Science and the Gender Gap


Any casual look around America’s colleges and universities will inexorably lead one to the conclusion that science is primarily a man’s world; a white man’s world, at that. It’s been that way ever since there was an education system in this country. Early on, the reasons were quite simple: The men worked, and the women stayed home.

That’s just the way it was.

Fast forward to today, and almost every female of working age works. Females in college are as common place as food in a kitchen. However, females in the sciences are not as common place. MSNBC has a story on the sciences and the shrinking – yet still wide – gender gap. Any cursory look at any American university will show a rise in the presence of females in the sciences, but it will also show that there is still a long way to go before things are as they should be.

The lack of females extends from the desk to the chalkboard, as nearly 90% of the collegiate teachers and professors in the sciences are male (this figure is down from nearly 100% just 10 years ago). The number of those female professors with tenure is an even smaller percentage. The main reason, according to separate studies from MIT and Harvard, is the strict scheduling of the tenure process. It goes something like this:

A person graduates with a PhD in their field and goes on to one or two post-doc research positions. If (and that’s a huge “if”) they are considered to be at, or near, the top of their field, one of the bigger universities will hire them as faculty. Then, after six or so continuous years will they be eligible for tenure. Now, for all us guys out there, this schedule poses no huge problems. But for the female population, there’s a bit of a catch: it’s the whole continuous six or seven years of teaching that’s required before tenure. After college, grad school, and post-doc research, most females are in their late 20’s to early 30’s which happens to be prime childbearing age, and most colleges out there won’t suffer a 6 – 10 month absence by a teacher seeking tenure. While the university can’t fire them, they surely (and most often do) withhold tenure. Why? Well, why tenure someone (which basically means they can’t fire a teacher for teaching something controversial) if they’re gonna be gone for a whole semester because of a pregnancy when there’s some guy over here who’ll never have that problem?

Enter the dilemma.

So now a female in this position has to choose: raise a family or pursue work? While many females will put off having children until after (if) they receive tenure, it’s the fact that they are forced to chose between the two while males aren’t. While this dilemma may seem to be a function of biology, the two separate studies at Harvard and MIT both concluded that while biology is at core of the problem, the root of the problem is a systematic discrimination against women by the male-run university system in the schools (and, I would conjecture, in the country as a whole). MIT was among the first to address the problem by issuing a report in 1999 that found, as a whole, female professors and researchers were payed less than their male counterparts and received fewer research resources.

This issue really wasn’t helped when, in 2005, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that a genetic lack of ability was to blame for the lack of females in the sciences. It’s true that females tend to attract to the liberal arts side of higher education almost on their own, but it’s not due to any genetic flaw or lesser ability compared to males.

It’s caused, mainly, by our society (perfect as it is, we all know).

From early on, girls are encouraged to be homemakers, nurses, child-care providers…all of the stereotypical female-nurturing roles and occupations that history says they’ve always occupied. From middle-school through high-school, you’ll find fewer and fewer females choosing to take the advanced maths and sciences offered at those schools. That trend continues at the university level, and by the time a class graduates college, maybe as many as 92 – 98% of the females in that class will not be graduating with a degree in any of the sciences, and those that do, face an uphill battle against an entrenched “good-ole-boy” system in which they are underpaid, under-represented, and often face very low and very hard-to-break glass ceilings.

But change, as it always does, waits just around the corner. All that’s needed to pave it’s way into our lives for our collective good is for a few good people to stand up and throw light on the corruptness of the system.



~ by Deuce on September 19, 2006.

One Response to “Science and the Gender Gap”

  1. 1) There’s no food in my kitchen ;p

    2) Actually, there are more women than men enrolled in American colleges.

    3) You never account for how many women are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate studies for the fields you’re referring to. Doing so would help provide context when you start talking about tenure track faculty.

    4) Actually, which fields exactly are you/we discussing? Natural sciences? Computer sciences? Engineering?

    5) I resent your underlying implication that most women would choose babies over a career. Furthermore, I think that women can be successful in both science careers and have children if they so choose. It just takes a little forethought and a good amount of dedication.

    6) Yes, the gender gap in tenure track faculty may be caused by underlying societal values which lead women to choose different careers. But where’s the problem? Are sciences better? (Um… NO!) If not, maybe there should be a follow up post on how men are less likely study social sciences or English.

    7) For the record, journalism and politics are “good old boy” careers too. But I’ve found that I can decidedly use this to my advantage. A young uppity woman can often times, with a little work, have that world (if not wrapped around her finger then at least) at her disposal.

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