Legislation Won't Close Gender Gap In Sciences

September 2010

If the Senate passes legislation establishing regular “workshops to enhance gender equity” in academic science, what exactly would scientists and engineers do at them? The legislation, already approved by the House, is a little vague beyond directing researchers and heads of academic departments to participate in “activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.”

But let me venture one prediction: There will be lots of talk about the male chauvinists on the Swedish Medical Research Council who awarded 20 postdoctoral fellowships in 1994.

The analysis of those fellowships, published in Nature in 1997, is the fundamental text of the gender-bias movement, cited over and over at conferences, in papers and in lobbying materials. If you’re looking for evidence of discrimination against female scientists, this article seems to be the one clear, unambiguously scandalous finding.

The article was written by Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, two of the unsuccessful applicants for those Swedish postdoctoral fellowships. After learning that male applicants were much more likely than female applicants to succeed, they sued to get the data behind the decisions and then analyzed the 114 applicants’ publication records. They concluded that a woman had to be two and a half times as productive as a man to receive the same rating of competence.

The shocking findings made headlines, but how representative was that one Swedish study of 114 applicants? At that time, female applicants to the National Science Foundation were succeeding just as often as men were, and much larger studies since then have repeatedly failed to find gender bias.

When two Swedish researchers, Ulf Sandstrom and Martin Hallsten, did a follow-up study analyzing the Swedish medical fellowships awarded in 2004, they found that female applicants were actually rated more favorably than comparable male applicants. In 2005 a large study, conducted by the RAND Corporation, concluded that female applicants for research grants from federal agencies in the United States typically got as much money as male applicants.

In 2008, an analysis of more than 2,000 grant proposals in Australia reported that female applicants did as well as males, and that applicants received similar ratings from both male and female reviewers. Last year two researchers, Herbert W. Marsh of Oxford and Lutz Bornmann of the University of Zurich, reported on an analysis of more than 350,000 grant proposals in eight countries. They found “no effect of the applicant’s gender on the peer review of their grant proposals.”

Also last year a task force of the National Academy of Sciences concluded from its investigation of 500 science departments that by and large, men and women “enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university.” The task force reported that at major research universities, female candidates “had a better chance of being interviewed and receiving offers than male job candidates had.”

So why are women still such a minority in math-oriented sciences? The most balanced answer I’ve seen comes from two psychologists at Cornell, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams — who, by the way, are married and have a daughter with a graduate degree in engineering. After reviewing hundreds of studies in their new book, “The Mathematics of Sex” (Oxford), they conclude that discrimination is no longer an important factor in keeping out women.

They find consistent evidence for biological differences in math aptitude, particularly in males’ advantage in spatial ability and in their disproportionate presence at the extreme ends of the distribution curve on math tests (the topic of last week’s column). But given all the progress made in math by girls, who now take more math and science classes than boys and get better grades, Dr. Ceci and Dr. Williams say that differences in aptitude are not the primary cause of the gender gap in academic science.

Instead, they point to different personal preferences and choices of men and women, including the much-analyzed difference in the reaction to parenthood. When researchers at Vanderbilt University tracked the aspirations and values of mathematically gifted people in their 20s and 30s, they found a gender gap that widened after children arrived, with fathers focusing more on personal careers and mothers focusing more on the community and the family.

Dr. Ceci and Dr. Williams urge universities to make it easier for a young scientist to start a family and still compete for tenure, but they don’t expect such reforms to eliminate the gender gap in academic science. After all, the difficulty of balancing family and career is hardly unique to science, and academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries with smaller gender gaps.

The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There’s ample evidence — most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people — that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and “inorganic” subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other “organic” careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.

You can argue how much of this difference is due to biology and how much to society, but could you really affect it by sending scientists and engineers off to the workshops mandated by the bill now in Congress? Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of a recent book “The Science on Women and Science” (AEI Press), says the workshops’ main effect would be to provide jobs for researchers and advocates promoting a myth of gender bias.

She criticizes the National Science Foundation for sustaining this industry over the past decade with more than $135 million from its Advance program promoting gender equity.

While some projects were worthwhile, Dr. Sommers says, the science grants were also used to stage “The Vagina Monologues,” develop a game called Gender Bias Bingo and present workshops featuring skits in which arrogant men mistreat female colleagues who are clearly their intellectual superiors.

Aided by the continuing federal grants, researchers and advocates have developed theories that women are being held back from pursuing careers in engineering and physics by “stereotype threat,” by “implicit bias” and by a shortage of female role models and mentors. Yet none of these theorized barriers prevented girls and women from dominating the fields that most interested them.

The life sciences and social sciences were once male bastions, yet today women make up a majority of working biological scientists, and they earn nearly three-quarters of the doctorates in psychology. Now that women are earning a majority of all undergraduate and graduate degrees, it’s odd to assume they’re the gender that needs special help on campus. If more women prefer to study psychology and medicine than physics and engineering, why is that a problem for Washington to fix?

I’d love to see more girls pursuing careers in science (and more women reading science columns), but I wish we’d encourage their individual aspirations instead of obsessing about group disparities. I can’t see how we’re helping them with scare stories about the awful discrimination they’ll face. And I can’t imagine that many scientists, male or female, are looking forward to being yanked out of the lab to play Gender Bias Bingo — or hear once again about the Swedish chauvinists of 1994.