Steve Stewart-Williams

The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Affirmative Action for Women in Science?

Why current worries about the underrepresentation of women in STEM are misguided

Posted Oct 12, 2013

We've heard a lot recently about the low numbers of women in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Almost everyone writing on the topic seems to think that this gender disparity is a major problem and a product of discrimination or malignant stereotypes.

As such, I suspect that a lot of people would be surprised to learn that there's a strong case on the other side of the issue - in other words, a strong case that the gender gap in STEM is not due to discrimination and is not such a great problem after all. There's good evidence, for instance, that the gap is largely a product of average sex differences in career preferences and life goals. Rather than trying to socially engineer men and women's preferences so as to create a 50-50 sex ratio in every occupation, we should respect people's right to make their own decisions about what they do with their lives.

Over the next few weeks and months, I plan to highlight some of the arguments for this position - a position I think deserves a lot more attention than it's been getting lately. I'll start with an interesting New York Times article I came across the other day, which discusses the possibility of Affirmative Action for women in STEM. The article has a strong focus on the ideas of Susan Pinker. It was published in 2008, but it's just as relevant today and it's definitely worth a read. Here are some excerpts:

"Susan Pinker argues that the campaign for gender parity infantilizes women by assuming they don’t know what they want. She interviewed women who abandoned successful careers in science and engineering to work in fields like architecture, law and education - and not because they had faced discrimination in science.

"Instead, they complained of being pushed so hard to be scientists and engineers that they ended up in jobs they didn't enjoy. 'The irony was that talent in a male-typical pursuit limited their choices,' Ms. Pinker says. 'Once they showed aptitude for math or physical science, there was an assumption that they’d pursue it as a career even if they had other interests or aspirations. And because these women went along with the program and were perceived by parents and teachers as torch bearers, it was so much more difficult for them to come to terms with the fact that the work made them unhappy'...

"'Creating equal opportunities for women does not mean that they’ll choose what men choose in equal numbers,' Ms. Pinker says. 'The freedom to act on one’s preferences can create a more exaggerated gender split in some fields.'"

You can read the rest of the article here.

PS: Given that this is a hot button issue, I should probably make quite clear that I don't think women should be barred from the science labs or expelled from the maths classrooms. Any women who wants to pursue a career in a STEM field should have the opportunity to do so. The only question is: If it turns out that fewer women than men want that opportunity, is that a problem?

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