What does gender have to do with science? The obvious answer is ‘nothing.’ Science is the epitome of an objective, rational, and disinterested enterprise.
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.