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Women (and Diversity) In Science

woman in labIn a Washington Post editorial today, Christina Hoff Sommers argues that President Obama’s suggestion that Title IX—which requires equal funding for men’s and women’s school athletics programs—could be used to advance parity for women in science and engineering fields should give readers pause. Unfortunately, she misses both the critical point of diversity in the scientific workforce, as well as the key sectors of the workforce that are severely lacking in female representation.

Sommers rightly points out that as of 2002, the proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees in “humanities, social sciences, life sciences and education” was 60 percent, and that women also earned “at least half of the PhDs” in those fields, while men outnumbered women in “physics, computer science and engineering.” Part of this may simply have to do with the greater numbers of women in college compared to men.

What she fails to mention is the fact that at each rung of the academic ladder from undergrad to professorship, more women leave science and engineering fields, leading to a dearth of female representation in the upper echelons. According to a National Academies report, “at the top research institutions, only 15.4% of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8% in the life sciences are women.” These are the circles where gender parity is a significant question.

Sommers then touches on the merits of “sexist bias” or “considered preference” as explanations for the imbalances. But if we’re going to focus on the top of the scientific profession, where the representational differences are real, then consider the results of a survey from last year of tenured investigators at the National Institutes of Health: “only 29 percent of the tenure-track principal investigators (PI) and 19 percent of tenured PIs—the NIH equivalent of assistant and full professors, respectively—are women.”

The major factors behind those numbers, according to respondents? A lack of childcare and flexible working hours for those women who wanted to raise a family. “Overt discrimination does not seem to be the issue,” Elisabeth Martinez, lead author of the survey, told Science. You can see the impact of family decisions on those who want to be principal investigators here:

Percentages of men and women on tenure track at NIH

Marital status and children at NIH

In her conclusion, Sommers writes that the “fields that will be most affected — math, engineering, physics and computer science — are vital to the economy and national defense.” Which I read as an implication that because these areas are important, we shouldn’t tamper with the current level of diversity within them. But research indicates that more diversity can lead to better ideas. According to Scott Page, an SP Advisory Board member, more diverse groups have more problem-solving tools at their disposal, and therefore more power to design solutions to difficult problems. Put another way, diversity itself is vital to the economy and national defense.

So to suggest that gender parity is not a good idea because things are fine the way they are seems, well, inequitable.

Image: flickr.com/gregclarkephotography

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