that’s where the effort to fix it needs to be directed.”

Wow, how can you be a physics prof when your basic logic skills are that utterly lacking? Sure the problem starts before college, but that doesn’t change the fact that the problem continues during college, and your responsibility as a prof puts you in charge of being part of the solution.

For heaven’s sake, “it’s not my fault so it’s not my problem” is acceptible for schoolchilren, but it’s ludicrous in an adult.

21. #21 Winawer
September 11, 2006

sorry, dude, you are not off the hook. the problem starts before college and continues into college, into grad school, and into the professional and professorial world. how much of that “I don’t want to be bothered with this” attitude might be driving off women?

Frumious B, have you read what’s gone before? Allow me to quote from Chad’s own words in response to your own, cherry-picked, quote:

Now, maybe we could do a better job of keeping the women who take those classes in the major program (only 25% of the women in the seminar class go on to be physics majors, compared to about 36% of the men (the numbers are small, though, so the statistical uncertainty is large). For reference, a total of 5/141 (all male) from the regular intro class have become majors, or a whopping 3.5%…), but even if we were so brilliantly inspiring that every student in the class became a physics major, the best female:male ratio we could possibly hope for would be about 1:4. I suppose we could improve things by actively discouraging male students, but that’s a little problematic…

I would have preferred this one, but I’m just assuming that you didn’t read any of the comments:

It’s a good point, though, and it’s consistent with my larger point, which is that the emphasis of discussions of how to improve gender balance is somewhat misplaced. The main focus ought to be on how to get better science teachers in the lower grade levels, not on what’s going on in colleges and graduate schools. Which is not to say that colleges and grad schools can’t improve, just that you can have more overall effect by starting earlier.

Now, where in there does Chad say that he “can’t be bothered”? For that matter, where in this entire post and its comments do you see that from him? Disagreeing with the man is one thing – in which case, you might try coming with an argument instead of a blanket denouncement that does nothing but insult people – but wading in without even bothering to read what’s already been written is just rude.

22. #22 Lisa
September 12, 2006

As a woman currently majoring in physics, I have to agree with the idea that the main damage is done before college. The only reason I’m where I am today is an inordinate amount of stubbornness and a tendency to respond to “That’s too hard” and “You can’t do that” with “Yeah? Just watch me.”

I’d like to make clear that I do believe there are more men than women who find science/math easy and interesting, but that there are other causes, as well. Not the least of these is the middle school and high school environment. Some are lucky enough to find schools where academic success is valued, but I’m constantly surprised by classmates and friends’ experiences of having to hide their intelligence in order to be welcomed. It’s not just a theory, it does happen, and trying to do no better than a C does not help with learning.

And once someone falls behind, it’s so hard to catch up. I’ve met students even at Yale whose logical reasoning and problem-solving abilities are unbelievably lacking, students who can know a three-variable equation and two of the variables without even realizing they can find the value of the third. They go for physics help and there’s hardly anything to be done, because they would need to start over practically with algebra. And nobody wants to feel that dumb, so they go and take some more English courses instead.

And although these students come in both genders, this is what can happen when science, math, and abstract reasoning are neglected early on. There’s nothing a college professor can do to take an English major and convince them to study advanced mathematics, if they don’t have the basic math to support it. And if women have been shirking mathematics to not appear “brainy”, they won’t have that mathematical support either.

23. #23 Mecha
September 12, 2006

Chad: Having run into this yesterday, and then Zuska’s response today, I sorta want to point out an important distinction that you did miss. While I think that that ‘pipeline’ problem is real, what you have to realize (and what Zuska is trying to get at, I think) is that it’s not just the creepy sexist guys who sit in the back room smoking cigars and joking about women that make the hostile environment. It is everything in the environment. And it _is_ important. To have fun with the metaphor: the front of the pipeline has to be filled, and you’re right to bring it up, but if the back of the pipeline’s leaking, you’re not getting much water pressure, are you?

I believe you are sincere, and it reads as such, about wanting to teach women if only they reached you. And there’s been a lot of focus on the college side for various reasons, so I can see that as offputting. But I think you should temper that with the realism that a male dominated professor group/student group that isn’t actively being conscious of how they are treating women are going to tend to be somewhat sexist and create a hostile environment. Possibly (and often) without their knowing it, but that’s how male privilege works: You miss things. And the fact that professors are the ones who get in the news, not grade school science teachers, furthers that problem.

I think you brought up a very good point in this. But in your conclusion you made it seem like the only factor, when the reality is that the pipeline has to be healthy from beginning to end, and that it isn’t on either end. College science/engineering professors can do more to encourage _every_ student, but even moreso with women students. Zuska makes some suggestions on her journal. Community outreach outside of the college. Getting on boards and making sure that a women-positive image is presented for your department.

