On Being What You Want, and Bigotry

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For me, personally, it isn't the endless immensity of the seas that calls. It's the endless immensity of space, the Universe, and the stars.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and A. Nota (STScI/ESA).

And I try to not just share my passion for it with my readers and students, but to encourage all of you (and all of them) to follow their passions. Perhaps it's physical science that excites you, like it does for me. Perhaps you're excited about space, temperatures near absolute zero, or nuclear or particle physics, among many others.

My experience in teaching physics has now reached the point where I've had just about 1,000 students over the course of my life, and I've noticed something troubling.

Image credit: USC Physics & Astronomy.

This is the Physics & Astronomy faculty at USC, a fairly typical-looking department. Everyone in this photo is an expert in some sub-specialty of physics and/or astronomy, and has demonstrated a high degree of competence over many years.

They're also all men.

And this is troubling to me not because I think that any one of these men is unqualified to do their job; I think that's pretty demonstrably false. But seeing that there are so few female physicists at the Professor level troubles me because, well, I teach.

Image credit: MindingTheCampus.com.

And over the years, I've noticed something about my students: the harder they work, the better they do. Pretty much anyone that works hard sees the rewards of doing well. Some students display more of a natural aptitude for it than others, but invariably the ones that end up as the top performers are the ones who love it, who work at it, who think about it (even when they don't have to), and who challenge themselves to excel.

Oh, right, and in my (admittedly limited) experience, here's what I've noticed: gender is quite possibly the single most negligible factor when it comes to ability.

So why, you might ask, are the vast majority of physics & astronomy faculty members in the United States male?

Comic credit: Randall over at xkcd.

Well, the truth of the matter -- and there are far better qualified people than I to tell you about it -- is that there are a huge number of factors in play that have discouraged (and continue to discourage) women from reaching the top levels in this profession.

The most destructive one that I've heard my whole life, and that I continue to see, however, is also the most absurd.

Image credit: Men Are Better Than Women, which is satire, FWIW.

It's this idea that men, somehow, are innately better at math and science than women are. No less a formidable figure than Larry Summers has come out publicly and stated:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

(Emphasis mine; full text of his speech available here.)

How could anyone -- much less a professor -- even make such a statement and think there's anything legitimate about it? He goes on to talk about research that shows that, while men and women on average demonstrate the same aptitude for math and science, there are a disproportionate number of men scoring in the very, very top percentiles as compared to women. And sure enough, the data corroborates this.

Now, my question is this: WHO CARES?!?!?!!!!

I mean that, you jerks who study this, who cares? Why should you (or anyone) care what percentage of some category of people score what on some exam?

What do you hope to learn by studying this, other than to justify this infantile position that "men are better than women" at science? What do you hope to accomplish, other than justifying centuries of gender discrimination and discouraging thousands of women from doing something they have an aptitude and passion for? Who benefits, in any way, from making such a tenuous and speculative connection?

Because I'll tell you what the real loser is from all of this: science.

Yes, that's right. Science.

If you love it and you want to work hard at it and you have the capabilities to succeed at it, then you can do it. Your SAT scores, your gender, and a whole host of other things that we pretend are important don't matter. People, whether they mean to or not, display their own insecurities by even asking some of these questions. What matters is what you can do, and that's largely determined by how hard you're willing to work. And we should live in a world today where everyone encourages the top students to pursue their passions, because those are the ones who'll help advance science the most.

So who, in astronomy and astrophysics, would I look to as a great female role model? Well, there are a great number of examples, but here are a few of my favorites:

Caroline Herschel: the first woman to discover a comet, she was the sister and collaborator of famed astronomer (and discoverer of Uranus) William Herschel. Although we'll likely never know just how much of his work she did, she had a huge number of astronomical achievements, and was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1828. No woman would win it again until 1996.

Margaret Burbidge: An active astronomer and astrophysicist for nearly 70 years now, Margaret Burbidge is most famous for her work in figuring out how nearly all the chemical elements found in the Universe were formed in stars! She faced more overt gender discrimination than anyone else I can think of in modern times:

She was turned down for a Carnegie Fellowship in 1945 because this fellowship would have meant that she would have had to observe at Mount Wilson observatory, which was reserved for men only at that time.

Vera Rubin: you think you had it rough with your applications to colleges? Take a look at what Vera Rubin had to face:

After she had earned an A.B. from Vassar College (1948), she tried to enroll at Princeton but never received their graduate catalog as women there were not allowed in the graduate astronomy program until 1975.

Fortunately for astronomy, Vera Rubin went to Cornell and then Georgetown for graduate school. In the early 1970s, she measured how galaxies rotate, providing an important piece of evidence that there is much more to galaxies in the Universe than simply stars, planets, and gas. (The most common explanation is dark matter, but she is open to the possibility of MOND being correct as well.)

Now, I never had the pleasure of meeting Vera Rubin, Margaret Burbidge, or (of course) Caroline Herschel, but I have met the following astrophysicists:

Virginia Trimble: astronomer, writer, historian, and an all-around incredibly interesting person, she is most well known for her studies on the evolution of stars and galaxies.

Helen Quinn: while more of a physicist than an astronomer, Helen Quinn came up with one of the two most promising dark matter candidates: the axion, as a consequence of a fundamental symmetry of nature that she noticed. She has been awarded the Order of Australia, and is currently a professor of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And...

Sandy Faber: co-discoverer of the Faber-Jackson relation (which is, for elliptical galaxies, what Vera Rubin is for spiral galaxies), she also co-discovered the Great Attractor, a gravitational anomaly in our nearby Universe. She is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and helped develop the largest telescopes in the world: the twin Keck reflectors.

Only an absolute bigot could possibly argue that astronomy and astrophysics would somehow be better off without the accomplishments and achievements of these great women, and any one of them would make an outstanding role model. But as far as choosing a role model, I have one more piece of advice. (Which you are free to take or leave as you please, of course.) Someone suggested to me (once) that I might possibly be the next Carl Sagan.

What a great compliment! And in fact, I'm sure that he and I have many things in common, including many of our dreams. But the next Carl Sagan? That's not who I'm not going to be. I might share many of the same goals and viewpoints that he did, and he might be someone I look up to and respect greatly. But I don't aspire to be the next Carl Sagan. He was who he was, and he was great and wonderful in his own way.

And I am too, in my own way. I'm not going to emulate him and try to be the next Carl Sagan, I'm going to be the first Ethan Siegel. And whatever it is that you're going to do, or your kids are going to do, or your students or friends are going to do, I hope you encourage and support them to excel at whatever it is that drives them.

So go after your own dreams, whatever it is that you love. Work hard for it, and don't let anyone discourage you. If you've got the ability (and believe me, more of you have it than you know) and the sustained drive to do it, you can make it happen for yourself, regardless of what anyone else says. Don't dream it, be it!


