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Jeff Jacoby

Good news on women in science

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / March 28, 2010

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‘THE NUMBER of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions.’’

So begins a new research report, “Why So Few?,’’ published last week by the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group that describes itself as “the nation’s leading voice promoting education and equity for women and girls.’’ The report argues that “social and environmental factors’’ — negative stereotypes about girls’ math skills, for example, or the hard-driving culture of many science and technology workplaces — contribute significantly to the “striking disparity’’ between the numbers of men and women in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.

That disparity, says the association, is reflected in statistics like these:

The Labor Department reports that women account for only 10 percent of the nation’s civil and aerospace engineers, 8 percent of the electrical engineers, and 7 percent of the mechanical engineers.

In 2006, women made up less than 14 percent of the tenured faculty in the physical sciences in four-year colleges and universities.

Among PhDs employed in the field of computer and information sciences, 79 percent of the full-time positions are held by men.

If the association’s goal was to sound an alarm about the distressing state of women in scientific careers, it appears to have succeeded. “Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences,’’ was the headline on a story in The New York Times. The message was the same at AOL News (“Report: Stereotypes, Bias Hurt Women in Math and Science’’), while The Washington Post’s education blog mournfully asked, “Why aren’t there more women in STEM?’’

But don’t break out the sackcloth and ashes just yet. For if you look beyond the report’s gloomy title and its call for a war against “stereotypes, bias, and other cultural beliefs,’’ you discover a determined effort to miss a forest of good news in order to rail against some atypical trees.

The report acknowledges, for instance, that “today girls are doing as well as boys in math.’’ In high school, not only are girls earning math and science credits at the same rate as boys, but their grades tend to be slightly higher. Though boys continue to predominate among the most gifted math students, their lead has shrunk severely. Since 1980, the ratio of boys to girls among students scoring above 700 on the math SAT has dwindled from an overwhelming 13:1 to just 3:1.

The girls’ strong performance continues in college, where “the overall proportion of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to women has increased dramatically during the past four decades.’’ Women now earn 60 percent of the degrees awarded in the biological and agricultural sciences, a majority of the chemistry degrees, and just under half of the degrees in math. Many go on to earn advanced degrees — nearly half of all biology PhDs are now awarded to women, as are more than one-third of the doctorates in earth sciences and chemistry. In the workforce, too, women are now highly visible in many scientific fields. The new report notes that a majority of the nation’s biological scientists are women, and that even in fields that relatively few women are attracted to, their numbers have jumped.

And in academia? The report concedes that “when women . . . apply for STEM faculty positions at major research universities they are more likely than men to be hired.’’ (emphasis added)

Not even “the nation’s leading voice promoting education and equity for women,’’ it turns out, can make a convincing case that sexist bias is a serious problem in science, engineering, or math. Its report doesn’t refute what common sense and impartial observation already suggest: that women and men may not be equally attracted to every scientific or mathematical discipline, but where women do have an interest, they cannot be held back.

The predominance of men in engineering is no more a cause for alarm than the fact that most veterinarians are women. The links between gender and vocation are interesting and the subject of much research and lively — sometimes very lively — debate. Finding disparities in the workforce is not the same as finding bias or injustice. When all is said and done, women and men are simply not the same. Vive la différence.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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