Women’s choices, not abilities, keep them out of math-intensive fields

The question of why women are so underrepresented in math-intensive fields is a controversial one. In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, set off a storm of controversy when he suggested it could be due partly to innate differences in ability; others have suggested discrimination or socialization is more to blame. Two psychological scientists have reviewed all of the evidence and concluded that the main factor is women’s choices — both freely made, such as that they’d rather study biology than math, and constrained, such as the fact that the difficult first years as a professor coincide with the time when many women are having children.

Psychological scientists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University set out to understand the differences between men and women in math-intensive fields such as physics, electrical engineering, computer science, economics, and chemistry. In the top 100 U.S. universities, only 9% to 16% of tenure-track positions in these kinds of fields are held by women.

But girls’ grades in math from grade school through college are as good as or better than boys’, and women and men earn comparable average scores on standardized math tests. However, twice as many men as women score in the top 1% on tests such as the SAT-M. Clearly, the picture is complex, Ceci and Williams decided. Their analysis and conclusions appear in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Williams and Ceci also reviewed research on sex discrimination and decided that it is no longer a major factor. In fact, one large-scale national study found that women are actually slightly more likely than men to be invited to interview for and to be offered tenure-track jobs in math-intensive STEM fields.

Instead, Williams and Ceci think the problem is that women actually choose not to go into math-heavy fields, or drop out once they have started. “When you look at surveys of adolescent boys and girls and you say to them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ you never see girls saying, ‘I want to be a physicist or an engineer,'” Ceci says. That doesn’t mean they’re rejecting science, but they’re more likely to want to be physicians or veterinarians.

And those preferences persist. Studies of college students find that women are more interested in organic and social fields, while men are more interested in systematizing things. And indeed, more than half of new medical doctors and biologists are women today — and in veterinary medicine, women are more than 75% of new graduates.

Also, women drop out of mathematics-heavy careers paths. Almost half of undergraduate math majors in the U.S. are women. A smaller percentage of women go into graduate school in math, and in 2006, women earned 29.6% of math PhDs. Women are also more likely to drop out after they start a job as a professor, often because they are unable to balance childcare with the huge workload required to get tenure. Young male professors are more likely than their female counterparts to have a stay-at-home spouse or partner who takes care of children.

“You don’t see nearly as many men with doctorates in physics saying, ‘I won’t apply for a tenure-track position because my partner wants to practice environmental law in Wyoming and I’m going to follow her there and help take care of the kids,'” Williams says. Fair or not, women are more likely to prioritize family needs. “I don’t think we should try to persuade a woman who’s going to be a physician, veterinarian, or biologist to instead be a computer scientist.”

On the other hand, women shouldn’t have to drop out because the tenure schedule conflicts with their fertility schedule. “Universities can and should do a lot more for women and for those men engaged in comparably-intensive caretaking,” says Williams. Coming up with alternative schedules for parents of young children who are seeking tenure, for example, or finding other ways to ease the burden on parents or young children, could help women stay in academic careers — and not only in math-intensive fields.

For more information about this study, please contact Steve Ceci or Wendy Williams at sjc9@cornell.edu or wendywilliams@cornell.edu.

Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, publishes concise reviews on the latest advances in theory and research spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of “Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields” please contact Keri Chiodo at 202-293-9300 or kchiodo@psychologicalscience.org.

3 thoughts on “Women’s choices, not abilities, keep them out of math-intensive fields”

  1. I really dont know why there are so many articles like this and one sided claims about bias in academia against girls/women when there are a greater number of women in the universities in the firs place and points to a gender disparity whichever starts in grade school.

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  2. “The plural of anecdote is not evidence, but these are serious researchers asserting that women dropping out or choosing different careers without discrimination as “a major factor.” It’s great that women are being equitably sought for one particular class of jobs, but that doesn’t address the massive social pressures in our system starting in grade school.”

    How do you get equality out of this?

    “In fact, one large-scale national study found that women are actually slightly more likely than men to be invited to interview for and to be offered tenure-track jobs in math-intensive STEM fields.”

    Is it that whenever their are indications of female advantage you call that equality?

    Furthermore there are more girls in grade schools for the gifted and of the top scoring girls in math aptitude tests nearly all them come from schools of the gifted unlike the boys. Both of these tell us the girls are being given better opportunities in the gifted relm than boys are. The problem for boys is that there are many more boys than girls scoring extremely high in math aptitude tests who are not being placed in the more gifted schools which would nurture their abilities. I haven’t seen clear research on why this would be the case whether it be that gifted boys are less likely to be recognized as such or if the gifted schools have a bias towards admitting girls (such as an overemphasis on the academic strengths of girls or an environment biased towards girl behavior/personality).

    It is well established that boys and men are more variable In their intelligence than girls and women. That dynamic would explain why there are more boys in schools for the learning impaired but leaves a disturbing question as to why there aren’t more boys in schools for the gifted, let caliber slightly less.

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  3. “Williams and Ceci also reviewed research on sex discrimination and decided that it is no longer a major factor.”

    That is not my experience, nor the experience of many women in academia I know, nor the experience of the many women and girls who report being discouraged from taking math or told they are bad at it, and wouldn’t they rather be a veterinarian or another socially acceptable caretaker role?

    The plural of anecdote is not evidence, but these are serious researchers asserting that women dropping out or choosing different careers without discrimination as “a major factor.” It’s great that women are being equitably sought for one particular class of jobs, but that doesn’t address the massive social pressures in our system starting in grade school.

    Reply

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