Science and Gender

03 March 2014


Our topic this week is Science and Gender. Science used to be seen as a thing for boys only. Back in the 1980’s  when students were asked to draw what a scientist looks like… forty eight percent drew a scientist with facial hair; twenty-five percent gave their scientist a pencil protector.  Only eight percent drew a woman.   Of course, back then the perception that science was a boy thing, pretty much matched the reality.   Science really was pretty much an all boys club back in those days.   The august New York Times recently published an article by one of the first two women to earn an undergraduate physics degree from Yale. She graduated in 1978.  Now Yale is over 300 years old.  And it too them that long to grant a woman a BS in physics?  That’s pretty amazing.   Now I know that Yale wasn’t even co-ed until 1969.  But that just shows you how little access women use to have to the kinds of places that trained many, many leading scientists.  

Of course, the 80’s were a long time ago.  And things have changed for the better.   Nowadays when you ask students to draw pictures of scientists, not only are the pencil protectors gone, but a whopping thirty-three percent of students draw women scientists.   And it’s not just the perception that has changed.  The reality has also changed.   This days, a lot of young women study science in high school, major in science in college; and go on to get PhD’s.  In fact, in 2009, more women than men earned Phd’s in the biological and agricultural sciences… the social and behavioral sciences… and the health sciences. 

But that’s not to say there aren’t areas where men still outpace women.  That same year, women had less than a third of the PhD’s in math and computer science… physical and earth science… or engineering.  And strangely enough,  even though the pipeline of women in science has been steadily improving, it’s still the case that more men than women have successful careers.   After thirty years of determined efforts to increase the number of women on our science and engineering faculty at Stanford,  only 22%  of all senior science faculty are women. 

Personally, I have to admit that I find those numbers rather hard to explain.   I can think of two initial hypotheses, but neither one seems adequate to me.   On the one hand, there is the Larry Summers hypothesis – one for which he got pretty badly pilloried.   The crude version of the Summers’ hypothesis is that fewer women than men are likely to have the innate aptitude to do science because women are genetically inferior.  At least that is what many took him to be implying.   That crude hypothesis was soundly dismissed as good old-fashioned sexism dressed up with crude biological determinism.   

In fairness to Summers, though, I don’t think he was saying anything quite that simple or crude.   As I understood him, his claim was that - when it comes to intelligence - men cluster around the extremes much more than women.  We tend to be really smart or really dumb.  Women cluster more heavily around the mean.  There may be a lot fewer really dumb women, but also a lot fewer really brilliant women.  Then he added that people who succeed at science are drawn from the brilliant end of the spectrum.

That means that since there are two extremes and since men cluster around both extremes more than women do, then if you going to interpret him as saying meaning are genetically superior women, because they cluster more around the high extreme, then you’d be equally justified in interpreting him as saying that men are genetically inferior to woman because they cluster around the low extreme much more than women do.

Even properly understood, I’m not at all sure I buy the Summers’ line – though I do think it’s worth thinking harder about than those who dismissed it out of hand were willing to do.   But let me turn now to the other sort of obvious potential explanation of the gender disparities in the sciences.   It’s natural to think that such disparities are due to such things as outright sexism or cultural stereotypes and biases or differences in the ways young girls and young boys – at leas the high achieving ones -- are socialized.  And I don’t doubt that there’s SOMETHING to such explanations.   But with more and more women getting PhD’s in a whole variety of scientific fields and in some case significantly outpacing men,  one can make a pretty compelling case that sexism plays much less of a role than it did back in the bad old days.

The problem is there is lots of research that suggest that sexism hasn’t really died but has just gone underground.  To see what I mean, imagine a little experiment.  Suppose we give two independent hiring committees, two identical resumes of two aspiring young scientists.  There’s just one difference between them.  One applicant has a recognizably male name – say Robert.  The other has a recognizably female name – say Roberta.  That shouldn’t matter, you might think.   After all, as Shakespeare asks,  what’s in a name? 

