Education gaps.

I want to note three recent articles about science education. They may be dots worth connecting to each other, or they may not. I welcome your hypotheses, well grounded or tentative.

  1. Via Michael Berube: "Women Gaining on Men in Advanced Fields". It seems like we've heard this kind of result recently but here again, you have your choice of how to spin the story: are women catching up, or are men falling behind? From the article:

    Women now earn the majority of diplomas in fields men used to dominate - from biology to business - and have caught up in pursuit of law, medicine and other advanced degrees.

    Even with such enormous gains over the past 25 years, women are paid less than men in comparable jobs and lag in landing top positions on college campuses.

    Federal statistics released Thursday show that in many ways, the gender gap among college students is widening. The story is largely one of progress for women, stagnation for men.

    Women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees in business, biological sciences, social sciences and history. The same is true for traditional strongholds such as education and psychology.

    In undergraduate and graduate disciplines where women trail men, they are gaining ground, earning larger numbers of degrees in math, physical sciences and agriculture. ...

    Women who work full time earn about 76 percent as much as men, according to the Institute of Women's Policy Research. Women are underrepresented in full-time faculty jobs, particularly in fields such as physical sciences, engineering and math.

    "We clearly have a long way to go," said Van Ummersen, vice president for the council's Center for Effective Leadership. She said some universities are replacing retiring professors, giving women a chance to move into tenured positions.

    The enrollment of men in professional degree programs is declining.

    "There's every reason to celebrate the success of women. And one has to be concerned about what's happening with men," said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the Education Department.

    Researchers say that men, for different reasons, are not enrolling in or completing college programs with the same urgency as women.

    One reason is a failure by schools to teach boys well at an early age, leading to frustration by high school. A second is a recognition by young men that they can land, if only temporarily, some decent-paying jobs without a college degree.

    Boys need to have their aspirations raised just as girls have, said Tom Mortenson, senior scholar for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. By middle school, he said, many boys are tuning out and the problem is only getting worse.

    "Women have been making educational progress, and the men are stuck," he said. "They haven't just fallen behind women. They have fallen behind changes in the job market."

    So fewer men are going to college, and maybe elementary school, middle school, and high school are not hetting boys interested and engaged. (Presumably the girls are interested and engaged, but here's a little secret for you middle school teachers out there: some girls are good at faking engagement in your boring classes.) We'll get to the question of engagement in just a moment. If our schools are turning anyone off to learning, there's a problem we ought to fix.

    But ... once again the numbers we see reflected in the degrees earned is not reproduced in the workplace. Look, especially, at academic jobs in chemistry, physics, math, engineering. The gender imbalances are still there. (Also, there's that wage gap.) Rather than diving into speculation about the cause(s) of the gap, let me just throw a question out there: Do women need to earn the majority of degrees in a field in order to start increasing their numbers in that field's professoriate?

  2. From the Boston Globe: "Early Education Key to Scientific Career Choice". I might have written a different headline for this one. From the article:

    Teenage career preferences are a more reliable indicator than mathematical aptitude for predicting which students become scientists, suggesting a flaw in federal education strategies, a University of Virginia study found.

    The federally funded survey of 3,359 students who were in the eighth grade in 1988 found that those who expressed interest in science yet made only average math scores had a 34 percent chance of graduating college with a science or engineering degree.

    Among those with above-average math scores and no preference for science, only 19 percent of the college graduates earned such degrees, according to the study led by Robert Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia.

    The findings suggest that mandatory testing policies, such as the No Child Left Behind Law promoted by the Bush administration as a solution to low-performing US schools, might worsen the nation's output of scientists by distracting teachers from field trips and other activities that stimulate student interest in sciences, Tai said.

    The way I'm reading these results: If you're serious about pursuing science, you'll study science. To the extent you need to be able to learn math to do this, you will. Indifferent marks in math while you're a teenager may just be due to your being a teenager (and thus paying attention to other stuff besides school work). Teachers certainly can help stimulate an interest in science (as I've noted before), but that interest can be sparked by other people and experiences, too. (Still, it's undeniable that high-stakes testing pretty much stinks up the educational experience.)