More like this

"If you go through a lot of hammers each month, I don't think it necessarily means you're a hard worker. It may just mean that you have a lot to learn about proper hammer maintenance." -Jack Handey The most common type of question I get asked by people genuinely wanting to know more about the…
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” -Joan of Arc Regardless of what intrinsic differences any person or group of people have from another, everyone deserves to be…
Vera Rubin -- AstronomerOften called one of the most gifted but underrated astronomers today, her work confirmed the presence of dark matter in the universe, and since 1978, she has researched and analyzed over 200 galaxies Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Vera Rubin was 10 years old and living in…
"But I'm also talking about American businessmen doing what they were born to do. Make things. We've stopped making and become a country of consumers. Well, I, for one, am done consuming. And I'm ready to make." -Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock I don't normally write about what's going on in my personal life…

I have recently returned to college myself, and I'm attempting to pursue degrees in both Math and Physics. It has been a lot of hard work, but I know in my experience, it is the hard work that pays off.

And I'm happy to report that I've met, and worked with, several female students in my physics and math classes who did exceptionally well. I do hope more women, more people, become interested in science. Hell, my wife and I recently had a little girl. I hope she grows up believing that she can accomplish what she sets her mind to. At least, that's what I am going to teach her.

Exceptionally good advice! This is one of the reasons I love your blog -- you generally know what you're talking about, even if it's not about astrophysics.

As for the statistics bit, I think the world would be way better off if we just stopped measuring by demographic categories. It doesn't matter what gender or race or whatever you are, you're a person, and you can do whatever you want with that.

Ethan - awesome post. I have nothing to add.

Greg - the comments on that post are possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen. And I only got about a tenth of the way down the page.

Ethan, you and a number of other fine individuals on these here interwebs have helped me fall in love with science and prompted me to make the decision to go back to school to get a degree in biology with a goal of becoming a biology teacher. Unfortunately, cash is a major issue (long story) but I'm working on ways around that. Thanks for being a great inspiration!

Science loses even more when evidence, however questionable, is dismissed with a "who cares?" and a wave of the PC wand.

What do they hope to accomplish? Do you even have to ask? They are scientists, so they hope to discover the truth. You appear to believe that questions that may lead to inconvenient truths should remain uninvestigated. Remember that there was a time when heliocentrism was very inconvenient.

As an aside, awhile ago I read an interesting study tracking Math Olympians. It turned out that fewer of the girls pursued a career in math or science. The reason was not that they were any less skilled then their male counterparts (they were the best of the best of the best), but that they were more likely to be skilled in other areas too and their interests were more varied.

Notwithstanding, it is a shame that there are not more women in the hard sciences. I am glad that you are trumpeting a worthy cause.

College was somewhat of a safe haven for me, as a woman in engineering. Yes, I did feel like I had to be twice as good to get even half the credit among my classmates. But at least if I got the right answers on a test, the teacher couldn't deny my ability. But learning doesn't stop once you get your degree, and in the "real world", some men are much less willing to give me the training I need. After the endless lectures on how to use a razor blade safely, or having my genuine questions met with a long pompous lecture on something only tangentially related, I have strongly considered moving into the analytical chemistry field, and leaving chemical engineering behind. I had such grand dreams. I was gonna break through all the barriers and be a fantastic, high-paid, respected chemical engineer. Even though I knew I would have to work 10 times as hard, I was willing to do it.

But the combination of a bad economy and condescending men above me has crushed my spirit. I've been out of school and working for 3 years, and I didn't acquire nearly as much work experience as a man would have in my position. There's really no way to make up for that. I'm trying to get out of such a terrible company because I know it's not like this everywhere, but all the entry-level positions are closed to me because I've been working for 3 years, and the experienced hire jobs are closed to me because I don't have enough of the right kind of experience. I just don't have any way to get caught back up.

By bananacat (not verified) on 13 May 2011 #permalink

You ask: "How could anyone -- much less a professor -- even make such a statement [that men, somehow, are innately better at math and science than women are] and think there's anything legitimate about it?"

Well, because that's what the evidence says.

Although the mean science/math ability of men is about the same as that of women (or very slightly higher), the male variance is significantly higher than the female. Thus there are more very, very intelligent men than women, and more very, very unintelligent men than women. Since scientists occupy the extreme right of the bell curve, and great scientists the extremest right, we should expect many more male than female scientists and great scientists.

This is corroborated by the actual number of women in science and math, despite the fact that there are endless programs and scholarships and quotas designed to encourage women to do science, and support them if they do.

There is another factor: women aren't as interested in science as men. That shouldn't be shocking, provided you know many women in real life, and provided you don't have the obvious sample bias from being a science teacher. Hey, the sexes are different, who knew.

Now, you seem to think this is a problem. Why? Is it also a problem that coal miners are predominantly male? What about serial killers? Pearl divers? Is it a problem that ballet dancers are mostly female? You've let your own aptitudes and desires color your judgment.

And then there's this: "Now, my question is this: WHO CARES?!?!?!!!!

I mean that, you jerks who study this, who cares? Why should you (or anyone) care what percentage of some category of people score what on some exam?"

Let's start with the fact that when anyone dares to approach this problem scientifically, instead of just assuming that men and women are exactly the same in aptitudes and attitudes, someone like you calls them "jerks" and demands to know why they "care." That's already pretty interesting!

Then there's the fact that billions of dollars are being spent on the kind of schemes you favor for attracting women to science (never mind why...). Are they working? If not, why not? Both legitimate scientific questions.

Are you seriously wondering why group differences should concern us? How about the male-female crime gap? The male-female rape gap? The black-white IQ gap? "WHO CARES?!?!?!!!!" about those, right?

"What do you hope to learn by studying this, other than to justify this infantile position that 'men are better than women' at science?"

What possible piece of evidence could you have that women are just as good as men at science? (Your fondest hopes and dreams do not qualify.) "Infantile"? It takes the mind of an infant to identify the most parsimonious explanation for differential employment and success -- namely, that men and women are different in more than just gross anatomy? That they have different distributions of talent and preference for various professions? No, it must be all those evil men keeping women out of science by calling them "dumb" during astrophysics lectures. Clearly this agrees with our experiences with the education system.

You just assume that "centuries of gender discrimination" have left some sort of legacy "discouraging thousands of women from doing something they have an aptitude and passion for," and that justifies all these schemes to get more women in science. My theory is that the women who want to do science, are doing it, but women are different from men. Hardly an outrageous theory.

The real problem here is so-called scientists who lash out against dissenting views with words like "destructive, absurd, jerks, who cares, infantile, loser," and "bigot." You're free to join the debate on human biodiversity any time you're ready to behave.

As for the commenter above me: You think scientists met your genuine questions with "a long pompous lecture on something only tangentially related" because they're sexist? Trust me, it's not you.

Either that, or most of my science professors have mistaken me for a girl somehow.

This is corroborated by the actual number of women in science and math, despite the fact that there are endless programs and scholarships and quotas designed to encourage women to do science, and support them if they do.

Pipeline problem? What pipeline problem?

Ethan, you're inspiring.

No one has pointed out that Larry Summers lost his job as President of Harvard University for saying that. Alumni of Harvard called for his termination because they would not allow such bigotry. (Of course, he did land on his feet...)

