Monday, May 19, 2008

More Women in the Sciences and Engineering? Nah, Maybe Later...

Why aren't there more women in science and engineering? Elaine McArdle over at the Boston Globe's got some ideas:

WHEN IT COMES to the huge and persistent gender gap in science and technology jobs, the finger of blame has pointed in many directions: sexist companies, boy-friendly science and math classes, differences in aptitude.

Women make up almost half of today's workforce, yet hold just a fraction of the jobs in certain high-earning, high-qualification fields. They constitute 20 percent of the nation's engineers, fewer than one-third of chemists, and only about a quarter of computer and math professionals.

Over the past decade and more, scores of conferences, studies, and government hearings have been directed at understanding the gap. It has stayed in the media spotlight thanks in part to the high-profile misstep of then-Harvard president Larry Summers, whose loose comment at a Harvard conference on the topic in 2005 ultimately cost him his job.

Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.

One study of information-technology workers found that women's own preferences are the single most important factor in that field's dramatic gender imbalance. Another study followed 5,000 mathematically gifted students and found that qualified women are significantly more likely to avoid physics and the other "hard" sciences in favor of work in medicine and biosciences.

It's important to note that these findings involve averages and do not apply to all women or men; indeed, there is wide variety within each gender. The researchers are not suggesting that sexism and cultural pressures on women don't play a role, and they don't yet know why women choose the way they do. One forthcoming paper in the Harvard Business Review, for instance, found that women often leave technical jobs because of rampant sexism in the workplace.

But if these researchers are right, then a certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society, where men and women finally can forge their own vocational paths. And understanding how individual choices shape the gender balance of some of the most important, financially rewarding careers will be critical in fashioning effective solutions for a problem that has vexed people for more than a generation.
Oh boy! A "certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society"?

Don't tell that to
the feminist lobby at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences!