Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Can we close the gender gap in some sciences? Should we?

I've been critical of the New York Times in the past for its gender bias (I even have a tag for it), but I found this NYT article on the gender gap in the "math-oriented sciences" by John Tierney to be admirably balanced and well-reasoned (via).

This explanation for the gap strikes me as very plausible:

[M]en 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?
(The article has more info on the pending bill, if you're interested.)

In addition to those studies on male vs. female preferences, there's also evidence in the form of gender percentages in other scientific fields:
Aided by . . . 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?
As I've said, quoting William Hazlitt, "It is essential for the triumph of reform that it shall never succeed."
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.
That last point is a very sensible one but also one that's sure to be ignored. There's a certain mindset that thrives on exposing discrimination, and this naturally leads to plenty of false positives. There are innumerable disparities in the world; some of them result from discrimination, but the mere existence of a disparity doesn't prove there's discrimination. But leaping to the discrimination conclusion can feel so energizingly righteous that you can be blinded to the downsides of false positives. Pointing out real discrimination is a noble thing, of course, but I think it's wrong (in the moral and factual sense of the word) to tell a group of people that they're being discriminated against to a greater extent than they are. I don't see how this is any less wrong than telling an individual that he or she is despised or being conspired against by people around him or her, unless this is actually true.

Getting back to Tierney's point about the "things"/"people" gender difference, does anyone really believe it should be off limits to posit that men and women are simply, ineradicably different in some ways? I hope not. We have to be open to this possibility in order to have an intellectually honest discussion of any kind of gender gap. A gender gap isn't necessarily a problem that needs to be solved; it could be just life.

(I've focused on only some of the article's data about, and possible explanations for, the gap, so I recommend reading the whole thing.)