As a woman interested in science I found myself frequently alone. This social isolation could be part of the driving force pushing women out of science - not an inate interest in science. As a young girl I was supposed to be interested in fashion, boys and i-don't-even-know-what-else. Instead I was interested in bugs. There was social pressure to give up my interest in science and I could see how a youngster would give it up as she got older.

This is what I see the quotas are good for - as girls see that women can do science they can maintain their interest in science - hopefully

Oddly I'd have to agree with Unamused.

(Except that test scores don't measure intelligence, intelligence is much trickier to measure. Test scores measure academic ability)

It's not a sexist question to ask why there are less women in the tops in science. It's actually more sexist to simply brush it off, assuming that if some women can make it there isn't a problem.

How do you become a top scientist?

You are passionate and hard working. You need to really want it. You need to spend hours studying while your friends studying music have more time for socialising. You need to give years proving to your PhD sponsor than you really want this and will gladly work all hours for it.

Up to here women and men are absolutely equal.

It's not the physics or the work that pushing men in front of women. It's priorities.

Statistically you are far more likely to date somebody who is around the same level of intelligence that you are. It's far more likely for the man to be 2/3 years older.

2/3 years in your 20s is the difference between being an undergraduate and a masters student.
If you chose somebody to be your life partner, you are a team. If your partner has more working hours than you, you are going to do more cleaning, more cooking.. Suddenly you are somebody housewife.
NOT because you are a woman. Simply because it's the practical solution when one person has more responsibly outside of the home.

It's not sexism, it's fair on the two individuals involved. They are both doing the same "amount" of work.

But the women is doing more "work" than the older partner did when they were an undergraduate.
Generally, this is down to priorities. How about undergraduate males think in terms of how many years do I have left to start a family? None? Because they don't have a time-limit...
Half my female friends are engaged. I am somebody's housewife. I'm still as passionate about physics.

Saying I don't think the solution to this problem is to help out women. We choose to prioritise family life. Helping women because they are women is bull and sexist.

How would I solve it?

More flexible working hours for men, more paternity leave for men, more practical legislation.
Accept that we don't live our lives as individuals. Start asking what works for families and communities.

It's not a men versus women argument.

Cool post Ethan. Reminds me of a phrase a well known person in these parts says: "If it is to be, it is up to me".

Good article Ethan. I can only speak about the reason why I did not become a physics professor after getting a Ph.D but I do think they are relevant to many female scientists and were not touched on here.

1. The two body problem. A very high number of female science Ph.D.'s are married to other highly educated scientists. The path to becoming a professor is not an easy one. Extended schooling to get a Ph.D. followed by one or two post docs and then hopefully an assistant professor appointment that will one day lead to a tenured position. Making this career path work for TWO people who would like to live in the same place is exponentially more difficult.

2. Babies. Irregardless of scientific ability, women are still the only ones with the physical ability to bear children. Unfortunately the prime baby making years coincide with the time you would be doing post-doc research or the grueling assistant professor years when you work your butt off to get tenure.

The sacrifices to home life are often too big a price to pay. I have a Ph.D. in physics while my husband has a Ph.D. in chemistry. We were both able to find jobs in the microelectronics industry. My graduate advisor earned tenure while I studied under him. I saw the immense amount of hours he worked to get tenure and knew I really didn't want that life. Especially since I knew I wanted kids.

By JenniferO (not verified) on 14 May 2011 #permalink

As the only female in many of my engineering classes years ago, I can tell you that it takes a great deal of determination for any woman to succeed in the sciences. I was approached by a number of professors who were more than willing to tell me that they felt I was distracting to the class (by my gender alone) and that I would probably be happier in another field. A major in Communications was named several times by various sources. In my own muleheaded way I pushed on, determined to prove everyone wrong. I was good at this and I was going to MAKE it work.

Even after classes were over and I'd fought my way in to the field. I LOVED my work but I had to fight constantly for respect that was never given. Thinking every time that if I just worked harder I could earn that respect only resulted in grief and disappointment. Instead I dealt with harassment and discrimination at every turn. When I brought these issues to the attention of superiors it didn't bring me support, but rather it only added retaliation to the situation. After over a decade of fighting way way through every single day I finally had to walk away.....for my own mental health. I swore I would never again work in the field.

I recently graduated with a degree in another area where I am very talented and will begin graduate school later this summer. Unfortunately, it is an area that does not require in the way of math or science, but at least this time around I'm not finding discouragement at every turn. I will do well, but I'm saddened to think of all the time I wasted in my prior career trying to force my way in to a field that was offended at my presence.

I have no doubt that I am not the only woman with a story like this to tell.


"After the endless lectures on how to use a razor blade safely, or having my genuine questions met with a long pompous lecture on something only tangentially related, I have strongly considered moving into the analytical chemistry field, and leaving chemical engineering behind."


So, here's what I did: I started in biology, but ended up in grad school in ChemEng because in my day there was not such a beastie as "bioengineering," and the hardcore biologists don't really grok the notion of having "can we build this?" as your PhD thesis. Got a ChemEng type job in Big Pharma thereafter, but had to deal with all the stupid you describe. Eventually an opening in Drug Discovery popped up, and I transferred there--they needed someone who knew how liquid handling and cell culture worked, and figured they could just teach me the molecular bio as they went along, which they did. ChemEng has a huge advantage over biologists there, as the math background helped me understand all the computational modeling involved in the various aspects of drug discovery.

Most recently got a job at a biotech company in process engineering, and when I get the Long Tangential Pompous Lecture, I assume, more often correctly than not, that the real answer was, "hur dur dur, we've been doing it wrong all these years/it looked good on paper but never worked in real life/blame the technician." By the time the next meeting rolls around, I have the problem fixed properly, I mention it and the menz just sort of sit there being shocked for a few seconds that anyone doubted their competence (apparently it is a new experience for them). However, the few women at the company have formed a sort of support bloc so we cheer each other on, talk up each others' ideas.

Three years is not such a long time. See if you can get entry-level in a slightly different industry--that is, if you're currently working on petroleum cracking, see if you can get into entry level biotech at a smaller company, or entry level fuel cells, water purification, green chemistry, etc. Banding together with other women at the company really helps, too: they've already been there a while, know how to work the system.

Also bear in mind that it will vary by location. When I lived in Ohio, women were mostly relegated to scutwork while the men (often even the men they were technically bossing!) made twice the salary. Not 30% or so more, TWICE. "Men have families to take care of, and you're only doing this for pin money little girl!" When I moved to the Northeast, there were enough big universities chock-full of women geeks that few people assumed I was a high school science teacher/nurse--they all knew women doctorates and post-docs who went around in jeans and t-shirts whilst curing cancer. Location makes a huge difference in what people assume you are capable of.

Good luck!

A good place to start is to recognize that women are humans too, and have human rights to be protected internationally. Stop the wholesale rape of women. See recent studies reported in New York Times and elsewhere finding that 48 women are raped every hour in Congo and nobody does anything about it. If you have not heard about this, then qed.

Re: who cares?

