Women Not Interested in Science? What About Biology, Chemistry and Medicine?

May 19, 2008

Rebecca Goldin Ph.D and Maia Szalavitz

The Boston Globe has reported what they consider the “newest” findings on the lack of women in science and engineering. They call it “the freedom to say ‘no’” and claim that women just aren’t interested.

First, let’s talk science. Medicine and biology were ignored by the Globe piece, and the gender gap in these fields has disappeared over the past 50 years. In fact, 60% of biology degrees now go to women, and recent data show 49.5% of first-year medical students in 2004 were women, and they formed a majority of applicants. (In chemistry, another subject relevant to medicine, 30% of BAs awarded went to women in 1981 and 41.5% by 1996.)

The number of women entering medical school increased five-fold between the 1960s and 1980s, a period that saw not only tremendous gains in equality, but also the social acceptance of women pursuing science. Prior to the Title IX education amendments in 1992, some medical schools imposed a cap on the number of women students. Now, there is even the suggestion now that medical schools are practicing affirmative action for men.

When it comes to math, engineering, and computer science, there is a persistent gap. The recent study prompting the Boston Globe article points to the possibility that girls and young women don’t want careers in these fields; it hypothesizes that this lack of interest is possibly a better explanation than gender discrimination or unwelcoming work environments. And as if to dismiss serious initiatives toward making headway into this issue, the economist Joshua Rosenblum of University of Kansas is cited as wondering whether a campaign by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to root out gender discrimination in science and engineering was a total waste of money, since discrimination may not be the problem at all. (The NSF program sponsors “mentoring programs, gender-bias workshops, and cooperative work environments,” according to the Globe.)

But the Globe’s coverage – and the observations by the economist whose study prompted the piece – was highly reductive. Few serious researchers on this issue would claim that the only barriers to entrance in the “hard” sciences are discrimination and/or work environment. Both women’s and men’s interests, which are well-known to be one of the best predictors of success in math and science, do not develop in a social vacuum. If there are social pressures for women not to conceive of themselves as mathematicians/engineers, then they will self-select out citing their own lack of interest. (Indeed, there is much research to show a measurable mentoring gap between men and women in college pursuing science)

The NSF (which funds many programs targeted to women and girls, not just gender-bias workshops) has long recognized that even seemingly innocuous facets of our culture can have a lasting impact on women’s interest — such as the fact that computer games (often kids’ first exposure to computers) tend to be violent and repetitive, possibly appealing less to girls than boys.

If teachers and parents gently drive their female students and daughters towards careers in biology instead of physics, it would be hard to measure — and if the culture of a classroom promotes competitive male success, the girls who “opt out” would barely be noticed. Among many branches of research within math education one of the most hard to address focuses on learning and identity formation. Why is it that boys tend to identify more as a physicist or a mathematician than girls?

So while the Boston Globe calls it “freedom”, a serious (female) scientist might ask whether personal preference develops independent of social context. There’s no evidence suggesting that it does, and to effectively discount biology and medicine as “science,” as the Globe did, may be convenient narrative slight of hand, but it sure sounds like sexism: if women are now beginning to dominate these fields, they can’t be “real” sciences.


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