May 20, 2010

Why are there so few women in physics?

I cannot pretend to be able to address the answer to the question of why men overwhelmingly dominate (in terms of numbers) in physics.  It is a complex question with no simple answer.

The question does get raised enough, though, by people who have thought very deeply about it, that I often get to read and ponder what they are saying.  Usually I'm directed to an article via a tweet by Eric Mazur, such as this recent blog post from American Thinker which argues that science academics are at risk of becoming "PC" (politically correct) to the detriment of this country's science and technology pursuits.

You don't have to dig too far to figure out which way the editorial staff of American Thinker leans, but I was interested in the blog post they linked to (and quoted from) on the Washington Post's website written by Christina Hoff Sommers.  In her post, Sommers recapitulates the main thesis of a book she edited for the American Enterprise Institute, The Science of Women in Science, which says that institutional bias is not mainly to blame for the gender imbalance in science.

Sommers was also replying to a criticism of her book from an article in Nature, which she linked to. I don't agree with either "side" since I believe that the answer is too complex to be boiled down to a soundbite or quote in an article or blog post. (This blog included.)

The Nature article discussed one of the essays from Sommers book which cited psychological and behavioral studies of children and the toys that boys and girls seem to prefer.  I wonder what the authors would think of this comic which a friend of mine linked to recently:

It's funny, for sure, and it makes you think.  Anecdotally though, I know of at least one couple who are self described liberals who decided when they had their first child to make sure that their daughter was raised without any gender bias.  And they saw that by the time the daughter was old enough to start choosing her own toys, she went right to the pink section of the toy store.

Of course, as Mazur would say, the plural of anecdote is not data.  As more often than not is the case, I have to let experts who have done rigorous studies guide my thinking.  So while I might not agree with any of the opinions in the articles I linked to, at least there was a lot to read for me to think about.  I would hope that everyone would agree with one thing that Sommers said in her piece:
Scientific preeminence is one of America's greatest national resources. President Obama and NSF officials should be doing all they can to preserve it. That means finding creative and effective ways to encourage gifted students of both sexes to pursue careers in science and technology.
You can read the rest of the article to see if you agree with anything else she said.

Finally, it is not only this country which has an issue with gender imbalance in science.  In an effort to recruit 20 top-notch scientists and engineers for a $200 million dollar program, Canada found 19 qualified applicants, all male.


bridgetwhoplaysfrenchhorn said...'s not an easy issue to define, determine, or fix. At all. If you figure it out, let me know!

Andrew said...

It's something that won't change overnight and is just something we have to keep working on.

But there are bright spots in science, right? Biology, pre-medicine and related fields and chemistry have way better gender parity than physics and engineering (at least at the undergraduate level). And you know there were four women in space at the same time last month, right? One astronomer I know said that the surest sign that gender equality in science is progressing is that it really wasn't news that there were four female astronauts in orbit at the same time. That's how it should be.

But tracking the number of women who continue to graduate programs in physics and engineering, it seems that those numbers aren't increasing as quickly as they are at the undergrad level. It's really hard to pin down why those women leave physics or engineering. I suspect some of them change fields by choice, and we shouldn't be too concerned with those cases. If they are being pressured to quit whether it is a real pressure or a perceived pressure, that is something that everyone in science should be concerned about.

bridgetwhoplaysfrenchhorn said...

Well---I'm at probably one of the only places in the country where undergrad women feel quite encouraged to do exactly what they want to do...but I know that isn't the case everywhere.

There's a quote that I heard awhile back about the success of feminism being the ultimate choice to do whatever you want. If a girl grows up supported to choose what she wishes no matter what, that's great. Whether she chooses homemaker, doctor, researcher, or mechanic...she does what she loves. The thing is--we're not there yet. There are so many lecture series at MIT involved with the graduate woman experience. Some women don't want to work in physics because it's a lonely how can we support them? That's what you have to figure out...