… a geek?
Sister, it’s complicated. And the choice may have more than a little bit to do with sexism, according to a new study reported on by Slate.
We’ve heard any number of reasons why women avoid math and science, but as Shankar Vedantam reports in Slate, one thing is not in dispute — the conspicuous absence of the extra X in science and tech jobs (where, ahem, the money often is):
Less than one in five professors of science and math at top research universities in the United States is a woman. The gender distribution of engineers at top Silicon Valley companies is similar to the gender distribution of the audience at your average strip club.
Strip club? Ouch. The piece goes on:
Much has been written about why the number of women in science and math plummets as the intellectual demands in those fields rise with age. We’ve spent years arguing about potential differences in the brains of men and women (courtesy of the controversy spurred five years ago by [former Harvard president Lawrence Summers] former head of President Obama’s National Economic Council), the role of discrimination, and differences between men and women in the way they balance work and home life.
Most Americans believe the doors of opportunity are wide open to careers in science and math, a view that meshes perfectly with John Tierney’s recent argument that worries about sexism are a distraction. (Alison Gopnik recently critiqued Tierney’s claim in Slate.) Anyone can become a scientist or an engineer if she has the necessary interest, determination, and talent. If fewer women than men walk through those doors of opportunity, it has to be because fewer women than men have the necessary interest, determination, and talent. Fewer women than men freely choose to become scientists or engineers.
Freely? The operative word. We’ll go there in a minute. But first, as we reported here last year, at least one study has shown that women avoid math and science, not because they lack the aptitude, but because they don’t feel welcome. It’s called social identity threats. We also relayed a conversation with Stanford economist Myra Strober, founder of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women back in 1972. While emphasizing that the pay gap between men and women has to go — she’s an economist, after all — then said this:
“Opening up and making science and engineering more interesting for women so that they go into those careers is very important. I think you teach it in a different way. First of all, some of these science courses are taught so competitively because they’re trying to winnow out which people are going to get good grades in medical school. Of course, women have gone into medicine. But I think science other than medicine, I think women are poorly represented in those fields. And I think it behooves those fields to figure out how to make those courses more appealing to women. And the workplace, too.”
All of which leads us back to Hamlet’s eternal question by way of that Slate piece, which reports on a new study by Jane Stout, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Matthew Hunsinger, and Melissa A. McManus, Amherst psychologists who found that that when girls and women with an aptitude for science and math nonetheless sidestep those careers, it’s often a subtle form of sexism that’s to blame.
In one part of the study, female science students were asked to take a tough math test. They were greeted by volunteers — male or female math majors — and guess what happened? The students who were greeted by women attempted more questions on the test than the students who were greeted by men. In another experiment, the psychologist measured whether having male or female math professors made a difference with female students. It did. When the professor was female, class participation rose from 7 percent at the beginning of the semester to 46 percent by the end. (With male professors? It stayed the same.) Worse, the percentage of students seeking help outside of class dropped from 12 percent at the beginning of the quarter to zero when the prof was a male. With women profs? The percentage rose slightly.
But most important was this:
… when Stout and Dasgupta evaluated how much the students identified with mathematics, they found that women ended up with less confidence in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men rather than women. This happened even when women outperformed men on actual tests of math performance.
You don’t have to be a science geek to know where this is headed: the subtle discrimination that impacts our choices. And part of that discrimination — let’s just call it sexism — may have to do with whether or not we have role modes who look like us who make us feel that we belong. Back to Slate:
Our reasons for feeling suited to particular professions are only partially—and perhaps tangentially—tied to our interests, determination, and talent. More than three decades ago, psychotherapists at Georgia State University studied why some women, by all objective measures bright and talented, believed they were less gifted than they were. No matter the evidence, they believed they were imposters.