The answer is quite a bit, apparently.    On trial after trial, the candidate with the female name is judged to be less qualified than the candidate with the male name.   And  it’s not just men who make these calls.  It’s women too.  People who wouldn’t consciously entertain a sexist thought if you paid them, can still be complete unaware of implicit biases.  Those are the most insidious kind.  They’re hard to get rid of, and they work against women in so many ways.   Implicit biases are the enemies of gender justice.

But I want to stress also that It’s not just a matter of justice.   Science itself is worse off when the voices and perspectives of women are systematically excluded.    My claim isn’t so much that women make better scientists than white males.  To say that would be to exhibit gender bias in reverse. 

Women and minorities may or may not be better individual scientists.  That’s a case by case sort of thing.  But having more women in science makes science itself better.  Think of all the documented clinical research that oversamples white males and radically under-samples minorities and women.  That’s just bad science. 

Now this is puzzling and challenging stuff.   Personally, I’m not really sure how even to begin addressing these problems.    I don't doubt some consciousness raising is in order.  But once we raise enough consciousness, the question still remains, what exactly are we going to do about it.   I’d love to know your own solutions, if you have them. 

Comments (9)

MJA's picture


Saturday, March 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Woman give birth to 100% of

Woman give birth to 100% of the babies born in the world and men a whopping 0. I don't think those numbers will ever change either. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 8, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

The 1980s were not so long

The 1980s were not so long ago really. The 1960s, yeah, probably so..When I was in high school, the girls appeared to be much smarter than the boys who were too busy proving their prowess as athletes, Cassanovas, or budding criminals to care much about academic achievement. I did not fit any of those stereotypes, therefore, did not fit, period. Lo, these many years later---when my graduating class now lives in antiquity, I feel somehow vindicated. Why? I have not earned kudos as a jock---although the money might have been helpful; my love interests have not damaged a plethora of females---perhaps only one;-or two,at most; and, finally, I have not robbed,embezzled,raped,murdered or otherwise crooked anyone. Save sadly, my parents---who prayed I might amount to more. My regret is late, but admitted freely. Michael's comment is almost universally true. Also true (almost universally) is the aphorism which says: ninety-nine percent of the people who have ever lived on earth are alive today and one-hundred percent of those who died are dead.
There are, frequently, exceptions to rules. Rules are fallible. Exceptions are, as Talib has asserted, Black Swans. And, those of us who have seen them KNOW there are Black Swans.
Neuman's picture

Monday, March 10, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Interesting topic, even in

Interesting topic, even in 2014 when we should not have to discuss such things any more.
As in every professional area, women break in gradually, & are first tolerated in a single aspect of a field--in Japan for example, women who want to be doctors are tolerated as ophthamologists; in music in America and elsewhere, women have been tolerated as vocalists rather than as instrumentalists, and so on.
As for the contention that the smartest and the dumbest people are men, I agree about the "dumbest" part, but the fact is that men are too emotional about being considered smartest and would rather the world blow up than admit the opposite. Bottom line is men are more emotionally invested in being best, smartest, first, and biggest than in curing cancer. 
Which brings me to my next point: why not do a discussion of male violence? When females are violent, it's news, but why is so much of our culture driven by violence perpetrated by males, and why is it tolerated?

MIke's picture


Tuesday, March 11, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I recently joined this page

I recently joined this page in the hopes of finding articulate fact based discussions about philosophical issues. Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed.
Although I agree with the opinions stated in the responses, unlike the main text, they are not supported by scientific facts. They are simply persohal opinions indicting whole genders, not unlike the bias  that causes the original post. My opinion of the purpose for the study of philosophy is far different than simple "name calling" disguised as science.
My personal experiences (that's all they are) are; that, we are making some progress in the area of women in science. In support of that, I would direct attention to the apparent substantial growth in the number of women as doctors over the last fifty years. Is that enough? Hell no!!! In my opinion, the most greatest benefit of philosophy is its objective search for truth. In the process, we can find the root causes of problems, such as gender bias, and thus, determine on going solutions.
I have a 39 year old daughter with an undergraduate degree in Nutrition from Simmons. Her degree is in a science; albeit a traditionally "female" discipline from a traditionally female school. However, while at Simmons, she tutored in physiology and other "hard science." When we discussed it, there was NO gender involvement in the discussion. Her time in Simmons gave me hope for the oppotinities for women the overall science fields.
As a new peson to this page, I would like to make a personal request: if you are going to "state fact," ie. boys were too busy trying to impress; or, boys were too busy playing sports, please support this with documentation. "There are many studies to support this." does not fulfill your requirement to supply. "...many studies" are not making the statement.
We are seemingly making progress in all areas of equity. I believe; much needs to be done in the area of women's opportunities in many many areas, inclusive of science. Thank you for making this an issue. I have both a very bright daughter and granddaughter, I want them to continue to have growths in the opportunites.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Sorry to hear about your

