It’s nice to see research upholding what some of us have recognized and celebrated for so long: men and women are different after all. Unfortunately, that reality probably won’t quiet the yelling from the political fringes.
In her May 18 article, “The freedom to say ‘no’,” Elaine McArdle wrote (emphasis added),
Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women — highly qualified for the work — stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.
… if these researchers are right, then a certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society, where men and women finally can forge their own vocational paths.
Aside from the curious idea of a “natural artifact” — why not just say “natural consequence” or “natural outcome”? — McArdle’s article gives a nice, brief overview of the central issue that many women simply don’t want to follow the same paths as men.
Christina Hoff Sommers wrote a more in-depth treatment a couple of months ago, with the provocative title “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” In her article, Sommers noted that
Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.’s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering.
After noting an October 2007 hearing on “why women are ‘underrepresented’ in academic professorships of science and engineering,” she wrote,
As a rule, women tend to gravitate to fields such as education, English, psychology, biology, and art history, while men are much more numerous in physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. Why this is so is an interesting question — and the subject of a substantial empirical literature. The research on gender and vocation is complex, vibrant, and full of reasonable disagreements; there is no single, simple answer.
Yet the hearing apparently found the simple answer: “All five expert witnesses, and all five congressmen … attributed the dearth of women in university science to a single cause: sexism.”
Sommers took a bold stand in her article, charging that the political rationale is unidirectional:
If numerical inferiority were sufficient grounds for charges of discrimination or cultural insensitivity, Congress would be holding hearings on the crisis of underrepresentation of men in higher education. After all, women earn most of the degrees—practically across the board. What about male proportionality in the humanities, social sciences, and biology? The physical sciences are the exception, not the rule.
So why are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences? In a recent survey of faculty atti*tudes on social issues, sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University asked 1,417 professors what accounts for the relative scarcity of female pro*fessors in math, science, and engineering. Just 1 percent of respondents attributed the scarcity to women’s lack of ability, 24 percent to sexist discrimination, and 74 percent to differences in what characteristically interests men and women.
It seems that some people with power to gain from controversy, or perhaps with power to gain from exercising control, have a vested interest in provoking debates where little debate is needed. In this case it’s not enough, apparently, for them to let gender differences exist and accept them: they have to explain and challenge the differences for their personal pleasure or their personal esteem.
Or maybe some folks just don’t appreciate the differences.by