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The never-ending discussion… Part 2

Posted by Melissa on June 14, 2010

John Tierney’s second article on the gender gap in the sciences has appeared in the NY Times, and it’s as bothersome as the first.  He must have read my last post, because he’s now referencing Stephen Ceci and Wendy William’s book, The Mathematics of Sex, but without much acknowledgment of the nuance and complexity that Ceci and Williams emphasize.

Instead of responding directly to Tierney’s latest column, let me continue my previous post highlighting a few points from The Mathematics of Sex. As I mentioned in my last post, the book’s literature review relegates both biological differences in ability and bias to secondary roles in accounting for the under-representation of women in mathematically-intensive science fields. Rather, Ceci and Williams attribute the difference in representation to two significant factors: 1) women’s career preferences and 2) the impact of childbirth and child rearing on women’s careers.

“One clearly important factor explaining women’s underrepresentation is that math-capable women disproportionately choose non-mathematics fields, and such preferences are already visible among math-competent girls during adolescence…. [I]f each sex’s representation was primarily a function of math ability, there would be twice as many women in math-intensive careers are there now are….Clearly, non-ability factors such as women’s preferences must play an important role—math-talented women are choosing non-math careers far more frequently than are math-talented men.”

The guise of personal preference may hide the influence of environmental or biological factors on individual decisions.  When reading Ceci and William’s book, there were aspects of my experience as a woman in physics that were missing from the discussions, namely the feeling of “otherness” and the impact of micro-inequities, which likely can’t be measured in any statistically significant way.  Yet I would guess these intangibles impact personal decisions.

According to the Mathematics of Sex, the second significant factor contributing to the under-representation of women in mathematically-intensive fields is the impact of childbirth and childrearing on women’s careers. While this is not unique to STEM fields, with the increased rate at which STEM knowledge becomes dated as compared to other fields, career gaps and part-time work can be particularly damaging in these fields.  Ceci and Williams spend a significant amount of time considering the challenging decisions faced by women with regards to having both children and career, and they acknowledge that men are almost never required to make the same choices as women nor do they face the same career penalties as women for becoming a parent.

The discussion of child-rearing highlights that biological and sociocultural factors DO impact the STEM careers of women, but there is more to the issue than the simplistic biological and sociocultural discussion that Tierney wants to emphasize.  As acknowledged by Ceci and Williams, “The reasons women opt out of math-intensive fields—either when first choosing a career, or later—are complex. Reasons for preferring nonmath fields may be influenced by biological and sociocultural factors that either enable or limit women.”

It is not helpful to address this issue by trying to deny the considerable gray regions in favor of black and white scenarios. While I may grow tired of the debate at times, it’s also important to acknowledge there is value in the continuing discussion on the topic. As noted in the Mathematics of Sex, “Our society has much to contend with as we ponder the issues of group differences in access to and success at different careers, be they gender-group differences or racial/ethnic-group differences.”


2 Responses to “The never-ending discussion… Part 2”

  1. Nadia said

    One especially annoying thing about Tierney’s article is that he extrapolates from the fact that other careers are demanding on family-career balance to suggesting that consequently, it’s not much of an issue. That’s especially jarring because Ceci and Williams noted that it hurts women’s prospects of reaching the top in many fields. Tierney also never made a point to mention that Ceci and Williams are skeptical of the role of hormones in ability differences. I find that disappointing because he deemed male overrepresentation in his last column “biological.”

    In any case, as Diane Halpern pointed out, we still have to figure out how they’re shaped.

  2. […] to addressing the question of women in science, and I also mentioned in that post, and a related post, that I thought the book, The Mathematics of Sex, by Ceci and Williams did a good job of addressing […]

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