  3. From Inside Higher Ed: Overlooked Again -- Community Colleges and Science. It turns out that people who take classes at community college can end up earning degrees in sciences. Who knew? From the article:

    Several members of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, a Congressionally created group that advises the National Science Foundation, openly expressed surprise Thursday after presentations that shook their notions of community colleges.

    Multiple members said that they had no idea that so many science and math bachelor's and master's degrees go to students who have taken at least one class at a community college.

    According to NSF's 2001 Survey of Recent College Graduates, 46 percent of bachelor's and master's degree recipients in 1999 and 2000 in "life and related sciences" had attended community colleges. Students who had taken a class or classes at a community college also accounted for 42 percent of computer and math sciences degrees at or above the bachelor's level, and 40 percent of engineering degrees.

    Those of us "on the ground" already knew what these folks advising the NSF are just finding out: people don't go to community college because they're dumb! Frequently, folks who start out at community college and end up at four-year-colleges or universities are smart as whips. Their educational paths may have been determined by financial concerns (i.e., no money for a fancy tuition), or it may have taken them some time to get around to college (because they were working or traveling or taking care of families or whatever). Good articulation agreements between CCs and universities are essential (so there's general agreement about what "Chem 1A" means), but there's no shortage of aptitude from the CC folks.


More like this

"So fewer men are going to college, ..."

As usual, Ampersand ( has covered this the best - always go there for info.

I couldn't find the chart that he put up the last time that this hullabaloo stirred up, but he had one showing the percentages of people aged 18-24 who were enrolled in UG programs, by sex, race/ethnicity and income. These percentages had been increasing for a number of years, except for black males. The last decline for white males was late in the draft era (early 70's), and was possibly related to the end of student deferments.

There were also some interesting income effects.

As someone in the education policy field, I think these findings are all relatively interesting. While they are mostly obvious results, I believe we should praise policy makers who look to statistics and research when making decisions. After all, scientists too often have to deal with political leaders who overlook facts.

The major theme that I see running through the articles is excitement about science. How many times do kids hear that in order to succeed you have to stay in school, work hard, and take lots of math? These things are obviously true, but we should also tell (and show!) them how much FUN science and engineering can be. The second article that you cite makes this especially clear - apparently one does not have to be great at math to be a scientist. So let's make it interesting for kids along with being educational. (These are not mutually exclusive!)

I think the community college item just supports this further. People who did not get interested in high school finally get that spark when in the higher education environment, which actually includes labs, hands-on experiences, and overall less regimented learning.

So, let's hope that there will be even more statistics that confirm the obvious. Sometimes that is needed before the obvious matches the policy.

I think it's very interesting what the second article implies. It makes a lot of sense (in addition to jiving with my own sense of why I didn't pursue math farther in school): people will learn math to the extent that they need math for something else. But maybe there are few people out there who are motivated enough to learn something like math in a near-complete usefulness vacuum. There are a few different possible lessons for educators in there.

Doc Free Ride,

I read your line "look, especially, at academic jobs in chemistry, physics, math, engineering. The gender imbalances are still there. (Also, there's that wage gap.)" and it screamed for a quick reply. Specifically, why is the gender imbalance in science and engineering such an issue when the reverse gender gap (gotta call it something) gets so little play? Having recently left the academic sphere I will note the predominance of female undergraduates, graduates and new hires for faculty in biology, social studies and education. At the West Coast University I attended almost 80% of the biology undergraduates were female yet all we heard were complaints that there were not enough women in physics, engineering and chemistry...although oddly enough there were more female undergraduates in chemistry than males in three of the five years I was at the school.

As for the famous "gender gap" in wages, I would beseech you to look at the numbers in greater detail as you will discover that the results are no better than a "push-poll" and the studies commonly cited were clearly designed to get a useful result for advocacy purposes. The studies I have looked at in detail are flawed in that they compare apples with oranges or more specifically they mix full time employment with part-time employment and compare highly experienced employees with novice employees. To explain, while many researchers don't want to admit it, some women do voluntarily choose to take time off from their careers for family purposes and this results in them being behind the curve in their careers. This is not surprising since an absence of one-three years to raise children will likely result in a lack of promotions during those absent years. Additionally, many choose to work part-time upon their return which also results in lower pay and reduced opportunities for promotion. What you seldom see quoted are the studies that show that when women and men with equal academic credentials and work experience are compared the "gap" disappears. Oddly enough one study I read (can't find it at this moment) noted that women with equal education and experience were earning slightly more than their male counterparts. The authors posited that this may be due to gender differences in hiring which has the effect of accelerating early promotions through the junior ranks for qualified women to make up for historical inequalities in hiring practices.


