Erector sets and Barbie dolls

Since Larry Summer’s now infamous remarks in 2005, the underrepresentation of women in science has gained a high level of attention.  Harvard’s faculty and graduate students have joined the National Academy of Sciences, the Center for American Progress and other groups to study the reasons behind the underrepresentation of women in science.  Now the American Enterprise Institute has decided to weigh in.

At a recent book forum hosted by AEI, Christina Hoff Sommers, an AEI resident scholar, presented her views on the dearth of women in science.  Focusing on quantitative disciplines like physics, math and computer science, she argued that the smaller percentage of women in scientific disciplines is the result of innate differences in preference between men and women.  Not only is the evidence for Sommers’ argument shaky, but her position creates a rationalization for the removal of policies that encourage the advancement of women in science.

Sommers’ arguments hinged upon a variety of information that she argues indicates innate preference differences.  For example, Sommers described studies about how, when given a choice, boys choose “gadgety” toys, while girls choose dolls or other traditionally feminine toys.  Sommers continued by noting that very few women complete the semester in Math 55, a course at Harvard University notorious for its difficulty.  Sommers also discussed how men are more likely to subscribe to science magazines, while noting that boys and girls seem to play differently.

But Sommers’ arguments do not demonstrate that these differences are innate.  During the book forum, Rosalind Chait Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, said that the research that Sommers relies upon uses adults and children who already have been heavily swayed by societal influences.  She noted that children begin to develop ideas about stereotypes as early as 24 months.  Instead of showing innate differences in the preferences of men and women, Sommers’ examples simply demonstrates the effects of society on gender-specific behavior and discouragement of women in the sciences.

Even if we were to accept that women are, on average, less interested in science, we are left with several dangerous questions.  Should we encourage women to become scientists at all? Should we provide maternity leave or other parental accommodations for any scientists?  We might reasonably argue that such efforts and policies are a waste of time and money.  The few women who are interested in science will be able to get involved on their own, right?

While Sommers rails against the “radical feminist agenda” of the federal government, she probably wouldn’t go this far.  After the forum, I asked her about the difference in the gender ratio between new Ph.D.s and tenured faculty in biomedical research.  She acknowledged that universities should make some accommodations (e.g. maternity leave) — but only to a point.

However, on the whole, her arguments discount the large body of evidence that suggests that institutions and policies do matter.  In Beyond Bias and Barriers, the members of the National Academies of Science find that “Systematic structural constraints built into academic institutions have impeded the careers of women scientists and engineers.”  Specifically, they note that “A successful academic career has traditionally involved the presumption that unlimited attention can be given to that throughout one’s life.”  Under these institutional constraints, “Deviation or delay, any substantial hiatus, or serious attention to responsibilities outside of the academic realm have harmed faculty members’ ability to compete successfully because it has been taken to indicate a lack of seriousness about their careers,” writes the National Academies’ report.

These intensive expectations disfavor the advancement of women, despite their interests, because women are more often forced to choose between their families and their careers.  The national academies report that 90 percent of the spouses of women work full time, while only 50 percent of the spouses of men work full time.  Because caretaking responsibilities for children traditionally fall upon women, women are more likely to have to leave their careers, at least for a time, to start a family.

If we desire a scientific work force composed of the most qualified and intelligent scientists, then we must recognize the role the academic culture plays in the advancement of our female scientists.  Institutional policies and culture can be extremely important in encouraging women and men to succeed both in the laboratory and at home.

For more information, take a look at a recent post that summarizes several recent reports and articles.  Also, check out a recent Newsweek commentary on “the mommy gap.”

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