Sorry to hear about your travails, but articulate, fact-based discussions are better suited to the sciences---they do not fare so well within theology and/or philosophy. You'll have that. Check your spelling, Mike. It matters if you wish to be taken seriously.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 14, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I should have left this topic

I should have left this topic alone. But, no one else, so far, has commented on how we complain and moan about OPPORTUNITY. There may be several dozen reasons why individuals fail  in the twentieth and twenty-first century world economy. At this moment in time, there are, in my humble estimation, only two or three (no, not dozens---just two or in less than ten...): 1.) You cannot get a job with an employer who is merely playing the numbers game---showing efforts (on paper) to hire, in order to get state or federal contracts or assistance of some other sort; 2.) You cannot get a job if you are "over-qualified". Over-qualification means you will leave in six months, offering no bottom line gain for the employer who took a chance on you in the first place. 3.) Do not assume that your educational credentials will earn a free ride to the top of the heap. The paradigm is changing. Companies are (finally) realizing that highly educated and educationally decorated idiots do not necessarily fit their corporate ladders. These are not new insights. But, they do represent a new economic reality...which has been been building for at least twenty years. If you did not know---now you do.

Daniel Pech's picture

Daniel Pech

Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think that the statistical

I think that the statistical gender disparity in science (as in all of sociology) is a complex issue, and that most (but not all) of it is due to the standing biology of human gender. Cultural inequities aside (many of which, I think, are not as simple as an ignorantly a-gendered glance would have it), the question of the gender distribution of ?intelligence? is, I think, as complex as is the nature of human intelligence itself. But, even then, given the central respective needs of the genders, I think there is bound to have been more men than women in ?science? to begin with (though not as many as there shall be in any more-or-less male-centric ?culture?).
Most basically, I think it's just biologically efficient for the genders to have respective socio-biological advantages (disparities). And, I would think it obvious as to what those respective advantages most centrally are in regard to: gestation-of-the-young versus concurrent occupations-of-the-non-gestating-gender (to put it overly simply). I know, I know, there?s so much that even a ?-trimester woman can do besides be waited on.
But, even on this point, the philosophically atomist geek in us suggests the fanciful idea that there really need be only one all-purpose blended gender. But, I think this idea to be so much fantastic philosophic contingency in face of cultural gender inequities. And, if my thinking so far here is not unreasonable, then I think it also not unreasonable to say that our reproductive biology, and our standing cultural gender inequities, cannot best be treated by thinking as if the genders ought not, by simple virtue of their respective biologies, have respective bio-sociological advantages. The de-triple-negatived version of my statement here is this: Both our reproductive biology and our standing cultural gender inequities cannot best be treated by thinking as if the genders, as such, have no cultural value.
So, personally, I think that a psycho-culturalogical reactionism to cultural gender disparities cannot help but cause broad cultural inequities even as it manages, case-by-case, to partly solve others. Or, as the character Bren Cameron said as only the second-to-last statement in the end of C. J. Cherryh?s second Foreigner novel, Invader, ?Welcome to the world.?

Daniel Pech's picture

Daniel Pech

Sunday, March 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

What do you all think of this

What do you all think of this as a complicating factor:
It seems to me that women as full-time scientists is but a subcategory of a much deeper and broader issue.

Dabrain88's picture


Sunday, April 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think this is fairly simple

I think this is fairly simple. Being a certain sex doesn't make you less eligible to become a scientist. Just because your a male , doesn't mean you'll be a better scientist. What matters is that you have the heart to become a scientist and develop the brain to become one. Sex should never be the boundary and to add that , women being emotional doesn't mean they can't be as intelligent.