Male academics who are told (probably by female academics in different departments) that they're a bunch of horrible horrible sexists and how dare they have such a gender imbalance. I don't think Summers was saying women should be prevented from doing anything they have the aptitude for- that's a pretty insane, though popular, interpretation- but rather that it isn't necessarily a nefarious sexist scheme.

Since when is learning about and quoting reality "offensive"? Are you gonna join the religious types who wanna suppress phylogenetics, or the oil shills who wanna suppress climatology, because you/they find it personally threatening?

Re: "Newton" on women's rights

The Congo is an interesting choice of example. Unfortunately, the only science-y type question less acceptable than "why do women underperform?" is "why do blacks underperform?"

I say "unfortunately" because the matter so urgently needs addressing.

Unamused: I thought it was pretty much accepted that the effects you describe (more men doing well at the top of STEM fields) correlate strongly with increased gender-bias in the treatment of children: in cultures that are less sexists/gender-normative in their treatment of young children, women do better.

I agree that this is a real effect and a real problem; but since my response is to say we need to try to reduce gender-indoctrination of preschoolers I doubt you'll agree with me.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 14 May 2011 #permalink

I really don't know where to begin. This is a totally alien viewpoint.

What is "gender indoctrination," if not the recognition that boys and girls are different? What are these cultures that are less sexist and "gender-normative," and by what standard? Where is the data on their male-female gaps?

By what mechanism does treating girls as girly produce a cognitive deficit?

Is it worth correcting this, considering that countries with more rigid gender roles (e.g., Japan) also have lower rates of sexual assault than more liberated countries (e.g., the USA)?

Why should we want to treat girls like boys, when this is making women less and less happy? Would a female Fields Medalist really be worth it?

Why are we trying to make women like science in the first place? Why don't we correct some other problem, like the male-female shoe gap (the fact that women own more pairs of shoes than men)? Women who don't want to be scientists don't seem unhappy that they don't want to be scientists. It's not like it's an especially rewarding career.

In light of human evolutionary history, why would women have cognitive capabilities exactly identical to men's? If they do, then why have human societies almost universally turned out to be patriarchal? (If it is because men are just stronger, then I ask again: why would their brains not evolve differently too?)

Why are men oppressing women and thus making them worse at science, when science is so useful? Are we to believe that men generally hate women (e.g., their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters) so much, they insist on grinding them down even when it is to men's benefit to let them contribute equally?

Why is that after decades of feminism and anti-sexism, this gap persists? How much more sexism remains to root out, in a society where you can and will lose your job for even pointing out that the gap exists? And how many more decades of failure will it take to convince you that your theory is wrong?

I too am amazed by the "WHO CARES?!" argument. How can you evaluate a system that has a major systemic failure, let alone monitor your progress, if you don't have a clear picture of the way it looks at each stage? Saying that the data don't matter is the same as saying it doesn't matter whether the outcomes change. "WHO CARES?!" is a position of privilege. Saying "Who CARES lots of boys get high SATs in math but few girls do?" - and washing your hands of it - is the same as saying "WHO CARES if girls NEVER score well on the math SAT?"

I'm also blown away at the conflation of performance and aptitude in the comment thread. "Well, because that's what the evidence says." Sounds like a case of "you only see what you want to see" to me. Supposedly humans have something that frees us from just playing out innate capacities: our ability and infrastructure for teaching and learning general information that individuals can then adapt for specific applications. And for an individual child, that education powerhouse kicks in the minute you tell people the sex of your baby, and they (and you!) start buying gifts accordingly. What education SHOULD mean is that we can develop broad perspective and flexible, adaptive behaviors irrespective of our personal configurations. Given the way humans have remodeled every environment we've touched, I'd say we're a pretty great demonstration that biology is not, in fact, destiny.

I'm saddened by women perpetuating the idea that because they want to have babies or because they are willing to take on the brunt of the housework when they have a partner, it's somehow "understandable," to choose a term, that women have fewer opportunities. I've always lived alone, so obviously it's not acceptable that I, as the household breadwinner, can somehow just skip out on housework. But that seems to change for a lot of people when a man - presumably with a bigger paycheck - moves in. Mark my words, ladies who buy into that argument: you'll be expected to keep doing that housework no matter what your earning power is. The only way to escape it is to hire someone else to do it.

Actually, the "more guys are supergeniuses, just look at the test score" argument relies on not knowing (or, perhaps, admitting) anything about how the tests are created. You don't need male geniuses to produce that disparity. All you need are more guys with learning disabilities. The rest is a statistical artifact.

By what mechanism does treating girls as girly produce a cognitive deficit?

Try motivation. "Oh, here, honey. You don't want to look at all that stuff in that dirty water. You want to play with this doll. You don't want to sit out at night getting cold just so you can look at the stars. You want to stay in where it's safe and warm."

As for my happiness, or that of any other woman, we can take care of that just fine without your help or patronage.

Unmentioned is the fact the tools which 'measure' whatever 'intelligence' is, the IQ tests, are extremely carefully normed to produce 'equal results' for male and female. That means of course the kinds of questions are extremely carefully balanced ... "oops we're getting slightly higher scores for females, we'll have to add a visual-spatial rotation and subtract a sentence comprehension". Or whatever. Were the questions all this kind, or all that kind, you would find very significant gender differences.

By whatmeworry (not verified) on 14 May 2011 #permalink

Unamused comment is a excellent example of profound ignorance about culture, the human brain, genetics, sex and gender. Gender norms are far more culture, than they are about sex. Our neural pathways that define gender for us are formed at a very young age, but they are developed around our experience of the world around us, most especially by the behaviors we observe in our parent/s. This is pretty much how most of our thinking is shaped.

Let's play devil's advocate for just a minute. Let's say all the arguments people make for this disparity is true. "Men and women have similar average IQ, but men have a higher standard deviation. So there are more male than female geniuses (and dunces), and since it takes a genius to excel at the upper echelons of academia, there are more men there." "Men are simply more interested in things like math and science and engineering (and this is inherent, not a cultural artifact). Women aren't there because they don't want to be; there's nothing wrong with people doing what they want." Let's just say all of this is true, just for the sake of argument.

Just as Ethan says, who cares? These generalities mean exactly ZERO to the girl or woman who does happen to have that interest and ability. But the same people who believe things like the above statements are likely to read "most" as "all" and tell her that she can't, shouldn't, or both. This is one of the most insidious sources of prejudice and discrimination, because people can point to real data that they believe backs up their position. It's a much more subtle (but no less important!) case to make that someone is misusing data than that they have none.

All I can say for sure is that when my wife and I have our first child, regardless of whether it's a boy or a girl, I'll be teaching all I know about computers, math, and science, and trying to encourage that same fascination.

@ Stephanie Z

I've just had a very interesting, hour-long conversation with a psych grad student who gives intelligence tests for a living. The one thing I can now say with certainty is this: you have drastically oversimplified the subject when you declare that "the rest is a statistical artifact."

