There was a great big New York Times article on women in science this week, which prompted no end of discussion. (I also highly recommend Bee’s response at Backreaction.) It’s built around the personal story of the author, Eileen Pollack, a physics major at Yale who decided not to go to grad school, and her story is compellingly told, providing a nice frame to her investigation of the question of why there continue to be so few women in the sciences.
Pollack comes out very much in favor of the notion that many women choose not to go to graduate school in the sciences because they don’t receive sufficient encouragement, writing that “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” She also quotes Yale prof Meg Urry agreeing with this, saying “Women need more positive reinforcement, and men need more negative reinforcement. Men wildly overestimate their learning abilities, their earning abilities.”
This explanation certainly fits with her personal story, but there are two numbers that make me think this might be a little too pat. Those are, from the American Institute of Physics statistics division, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded to women, which has been consistently in the 20-23% range since about 2000, and the percentage of Ph.D.’s in physics awarded to women, which is… right around 20% (the last specific number I saw in quickly scanning the AIP stats was 19%, but that was in 2008).
Those numbers are more or less the same– the uncertainty in them is probably a couple of percent. And those suggest that women go on to graduate school in more or less the same proportion as men do. This is further supported by their “Focus on First Year Graduate Students” report, which gives the average of the 2007 and 2009 entering classes as 20% female, during years when the percentage of bachelors degrees awarded to women was around 21%. And once in grad school, they go on to complete the Ph.D. in about the same proportion as men do. (And as previously noted are if anything very slightly overrepresented in faculty ranks.)
Now, it might be that this is a recent development– Pollack’s personal story dates from 1978, after all, and there have been numerous efforts to improve support systems for women over the intervening years. Maybe the support Pollack was lacking is now there, giving women the encouragement they need to go on to graduate study. You wouldn’t get that from the article, though.
It’s also possible that total graduation rate statistics are just too coarse to catch the real problem. You could maybe come up with an explanation involving overly confident men going off to make shitloads of money in finance, while the second-rate male students go on to grad school, or something. Again, though, that’s not something you get from the article, nor most of the online discussion I’ve seen.
Going from the available numbers, though, I am skeptical that the “not enough encouragement” explanation is the complete story, at least at the college/ grad school level. I suspect that the confidence levels aren’t quite as mismatched as the article would have it, and there are more timid men and bold women out there than are accounted for in the anecdotes provided.
Please note that I’m not trying to gainsay anybody’s personal anecdotes or claim that there is absolutely nothing wrong. Some of the stories that are reported in the times piece are absolutely appalling, and should’ve cost people jobs. I have no reason or desire to deny the validity of the experiences of those women.
But at the same time, the numbers suggest that even the sexist culture suggested by those anecdotes can’t be the whole story. For every woman who decides not to continue on to grad school or leaves grad school before the Ph.D., four men must also be leaving, for reasons that presumably don’t have to do with gender bias directed at them. And it’s hard to imagine that women are immune to whatever’s pushing the men out (I suspect that a lot of sexist bullshit is actually part of a more general sociopathy that makes life suck for everyone).
And, as always, the most important take-home is that this problem starts early. Which was driven home again recently– SteelyKid has said for a long time that she wants to be a scientist, but at one point this week said “I’m not going to be a scientist. Girls can’t be scientists.” I jumped on that as quickly and as hard as I could (and as she tends to do, she tried to pass it off as a joke– “I was just making that up”), but it’s incredibly depressing to realize that we already need to deal with this nonsense. I’m trying to think of an excuse to bring her over to campus and take her around to meet the many female scientists and engineers I work with at Union…