Patriarchy/sexism/racism/etc is almost never a ‘it can never happen here, we’re 100% accepting and nice’ problem in the real world. We can never allow ourselves to act like it’s all somewhere else, and we’re just inheriting it. Because it’s just not true.

-Mecha

24. #24 Liz
September 12, 2006

You know, I think the problem at the beginning of the pipeline is valid. But at the end of the pipeline, women will recruit other women. I was the only woman to graduate as a philosophy major in my class (there were fifteen men–the program was heavily analytic), but I pulled in at least six more underclassmen girls by doing so–women intimidated by the largely male classes spoke to me about handling it, and my positive experience convinced them.

Encourage the women in the department, and they will bring others. Two of the female students I pulled into the department have reported recruiting other women, and gone are the days when there was only one woman in the upper-level seminars.

September 12, 2006

You know, I think the problem at the beginning of the pipeline is valid. But at the end of the pipeline, women will recruit other women.

Absolutely.
We just graduated a class that was 50% women, and part of the reason was that there were other women in the department already. Believe me when I say that we’re making every effort to attract and retain women in the department.

I’m not going to go through a blow-by-blow description of what we do, and what discussions we have, and so on, because, quite frankly, it’s nobody else’s business. I have a standing policy that I won’t post about internal college politics or internal departmental business, because that’s the surest way to get into trouble with a blog.

(I thought this post was safe, as it mentions students only in a statistical manner; obviously, that was a mistake.)

As for the wording of the post, I probably should’ve been more careful with my word choice in the final paragraph. Did I mean to say that only pre-college efforts should be made? No, though what I wrote does give that impression. There’s plenty of room for improvement at the college level and above. But I think the pre-college level is where the most important damage is done, and it ought to get more attention than it does.

I may or may not come back to this later. For the moment, it hasn’t been a good day, and attempting to talk more about this is only going to get me in trouble.

26. #26 Greg
September 12, 2006

So, you recognize that your automatic response, when you are not thinking clearly or paying attention, might not be the response for which you would wish to be remembered.

Please note, NO sarcasm… This is good. AA begins with, “We admitted…”.

If there is one fact people like Zuska find themselves saying over and over, it is not that you choose to be slimy but that you have been taught, to do or not to do, to notice or not to notice, when you are not paying careful attention, the slimy acts.

27. #27 tim
September 12, 2006

I thought the data was pretty clear about this: past high school, the pipeline is no more leaky for women than it is for men.

28. #28 tim
September 12, 2006

And just to demonstrate that the plural of all the above anecdotes is not “data” – here’s the report:

http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/women05.pdf

=================================
Examination of the academic “pipeline” reveals that women disproportionately leave physics between taking it in high school and earning a bachelor’s degree. While almost half of high school physics students are girls, less that one-fourth of bachelor’s degrees in physics are earned by women. After this initial “leak” in the pipeline, women are represented at about the levels we would expect based on degree production in the past. There appears to be no leak in the pipeline at the faculty level in either physics or astronomy.

Estimates of the retention rates for physics graduate students show only small differences in the dropout rate for male and female students.
===================================================

September 13, 2006

So, you recognize that your automatic response, when you are not thinking clearly or paying attention, might not be the response for which you would wish to be remembered.

Actually, I recognize that the highlight of my afternoon yesterday was getting a phone call from my wife in the emergency room. Which sort of reduced the mental energy I had available for trying to delicately phrase blog comments.

You had no way of knowing this, of course, which is why you don’t get to read my automatic response to your comment (which was unprintable). But let’s just say I’m not in a very good mood right at the moment, and leave it at that.

30. #30 Greg
September 13, 2006

I’m sorry.

Go take care of her.

And let her, or somebody, take care of you.

31. #31 MaryKaye
September 13, 2006

Tim: Thanks for the link. From an economics perspective, it’s interesting on a couple of levels. But trying to stick to the central issue, higher ed is not absolved by its findings if half the high school students taking physics are women, but so few graduate from college with a degree in physics. It’d be helpful to see some drill-down stats on “Examination of the academic “pipeline” reveals that women disproportionately leave physics between taking it in high school and earning a bachelor’s degree.” There is a pretty significant time gap between high school exit and college graduation. I’m not sure that gap is adequately explained by “…although fewer girls take AP physics in high school.” This aspect,however, “Although the percentage of degrees awarded to women in physics continues to increase, physics is not attracting women as quickly as other fields.” suggests we keep examining what we do, and how we do it.