This kind of exaggeration -- that you've crushed the theory of sex differences in intelligence with your little post -- suggests a prejudice on your part. Contrary to what you seem to believe, there is still a debate among intelligence experts. You have not closed the book on it, but as you say, "feel free to tell them just how dumb they're being."

This is what you're disputing: a very brief introduction. Jensen found a sex difference in both mean and SDEV using the WISC-R. Lynn found them too, with the Raven Progressive Matrices. Rushton looked at the SATs, and he is well aware of sex biases in testing.

And then there's the observation that there are, in fact, more male geniuses than female. Look at any field of science.

Now, this is the point where a feminist usually makes completely unsubstantiated assertions that sexism is keeping all women down forever, as if the mere logical possibility counts as scientific evidence. That's not how science works. Standards of evidence don't change based on how palatable the conclusion is to you.

Your own sexism is evident when you say of men with learning disabilities: "They're kind of fragile that way, among others." I do not for a second believe that any amount of evidence would convince you that women have a lower mean or SDEV of IQ than men. For you, this is a political debate, not a scientific one.

@ DuWayne: You know saying "you're ignorant" isn't actually a counterargument right? And you know that all that gender norm culture crap is blank-slate postmodernism masquerading as science? That's probably why gender roles are universal, and children always follow them no matter how thoroughly you try to purge them, in every experiment ever. Laterz.

Back in 1968, when I was a senior, I was blessed to be in a graduating class of around 1000. As a result, I was lucky to have a female support group in math and sciences. We were competitive and were equal in grades to the boys. We were fortunate to have (mostly) supportive teachers.

I remember talking a (male) fellow student into graphing some impossible chart (he was better at arithmetic). The AP teacher came into the classroom and asked the male if he had thought up the idea. He said no, she did. Then, I heard the most dismissive "oh" from the teacher. The guy got sent to math camp by the school, I wasn't. Needless to say, I didn't pursue math.

I'm sorry to see that this crummy thinking is still in action.

Congo and science connection: misogyny rampant or unconscious. Just read what you write. Then go and read what men say about women anywhere in the blogosphere ( true feelings unleashed).
Any excuse will do. I wonder what Einstein's score would be in SAT.

Whatmeworry #28 makes an excellent point. IQ tests are underspecified. That is they are trying to solve n equations for n+1 unknowns. There are an infinite number of solutions that fit the constraints exactly. This is why the test makers can jiggle with the tests to make them come out the way they âshouldâ, with average male IQ = average female IQ.

If the tests have that many degrees of freedom that the test makers can skew them that much, then they can be skewed in other ways too. Such tests are worse than useless, they are used to harm people.

I agree that SATs only measure the ability to excel at SATs which, thank goodness, is a teachable skill. Still, if the SATs keep showing a result (I take it that men excelling at math at the extremes is not just an urban legend, as much as it sounds like one) isn't that worth finding out about? By analogy it used to be taboo to ask why you're gay because it implied that gayness is weird and demands an explanation that straightness doesn't. But, when you think of it, where do sexual tastes come from? Likewise, once we get past admiring the awesome science women have done despite rampant sexism, can't we still wonder what's going on with the physics and astronomy faculty at USC? As for Ethan, I can't imagine more fabulous Ethan Siegel - you're the tops!

Let's not forget to mention Carolyn Shoemaker who holds the record for finding the most asteroids (800) and comets (32) and who did not even have an education in science. Her degrees were in history and political science. She worked with her husband as an assistant after her children were grown.

When people say "the next Carl Sagan" they're not speaking about you replacing Sagan, because as you have mentioned that would be impossible. I think what they're referring to is someone who could be the next science superstar who could ignite the imaginations of the general public. That was Sagan's most important legacy and a role which generated much flak from the science community. How's your screen presence?

Ligin sonu yaklaÅtıkça Trabzonsporâda da heyecan artıyor. Bu hafta yeniden liderlik koltuÄuna oturmanın hesaplarını yapan bordo-mavililerde yönetim de harekete geçti, oyuncuları maddi yönden motive etmek için çalıÅmalara baÅladı.
Karadeniz ekibinin yöneticileri, Bucaspor maçının primini hemen maç sonunda oyuncuların hesabına yatıracak. GeçtiÄimiz hafta içerisinde oyunculara 1 milyon TLâyi bulan bir ödeme daha yapan yönetimin, futbolculara hiç prim borcu

My roommate in college was an Engineering Physics major who was regularly told by her professors to drop out (1987-1991). I was pre-med, so never had a problem because everyone knows that women like Biology. :) My fave female that I bring up in my Astronomy class is Henrietta Leavitt, "computer" and discoverer of the Cepheid variable. Thanks for being an advocate for women!

The eagerness to find women inferior in the basis of a test that does not standardize the populations is amazing. If you want to take the results at face value, you need to start with control groups starting at age zero and make sure that gender is the only difference. From what I read there us no gender gap in tests in Europe.
1965 : written national exam in southern European country for entry in prestigious engineering department with only 100 openings. Two women ranked #1 and #7. The two women went on to obtain doctorate degrees in engineering in the US at a time that US was far behind in having any women engineers, doctors and lawyers than European countries! These professions were not for women in the US. This myth still persists.
Your arguments and tests are not scientific.
You are desperately trying to preserve a corner of male superiority, it must be an evolutionary inferiority gap in the male psyche!
I am just kidding, but try to see it from the other side of the fence for once.
It is very tiring to argue the same nonsense for over fifty five years.
By the way, the head of IMF was just arrested for "sexual assault". Men never learn anything, right?

List of all arguments against sex differences in intelligence:

1. "Look, here are a couple of smart women."
2. "My science professor was soooooo mean to me."
3. "You're a sexist."
4. "If the test doesn't show men and women are equal, it's biased against women, so these results are sexist" -- not to be confused with false.
5. "If a test showed men and women aren't equal, we wouldn't use it, so these results cannot exist."
6. "I don't actually know anything about the research showing IQ differences, but I can speculate about learning disabilities and statistical artifacts, so there's no need. All those intelligence experts who are debating this can just stop now, cuz I've cracked the motherf***ing code."
7. "Men rape women."
8. "You are OBVIOUSLY wrong, so let's psychoanalyze you to find out why you believe this."
9. "I have a wide variety of unscientific postmodern beliefs about 'gender norms,' therefore making girls wear pink makes them stupid."
10. "Grrl power!"


The problem is not whether or not women have the same distribution of some arbitrary measure of intelligence. The problem is why intelligent, creative and hard-working women were and are being discriminated against in science. I've seen this myself, and you got a lot of anecdotal evidence in this comment thread. What % of the total female population these women form is irrelevant here.

Thankyou for such a nice post Ethan.

Actually, that's not the problem. Re-read the original post. It essentially says that sex differences in intelligence are not an acceptable subject for research. It's anti-science. And that is the subject under discussion.

How does discrimination enter into it? Well, because if women are on average less talented or less interested in science (which they seem to be), then in a perfectly fair system, there would be more male than female scientists. You can't actually measure discrimination -- you can't even find discrimination -- until you know what outcome to expect in that fair system. But everyone just assumes men and women have identical brains (real believable) and, as we've seen, some professional scientists (not in a relevant field, though) won't even allow you to check that hypothesis.

