Free choice and the female science divide

The Boston Globe has a provocative article that sheds some new light on the old debate over why there are so few women in maths and physical science subjects. One important factor seems to be that they simply choose other professions, but if you think this answer is too simplistic, there may be more to it than meets the eye.

It no longer seems to be the case that women are being explicitly blocked from maths, physics and engineering jobs, although the number of women in these professions is still very small.

One strong argument for why women are in the minority is that they suffer from the effects of implicit sexism, a system designed to take advantage of male attributes and life choices.

Some argue that the lack of support and consideration for women’s lives puts them off, and so they decide against what seems like a bad option.

However, the article presents an interesting piece of evidence against this as being the major influence.

In her controversial new book, “The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap,” [Susan] Pinker gathers data from the journal Science and a variety of sources that show that in countries where women have the most freedom to choose their careers, the gender divide is the most pronounced.

The United States, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which offer women the most financial stability and legal protections in job choice, have the greatest gender split in careers. In countries with less economic opportunity, like the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, she writes, the number of women in physics is as high as 30 to 35 percent, versus 5 percent in Canada, Japan, and Germany.

“It’s the opposite of what we’d expect,” says Pinker. “You’d think the more family-friendly policies, and richer the economy, the more women should behave like men, but it’s the opposite. I think with economic opportunity comes choices, comes freedom.”

If the gender gap in many fields has its roots in women’s own preferences, that raises a new line of questions, including the most obvious: Why do women make these choices? Why do they prefer different kinds of work? And what does “freedom of choice” really mean in a world that is still structured very differently for men and women?

Of course, this doesn’t deny that there are still other reasons why women might be put off these careers (lack of female role models, perception / effect of a ‘boys club’ etc) but it’s interesting that support for female physical scientists seems not to correlate with their numbers.

The article also mentions an interesting point that women with high maths ability tend to have good verbal ability (meaning they have a much wider potential choice of careers) whereas this is less often the case with men. In essence, the article argues that women would rather select jobs with more human contact.

It’s probably worth saying that in the life sciences, females predominate. In fact, in psychology, men are typically outnumbered 10-1. Clinical psychology tends to be even more extreme.

Despite the vanishingly small number of male psychology undergraduates, I’ve never heard of any effort to recruit or attract more males to the subject.

I’m always curious as to why having few males in life sciences doesn’t seem to bother people but having few females in maths or physics does.

Can’t we have some equality in our equality?

Link to Boston Globe article on women in science and engineering.

2 thoughts on “Free choice and the female science divide”

  1. RE your last point: the assumption is that if men are underrepresented in the life sciences, it’s because they have freely chosen other paths. On the other hand, if women are underrepresented in the physical sciences, it’s because they have been denied the opportunity (explicit/implicit sexism). In the aggregate, men are choosers, women are victims. There’s plenty of evidence to support that view in the past; I’m not so sure that there’s reason to believe that today.

  2. I¬¥m quite convinced of differential psychological dimensions √° la Baron-Cohen (systematic/empathic) among the sexes without being trapped too much in the “gender disscusion” or “cultural”sex wars.

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