The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Exploring life at the intersection of biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Where Are All the Women?

What's keeping women out of science? Is it discrimination...or something else?

The other day, I heard one of the funniest jokes I've heard in a long time. It goes like this: A physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician walk into a bar. The barman takes one look at them and...

OK, I admit it; there isn't any joke. I just wanted you to picture a physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician. Now you've done it, here's a question: For each person, did you picture a man or a woman? Unless you were wise to my game, you probably pictured three men. Now some might suggest this makes you a terrible sexist. But perhaps that would be unfair. After all, it's an undeniable fact that there are more men than women working in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. By picturing three men, you were just playing the odds. Is it sexist to base your expectations on a genuine statistical regularity?

Perhaps not. But perhaps it is fair to invoke sexism to answer another question: Why are there more men than women in STEM fields? Most of what we read on the subject assumes that sexism is the culprit. So, for instance, a recent report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) concluded that the STEM gender gap is a product of bias and sexist stereotypes. Society gives people the message that science is a guy thing and, as a result, fewer women than men pursue science careers. Those few women who defy society’s subtle directives and who do pursue science careers are more likely to drop out, as they face implicit biases and a hostile environment.

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These are serious accusations, and presumably the accused – in particular, men working in STEM fields – deserve a fair trial. As such, it’s only fair to note that sexism is not the only possible explanation for the STEM gender gap. Others have been put forward. These are less PC but they're also more persuasive. That, at least, is the view I've come to recently.

I’ve been coaxed to this view by various thinkers. Interestingly, most of them were women. They include Susan Pinker and Christina Hoff Sommers, both of whom argue that the STEM gender gap is due mainly to average sex differences in interests and preferences. It is these differences, rather than bias and barriers, that explain why fewer women than men end up working in STEM fields.

In the remainder of this post, I want to direct your attention to an excellent article on the topic written by Susan Pinker. The article deals with the AAUW report discussed above. Pinker's own research led her to a very different conclusion about the gender disparity. She interviewed women who’d had successful STEM careers but had dropped them to pursue successful careers in other areas. Most denied that they’d experienced bias and were baffled by the idea that people might want to cast them as victims. They'd made their own choices and were happy with them. As children, they'd been encouraged to do math and science. As employees in STEM fields, they'd found the work environment supportive rather than hostile. They'd simply decided they'd be happier doing something else.

Is it plausible that these women - successful, self-determined women - were victims of suble bias and subliminal stereotyping? Pinker doubts it and, when you think about it, it does sound a little fishy. "What about Margaret Chan," Pinker writes, "the head of the World Health Organization and arguably the world's most powerful public health official, or all the other talented women who go into biology, medicine, dentistry, ecology, pharmacology, neuroscience, or veterinary science, all science programs that were mostly male forty years ago, but are now dominated by women on every university campus? Do the women really choose these fields over physics and engineering because they've been convinced by subliminal forces that their math skills are sub-par?"

Certainly, there are studies that seem to demonstrate sexism in STEM fields. But these studies are surprisingly thin on the ground, given the concerted effort in the social sciences to find evidence of sexism. Publication bias is also a serious concern. Even if it isn't a factor, though, Pinker observes that "None of the eight studies included in the report shows that prejudice is the driving force behind people's career choices, or that if gender biases were stripped away, all disciplines would be split 50-50."

There's probably some sexism in science. But there's probably sexism in every field. Why would it only stop women from going into STEM fields? Something else must be going on. As mentioned, that something else is plausibly average differences in people’s preferences and interests. And whereas the evidence for bias is relatively weak, the evidence for sex differences in preferences is extremely strong. As Pinker puts it,

"A mountain of published research stretching back a hundred years shows that women are far more likely than men to be deeply interested in organic subjects - people, plants and animals - than they are to be interested in things and inanimate systems, such as electrical engineering, or computer systems."

If this difference is rooted in the evolved nature of our species, then the STEM gender gap may have little to do with sexism, discrimination, or subtle brainwashing. With our continued efforts to try to close the gap, we're saying, in effect, that achieving a 50:50 sex ratio is more important than letting people freely pursue their natural interests and passions in life.

This brings us to a crucial question: Why is it so important that we socially engineer a 50:50 sex ratio in the STEM fields? No one is worried that there are fewer men than women going into psychology and other social sciences, or that there are fewer men going into the humanities. No one is worried that society gives boys the message that psychology is a girl thing or that male pharmacologists or veterinarians face a hostile environment. Why the myopic focus on the STEM fields? One suggestion can be found in the following passage from Pinker's article:

"Starting from the assumption that anything predominantly 'male' is the desirable standard, the AAUW report never questions why women should choose technical fields over other disciplines, except to echo the sixties era notion that any ratio that tilts towards male must reflect something worth having."

A rather sexist notion, one might argue!

You can read Susan Pinker's full article here, and my last post on this topic here.

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Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life.

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