As for your discrimination allegations, your anecdotes aren't evidence. It's possible for a professor to treat a woman worse than a man without it being sexism. In that perfectly equal society I mentioned, women would get treated worse than men in 50 percent of all conflict scenarios like the ones we've heard about.

Possible alternatives: the woman actually isn't as smart as the man, the woman isn't as smart as she thinks she is, the professor dislikes her for reasons that have nothing to do with her vagina, the professor is having a bad day, the professor is hungover and the woman's voice is grating...


I agree, it's unscientific to dismiss the SAT score results. But there are lots of other explanations other than innate biological differences. I think you are right that we should investigate them more. You seem to assume, however, that biological differences are the first explanation to go to, and I take issue with that.

Many social and cultural factors affect women's performance, most of them - I would argue - psychological. For example, women with female professors in math tend to do better than women with male professors. They also identify with math and are more interested in it. In other words, if women see only men in the field, they become less interested, don't work as hard, and don't perform as well.

Your willingness to embrace the single explanation that women are biologically not as smart in this sense as men signals sexism to me. I agree, however, that there may be differences, and their reasons should be investigated.

But even if the biological explanation is shown to be true, the point remains that the few women who *are* exceptional in math and science are sometimes discriminated against. And that needs to stop. Now. We can't afford to lose the talent in our gender, even if it is rare.

There are a lot of societal factors that can push women out of the sciences without outright discrimination. We owe it to ourselves to investigate those factors, and not ignore the differences between genders. And individuals should be able to follow their passion, even if they are not the 'right' gender for it.

Unamused, which "intelligence experts" are you talking about? Summers, the economist? Tierney, the journalist and AGW denier? Pinker, the linguist?

Great post, Ethan. Another name for your list of unrewarded women in astronomy is Jocelyn Bell, for her discovery of the first quasar. Her supervisor took the Nobel for that, without mention of her critical part in that discovery.

@ atalanta:

Sounds like you're okay with people doing research on this, which is good enough for me, at least as far as the original post is concerned.

Now, you're certainly free to speculate about non-biological reasons why women underperform. I don't find the evidence for any of them compelling in the least. And let me point out that I have never said that every observed IQ gap is 100 percent biological. I have said that there is an IQ gap, which of course set off the gap denialists calling me ignorant and sexist and other such non-argumentation. And I have said some of this gap is innate, based on the available evidence.

I would like to ask you a question about your own theories. You seem to believe the IQ gaps exist and are 100 percent environmental. (You also seem to believe that my theory is "100 percent genetic." Again, it is not.) Before you knew anything about the relevant research (e.g. Jensen, Rushton, Lynn), did you already believe that IQ gaps were the product of sexism?

I did. I thought women and men were the same -- product of a good liberal education, I guess. But now I think I was wrong: there is too much evidence against that idea. And lots of people try very hard to poke holes in it, and most of them are obviously biased. They take it personally; they use insults and shaming language; they try to shut down the debate. I'm not convinced by any of their arguments, which are often oversimplified or merely speculative.

Is your evidence that the gaps are 100 percent environmental really that strong? Does it agree with what we know about evolution? About sex differences in the animal kingdom? About the nature and uses of intelligence? Are you looking at this question the way you would look at a question about another organ in another animal? Not the human (female) brain?

@ Stephanie Z:

Unfortunately, one of my comments is held up in moderation, probably because I had a bunch of links to the intelligence experts in question: Jensen, Rushton, Lynn.

The fact that you think Larry Summers is my source suggests you've never bothered to look into this research. He's merely a guy who got fired for pointing out a fairly obvious fact. I don't know who Tierney is. Pinker is a linguist, but also an experimental psychologist, and Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor at Harvard Psychology. But he's not my source either.

Re: Tests scores

1. Several studies have found that lots of factors influence females' test scores, many of which have nothing to do with ability; there are social and psychological factors at play, too, including the "stereotype threat." (Link below) If the "evidence" you present that suggests men are better at physics and math than women...well, the testing conditions could bias the results, creating unfavorable conditions for female test-takers.

2. Yes, there is a greater variance in male scores relative to female scores, but that also means than men aren't just higher scorers...they're the lowest scorers, too.


From Slate:

Last week, researchers at the University of Colorado published a psych experiment that seems almost too good to be true. They showed that two 15-minute writing exercises, administered to an intro physics class early in the semester, could substantially boost the scores of female students. Even more curious: the exercises had nothing to do with physics. Instead, students were asked to write about things that mattered to them, like creativity or relationships with family and friends. How could a few paragraphs on personal values translate into enduring better mastery of pulleys and frictionless planes?

When it comes to math and science classes, women can be subtly hampered by negative stereotypes about their gender. This is the idea of stereotype threat, advanced by psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele, and now solidly established, as I've written in Slate before. Stereotype threat can roar into action when members of any stereotyped group are primed to think about belonging to itâin other words, when women focus on being female or African-Americans on being black. It causes performance problems, but stereotype threat can also be countered, often in simple ways. As the Colorado writing exercises show, getting women to focus on things they care about can buck them up. The lesson is that small doses of affirmation can do a lot of good.

"Here's what we know about how stereotype threat works: In the 1990s, researchers found that women taking a math exam who were told that the test had "shown gender differences in the past" scored lower than other women with equivalent math backgrounds. Similarly, women asked to watch commercials in which ditzy ladies gushed about brownie mix afterward expressed less interest in quantitative pursuits. Stereotype threat is a universal offender: It can sabotage white men on the basketball court or men more broadly on a test of social sensitivity. Whenever people are made to worry that they might confirm a negative assumptionâfor instance, that girls can't do math or that white men can't jumpâthey may be less likely to do their best. Frustratingly, the stereotypes they want so badly to avoid instead may instead become self-fulfilling. For women on a math-and-science track, the threat is likely to worsen the further along they get, both because they will have fewer female classmates and role models, and because they may have stronger "math-equals-males implicit associations," as psychologist Cordelia Fine points out in her terrific new book, Delusions of Gender."

Here's a different article from Malcolm Gladwell:

"Steele and others have found stereotype threat at work in any situation where groups are depicted in negative ways. Give a group of qualified women a math test and tell them it will measure their quantitative ability and they'll do much worse than equally skilled men will; present the same test simply as a research tool and they'll do just as well as the men. Or consider a handful of experiments conducted by one of Steele's former graduate students, Julio Garcia, a professor at Tufts University. Garcia gathered together a group of white, athletic students and had a white instructor lead them through a series of physical tests: to jump as high as they could, to do a standing broad jump, and to see how many pushups they could do in twenty seconds. The instructor then asked them to do the tests a second time, and, as you'd expect, Garcia found that the students did a little better on each of the tasks the second time around. Then Garcia ran a second group of students through the tests, this time replacing the instructor between the first and second trials with an African-American. Now the white students ceased to improve on their vertical leaps. He did the experiment again, only this time he replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can't do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can't jump."