As you note, there could be a reverse gender gap in the biological sciences (although I hadn't heard that it had cracked the faculty ranks yet). I haven't heard much of a hue and cry from anyone -- male or female -- to look into this gap. What I did hear -- a lot -- from friends in the biological sciences was that about the time there was something like gender parity in biology, the salaries of biologists got noticably lower than those of scientists in the more male-dominated departments. (No one I heard this from asserted that there was a causal link here, mind you, and I never saw the data, so it might have been standard issue graduate school griping.)

Has the abundance of females in biology dramatically changed the educational experience, job opportunities, and work environment for males in biology? Has it been a change for the worse? I'm asking because I really don't know and I'd appreciate some facts from the field.

"Stopping out" to have kids might indeed explain unequal full-time pay among comparably trained men and women. But in academic settings where fathers as well as mothers can stop the tenure clock (usually for a year) when they have a kid, shouldn't we see some equalization of this? (And why was it the case, last time I checked, that my graduate institution had never granted tenure to a women who had a child before her tenure hearing? That wasn't the case for men who had kids before tenure.)

I guess what I'm saying is: it's complicated. And, of course, I'd love for it to matter not at all what gender one is in terms of educational and work opportunities. My sense is we're not there yet.

Dr. Stemwedel,

I'm not sure about Faculty positions in the US but up in Canada the base faculty positions are gender and (for the most part) Departmentally insensitive. A senior Biologist gets the same as a senior Chemist. The only exceptions involve technical departments (computers etc...) where faculty have to be lured from the private sector.

Regarding your second point I will admit to being unsure what you are getting at? Since my former university admits approximately 55 women for every 45 men (as of last year's stats) then one might argue that the abundance of females in biology has dramatically changed the educational experience, job opportunities, and work environment for males in that they are not being admitted into biology. I approve of this as I believe that merit should be the determinant in admission (although I do agree with a drive to enhance the presence of aboriginal students and faculty to try and right historic inequities in opportunity in that case). On the other hand the absence of male students and the radicalization of the faculty in many of the social sciences and humanities has dramatically reduced the quality of the educational experience in the social sciences for males. I have two friends who found the experience so uncomfortable that they changed faculties during their undergrads. As for my personal experience in order to try and expand my horizons I took history, conversational French and English literature courses as an undergrad and in two (history and French) I found the seminars to be a painful experience of defending myself against repeated personal attacks based solely on my gender. It was not my behaviour but rather the presence of a Y chromosome that stood me out in those classes. In graduate school I took a course in the scientific method provided by the school of geography which was taught by a self-described Marxist-feminist researcher. The seminar had 15 students and only three men. By that point in my education I had learned not to simply buckle under to the abuse based on my gender and had a roaring good time, sadly my two fellows didn't share my temperment and were miserable most of the time.

Regarding your discussion of "stepping out", while it is available here, the system limits the combined ability of parents to receive support, (i.e you get 1 year per child as a family and if the husband steps out as well that equates to six months each) as a result you seldom see both parents "stepping out". As for the babies before tenure question, one of my best friends goes up for tenure next year and has two children (one two-and a half and the second only a few months old) so I'll keep you informed on how that goes but it seems pretty likely that she will get tenure...I hope.

Overall, I am not as pessimistic as you on the subject in that I believe (possibly wrongly) that a lot of the historical inequity has been eliminated for scientists of my generation. Of the graduating Chemists from my years every woman who graduated with a Ph.D is on the tenure track somewhere and the current grad class is almost equally split for domestic students. My golfing partner (the grad admissions officer for the Department) assures me that no female candidates who met the minimum requirements were turned away from grad school...nor were any of the males which is why the school had to recruit foreign students to make up for the lack of domestic supply (apparently this is a common problem). Admittedly we are nowhere near balanced in the senior faculty but if demographics mean anything that will not be an issue 20 years from now.