Chad: In my book, you get serious bonus points for even being willing to bring the pipeline issue up. As evidenced here, it’s a high voltage issue. A few shocks are to be expected.

I hope Kate (?) is okay.

32. #32 anon
September 14, 2006

“I thought the data was pretty clear about this: past high school, the pipeline is no more leaky for women than it is for men.”

Tim, did you even read your own posting? The blurb you posted says that past receiving a bachelor’s degree, the pipeline is no more leaky. That includes college in the major leak, rather than excluding it.

33. #33 Tim
September 14, 2006

I’m not sure if the last two commentors are implying that the girls who take high school physics are doing so because they are intending to major in it. That’s not the way I remember high school physics working. No doubt one of you two has data on the relative dashed expectations of would be male and female physics majors, and when you post it, I will graciously acknowledge my error. (If only we treated out scientists like athletes, and made them sign letters of intent, we’d have the statistics we need….) But in the meantime, if those mean old college professors aren’t keeping women off the faculty or out of the graduate programs, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that they aren’t driving them out in 101.

And, to stoop to the anecdotal, it has been my experience that most physics faculty are grateful for every major they can get.

34. #34 MaryKaye
September 14, 2006

Tim, me thinks you are simply changing the subject. You offered the link as ‘evidence.’ You got two responses suggesting that the evidence failed to support your claim. You could shimmy around by charging that we failed to provide evidence that challenged your claim… but we don’t need to. Your own choice of evidence can be read to support the notion there could be a problem with leaks in the pipeline occurring during students’ years in college. And, anecdotal evidence can’t be all bad if we’re to accept your argument, “That’s not the way I remember high school physics working.”

35. #35 tim
September 15, 2006

Your own choice of evidence can be read to support the notion there could be a problem with leaks in the pipeline occurring during students’ years in college.

No it can’t. Students taking high school physics are not all students who intend to be physics majors. Nothing anecdotal about that.

So let’s just take stock of the situation:

Evidence that the pipeline is not leaky. Check.
Evidence that the pipeline is leaky. Still waiting.

Maybe we have a different understanding about how to draw conclusions from that.

September 15, 2006

I should probably just let this die, but I’ll add one final comment on the matter. I think Tim is slightly overstating the case, but the AIP study he cites was part of the mental background for the original post (though I didn’t cite it), so I should comment on it.

The AIP study found that high school physics classes were roughly 50% women, but that only 22% of bachelors degrees in physics were awarded to women. After that, there don’t appear to be significant “leaks in the pipeline”– the fraction of women entering graduate school in a given year is roughly the same as the fraction receiving bachelors degrees a year earlier, the fraction of women receiving Ph.D.’s is roughly the same as the fraction who entered graduate school five or six years earlier, etc.

This could be interpreted one of two ways: either all the damage is done in college, or something happens between high school and college. The AIP data don’t allow us to make that distinction.

My anecdotal point in this post is that the drop appears, from where I sit, to occur mostly between high school and the start of college. The fraction of women I’ve seen in the intro classes over the last five years is roughly the same as the fraction of women receiving bachelors degrees in physics nationally. Even if high school classes are 50/50, the first college physics class is already 25/75. And there’s not much change from that point on– of the 27 majors who have graduated since I’ve been here, 8 have been women, or about 27%. (That’s a quick count, and I may be misattributing some minors as majors, or vice versa…)

Now, these are small numbers, so the error bars are big, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but this is a weblog, not a scholarly white paper. I’m just describing what I see.

37. #37 Bill Hooker
September 16, 2006

either all the damage is done in college, or something happens between high school and college

There isn’t anything between high school and college, is there? I think you mean “something happens during high school”, so that fewer women than men continue to study physics after they took it in high school.

Are there any data on dropout rates? And I don’t necessarily mean failure, I mean taking a first-year physics class and then “dropping out” by declaring a non-physics major. If women are entering college physics at the same rate as men, but graduating at a much lower rate, then the main problem seems to be at the college level. If the dropout rates are approximately equal, then it seems that choice of physics as major is the main determinant of college sex ratios in physics classes — viz, most of the damage is being done in high school.

September 16, 2006

Are there any data on dropout rates? And I don’t necessarily mean failure, I mean taking a first-year physics class and then “dropping out” by declaring a non-physics major. If women are entering college physics at the same rate as men, but graduating at a much lower rate, then the main problem seems to be at the college level.

The only numbers I have access to are in the post, and in the previous comment. Women make up 22-25% of my sections of the intro classes, averaged over the last five years, and 27% of our majors over the last five years have been women.