Here's another interesting article about women and math:

Link: http://www.slate.com/id/2286671/

Unfortunately, "stereotype threat" is all a bunch of crap. It only exists when the test is worth nothing and the students are smart undergrads who know exactly what result their professor is trying to get. (You can't very well deny that psychological angle while affirming your "meanness leads to lower test scores" hypothesis.) Plus, it turns out these researchers only publish studies that confirm their hypotheses.


"One talk presented a meta-analysis of stereotype threat. The presenter was able to find a ton of unpublished studies. The overall conclusion is that stereotype threat does not exist. The unpublished and published studies were compared on many indices of quality, including sample size, and the only variable predicting publication was whether a significant effect of stereotype threat was found. ...

"The effect varies widely across studies, and is generally small. Although elite university undergraduates may underperform on cognitive tests due to stereotype threat, this effect does not generalize to non-adapted standardized tests, high-stakes settings, and less academically gifted test-takers."

Hey, what do you know... you can't make women and blacks stupider by hinting at stereotypes! They aren't whiny little children after all! Who. Could. Have. Guessed.

PS Women and blacks are still innately less intelligent than men and whites. But keep looking for excuses; it's clear you're only doing this because you find the conclusion politically unpalatable. This isn't science, it's religion.

PPS Gladwell is junk science.

many female students of maths, physics and so on I've met have moved off to teaching. Almost none of the men. If the males have kept in academia, it's been to continuing university roles. But in that case, they don't seem to happen any more regularly than the women (who are often in a 10 or 20 to one minority).

They just don't seem to be as common.

That was 20 years ago.

10 years ago, many more women were doing physics.

5 years ago, many more. Still less than half, but a large minority.

It takes a couple of decades for these people to

a) move into prominent places (how many seriously famous scientists are under than 40?)
b) accumulate (you can't fill 10,000 places in one year, and tenure means you need to enter the dead man's pointy shoes)

Then again, as far as society is concerned, there is a huge prejudice against men entering physics, maths, etc. Just look at the stereotypes of the geek compared with the Jock or Ivy League scholar.

Maybe the problem is that physics is shunned and prejudiced against and women just get out or don't bother getting in in the first place.

Absolutely love this blog.

"If you love it and you want to work hard at it and you have the capabilities to succeed at it, then you can do it. Your SAT scores, your gender, and a whole host of other things that we pretend are important don't matter." - Ethan Siegel

Ethan You Rock!
As a women who is going back to school at 38 to follow her calling to be an environmental scientists it is just awesome to read this in your blog and ever more awesome that your a man and as well as a well respected astrophysicist.

Bigotry discourages another from achieving their full potential.

Whose dreams would you presumptuosly encourage another to follow? Yours?
By the way, are you following, your mommy or your daddy's dreams?

Everyone needs to be encouraged to create, follow and achieve their own dreams.

The days of molding others into square pegs or round pegs are over.

The fullly original individual is a fractally unique being (not even a peg).

The vast intelligence, creativity and originality in mankind and womankind is only crudely measureable; thus, except in ignorance, we dare not write-off or discourage another.

Statisically there will not be another Virginia Wolfe, Cleopatra, or Madame Curie; any more than there will be another Aristophane's, Churchill or Feynman.

Every truelly unique individual is statistically an impossibility. Thus we must encourage and be encouraged; to do less is to be personally and socially irresponsible.

By AngelGabriel (not verified) on 16 May 2011 #permalink

Never mind the lack of women in STEM majors - I want to know why there are so few men in education, psychology, and nursing. I demand that we undertake thousands of detailed studies on why there are so few men in these majors and begin thousands of multi-million dollar programs nationwide to encourage more men to study these subjects! Come on, it'll be fun, we can even start some pointless internet arguments on it with lots of ad-homium attacks.

Seriously, nobody seems to mind that there are very few men in education, psychology, and nursing. Nobody seriously disputes that men in general tend to be less compassionate, empathetic, and understanding than women and are less interested in jobs that require them to be. So why is it a serious issue that women in general are less interested in logic, math, and hard science and don't take as many jobs that require them to be? Especially when those jobs often require major time commitments for essentially your entire young life to reach to top tiers.

Nothing against any women who legitimately wants a job in these fields, or any man who wants a job in any field that generally doesn't have many men. By all means, do whatever makes you happy. I just don't think we need a bunch of elaborate artificial measures to change the gender ratios in any of these fields.

And don't forget that lots of men in these same STEM fields are discouraged or discriminated against at various times for silly reasons too. I know I've heard a few "long pompous lecture on something only tangentially related".

And Caroline Porko. She's totally awesome. Loved her talk at Beyond Belief 06.

"Whats going to happen to me after I die?"
*shows a picture of the crab nebula*

Pure awesome.

Ziraat Türkiye Kupası final maçı bugün ( 11 Mayıs 2011 ÃarÅamba) saat 20.00â²de Kayseri Kadir Has Stadıânda oynanacak. BeÅiktaÅ ile Ä°stanbul BüyükÅehir Belediye 49. kupa için kapıÅacak⦠Peki BeÅiktaÅ Ä°stanbul BüyükÅehir Belediyespor Türkiye Kupası Final Maçı Hangi Kanalda ve Saat Kaçta? Ä°Åte Ayrıntılar

Mason -

If it were acceptable here, I would have some rather strong words for your abysmally ignorant, presumptuous comment.

Seriously, nobody seems to mind that there are very few men in education, psychology, and nursing.

Actually, that isn't true - not even close. There most certainly have been myriad studies exploring exactly this phenom and because of what we have learned, we have seen an increase in men in these very fields (though your assumption about just how few men there were/are is also rather erroneous).

Nobody seriously disputes that men in general tend to be less compassionate, empathetic, and understanding than women and are less interested in jobs that require them to be.

No, we don't. But many of us would like to see improvements here too, because this socially constructed gender paradigm is inherently unhealthy.

Being emotionally disassociated is not a good thing. It creates a real and present danger to health, prevents interpersonal relationships from reaching their full potential and cuts people off from a considerable portion of the richness that life can provide. Of more immediate interest to most people, it also prevents people from having a strong connection to their decision making processes. The majority of decisions we make have a strong emotional component. When we are disassociated from our emotions, we are also disconnected from how we make decisions. The emotions exist whether we recognize them or not and emotions still drive our decision making.

There is also a growing body of evidence that would suggest that the reason anger, aggression and polarization are so prevalent in politics, is because anger is one of the few acceptable emotions for men to actually express.

So why is it a serious issue that women in general are less interested in logic, math, and hard science and don't take as many jobs that require them to be?

Because the reason isn't a natural disinterest, it is due to social constructs that are the source of a great many unrelated problems. Because those social constructs prevent people from engaging in careers that may well be the most fulfilling option that said constructs prevented them from even considering.

Especially when those jobs often require major time commitments for essentially your entire young life to reach to top tiers.

And this is relevant how exactly?

And don't forget that lots of men in these same STEM fields are discouraged or discriminated against at various times for silly reasons too. I know I've heard a few "long pompous lecture on something only tangentially related".

Of course we are. Like I was - I mean I was totally discriminated against, when I had a passing interest in physics when I was still in high school. It had absolutely nothing to do with my inability to pass even pre-algebra - it was all about discrimination against the menz! I actually had three of my teachers sit down with me to discuss my future and all three of them told me that physics and/or astronomy very probably wouldn't work out for me.

What it really was all about, was discouraging me because there was this girl in my cohort who graduated HS at sixteen, who wanted to go into physics and they wanted to ensure she would have a better chance. I mean sure, she graduated HS at sixteen, already having taken several of her undergrad math requirements and with grades that would have put her at the pinnacle of our cohort, had she graduated with us - but I have a penis and that should count for something.

Girls who manage to make it through primary school, to become women in STEM fields generally do so in spite of obstacles being thrown in their path. They move forward in the face of, in many cases, multiple teachers over the years, telling them they should look into a different field of science - such as the social sciences (which might, but only might account for some of the prevalence of women). Girls just don't do that...They don't do it as well, it's harder for them to compete, mothers have a hard time of it...Blah, blah, blah blah blah.

If you want to go off on a rant, I would suggest that you learn something about what you're talking about. The Journal of Men and Masculinity, ironically, is a great source for peer reviewed literature on this very topic. Or more accurately, the inverse of this topic. While it might seem a bit frightening at first, you might also explore "gender role conflict theory", "sex and preferences in academia", "gender roles in academia", "sex and gender in science", "sex and cognition" would also be a good one - though I would strongly suggest googling these in google scholar, not in a general internet search. Sex tends to include the wrong sorts of results in a general search - regardless the context provided by the rest of the string.


I don't care why there are so few men in education, psychology and nursing, but what I demand is that that we undertake thousands of detailed studies on why there are so few women working in the garbage disposal, ocean trawling, and coal mining industries.

But seriously, anybody with children knows that it, in general, takes very little to get your boys interested in science and technology, while your girls have to be chivvied along.

The minute you see people talking about "social constructs" and "gender roles" you know you're dealing with social "science", which is absolutely *not* science as it is not evidence-based but rather based on fashionable political ideologies and therefore of little value to we people who deal in facts.

By Vince whirlwind (not verified) on 18 May 2011 #permalink

*standing ovation*

Thank you, Ethan.

Vince -

The minute you see people talking about "social constructs" and "gender roles" you know you're dealing with social "science", which is absolutely *not* science as it is not evidence-based but rather based on fashionable political ideologies and therefore of little value to we people who deal in facts.

I hate to tell you this, but excepting non-theoretical physics, all science deals with "best evidence," rather than "facts." This is just as true of bio-med as it is of the social sciences - which are absolutely science. The only difference between psychology/sociology/anthropology and biology/chemistry, is that the social sciences are even more complex. While biology and chemistry deal with large numbers of variables, they don't even come close to the variables involved in studying behavior - whether on the individual level, the societal level or across culture groups.

While there is no question that there is definitively pseudoscientific nonsense masquerading as one aspect, or another of the social sciences, the social sciences are hardly unique in that regard. Biology, and for that matter, even physics have their elements of pseudoscience. But physics and biology are hardly unique in their use of stringent experimental controls.

Now if you want to define science as facts, then the only valid science are certain physical sciences. I would argue that defining science that narrowly, renders the term virtually meaningless and absolutely useless. There is an argument to be made for that position, but what then, is the point? Specifically, of what practical value is science within that paradigm? And if we're going to define science that narrowly, then what do we call research that seeks to help us better understand the world around us, using the scientific method?

It makes far more sense to me, to define science as a framework, or system for studying and attempting to quantify the world around us. Dismissing anything that doesn't break down into simple metrics that can be easily understood in (relatively) simple mathematical terms, presupposes that we can't really know anything else. I would argue that biology, including behavior on any level, can be broken down into mathematical terms as well. The difference is ultimately one of increased complexity, due to an increased number of variables to account for.

The way you seem to be defining science, limits science to what we actually know, rather than the process of increasing knowledge. Or, if you really want to include aszpects of physics we don't know yet, limiting science to what we "know how to know." You're welcome to your definition, but understand that no one has to accept such a useless definition of science.

Wow. I looked at that graph and said to myself-- 31% of the people who score perfect on the math SAT are women!
Ignoring stereotype threat and all the other social reasons women often don't score as high as they could... pretending for a moment the score is a perfect representation of potential...
Why didn't Summers hire women 3 out of 10 times to economic, physics, mathematics, etc positions? Why aren't women about one out of 3 engineers?

Well, plenty of people-- either men, or women who aren't interested in science-- like to answer with "women just aren't as initerested in science". But I hang out on feminist blogs as well as science blogs, and I'm going back to school as an adult and meeting other women like me.
We WERE interested in science, but thought we couldn't be good enough at it. We weren't encouraged to see it as a career. Our brothers got chemistry sets, electronic kits, and erector sets with working motors, while our relatives gave us sweaters and dolls. Some children teach themselves, and some rise up against barriers set to them, but others, meeting neither encouragement nor discouragement in one field, turn randomly to others, where they do get a response from adults.
Then we grew up, matured, gained confidence, and realized that being in the top 2 percentile in math meant we actually *were* good at it. That even Nobel Prize winners can make mistakes. That we had good ideas, and something to contribute. For many women, life moved on and they couldn't do anything about it, but enough of us are getting degrees in math and science majors and making second careers, that I think interest must naturally spread even farther.

The career I am working towards, btw, is teaching physics to high school kids.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 22 May 2011 #permalink

I agree with you. If we don't stop making a fuss about gender we are never going to get rid of the problem! I study physics in Sweden and I must say that I have never felt that I've been treated different because I'm a girl, but I'm so far only at the basic level (I have a year left until I get my bachelor degree).

I really like your blog! You have such a wonderful perspective of the world. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us!

fantastic, obvious, and thank you.( as another woman who did impossible and far advanced from the age of 4 and was continually disliked-ignored-beaten up physically-abused-etc etc and, occasionally, Seen, appreciated and enjoyed for my sense of play, immense imagination and intelligence, which now I must say because it was almost never considered important to my or the earth's happiness to say for me..except for those few people who had more interesting things to do --like develop their sense of play, communication, immense imagination, intelligence and joy in sharing that in all delightful ways, and being a decent human being, as well as giving their contribution at their best to their earth. Bless 'em
I did, however, become a very good swordswoman, sabre, to survive inside myself without harming anyone the way they were openly or insidiously harming me and my other bright sisters (it's a sport where one is extremely aware and careful for your partner..) Re the science, I always found that obvious bs. For myself, I understood and followed most complex ideas in math, music, physics, or any ohter branch that I came across. I beat the University professor who taught me chess the first 3 times I played it in my life at 7 years old, I taught myself to write Mandarin at 4, I composed my first string quartet at 9, etc etc.
So thank you. Hope you have a very large family who make many others..!
Especially those who are interested in being, simply, decent and honest in their lives. Which precludes this bs, always.