39. #39 Bill Hooker
September 16, 2006

Oops, sorry, missed that. So, the data we have suggests that fewer women are taking physics in college than took it in high school (where I wrote “choice of physics as major” above, I meant “choosing to take physics at college”, sorry for the confusing error!). It’s frustrating that the report doesn’t look at sex distribution in first-year/intro physics classes, since as Chad points out his is a pretty small dataset.

The biggest identifiable leak in the pipeline, though, appears to be the number of women who, having taken high school physics, choose not to take college physics at all.

40. #40 Greg
September 17, 2006

It is hardly likely that one truly respects those whom he calls “pipeline” and “leak”.

Those are words we normally associate with “commodity” and “sewage”.

I can well imagine that young women, noticing such words, and others more subtle, employ that intuition and empathy which men like to tell them they have as unenviable substitutes for reason and ..er.. un-empathy, and go where they are more likely to succeed.

41. #41 Bill Hooker
September 18, 2006

It is hardly likely that one truly respects those whom he calls “pipeline” and “leak”.

Huh? I am talking about men as well as women “in the pipeline”; the problem, if you like, is that it leaks women but retains men. It’s not a sex-specific metaphor.

42. #42 tonyl
September 18, 2006

Greg, you’re a parody, right? I mean, nobody could seriously say something so idiotic and be serious?

Are you seriously saying that women are so much more delicate then men that refering to the educational path followed by both male and female scientists and engineers as a “pipeline” is driving these delicate women away (but not driving the men away)? I know you can’t seriously be saying something to patronizing.

Oh, and a minor quibble, the word “pipeline” is almost exclusively used in reference to resources. As such, it is generally a positive notation. We have information pipelines, drug development pipelines, etc. As such, pipeline is the appropriate analogy when dealing with the flow of a resource (scientists and engineers) into career positions. Sewage, on the other hand, is generally carried in Sewers, not pipelines.

September 18, 2006

Greg, you’re a parody, right? I mean, nobody could seriously say something so idiotic and be serious?

Let’s try to keep things civil, please. I’m lazy, so I don’t want to have to start disemvowelling comments.

The term “pipeline” for this situation does not originate with me. I got it from the AIP report referenced above, and they probably got it from somewhere else. If you have a problem with the term, take it up with them.

44. #44 Greg
September 18, 2006

I don’t say women are more delicate. I say they are smarter.. we might risk saying, more intuitive and empathic. They know the differences among, “There don’t seem to be as many girls here anymore.”, “Alice doesn’t seem to come around anymore.”, and “Alice, why don’t you come around anymore?”

A pipeline is great for oil. “pipeline” makes a wonderfully insightful metaphor for logistics, where you don’t care much about the widgets as long as they are all alike and keep coming on time. People don’t wish to be all alike, and they think you should respect their schedules too.

Women especially are reminded every fourth week that you (collective) will be grumbling, “What happened to my pipeline?”

Regardless where “pipeline” came from, it is like the N-word. One that you should not use carelessly.

Think about an over-heated pipeline room, compared to an N-word oven. You get out of an oven quickly any way you can. There is not so much urgency to escape an over-heated room; however, you do leave as soon as there is no stronger reason to stay. And if you notice some people remain apparently preferring the heat, no matter how much you like them.. you might attend graduation and tenure celebrations.. but you won’t marry into the family.

“pipeline” is not a brick-wall. It is just one more thorn in the hedge.

45. #45 Bright Star (B*)
September 20, 2006

Hi, Chad. I don’t know if you’re still reading these comments, but I came over from inside higher ed. Anyhow, I wanted to give you and your commenters follow-up on the preparation of middle school math (and science) teachers, because… well… let’s just say I know a thing or two about such things. (Maybe this has already been covered in the comments and I missed it because I stopped reading in detail when things got tense. I hope your wife is okay!)

Due to new Federal Requirements, middle school teachers are required to have an equivalent of a major in their subject area. This means middle school teachers are prepared by BOTH mathematics / science departments AND education schools. Usually at least a portion of these credits in their major in their content area (maybe 1/3 of the credits, more or less) are content courses designed specifically for teachers geared to enrich their understanding of the material they will be teaching students, while the rest of the courses in the major are mathematics and science courses that other college students who major in the subjects would also take. Just sharing.

As someone who has involvement in education, it’s a classic move to wonder about the level below; I should know, because I’ve done it, too! The college professors want better preparation in K-12, the high school teachers want better preparation in K-8. The middle school teachers want better preparation in K-6. The elementary school teachers want better preparation in preschool and at home. Etc. Then the question is, since we can’t control the level in which we do not work, how can we make a difference where we’re at?