Why Are We Still Worried about Women in Science?

By Rosser, Sue V.; Taylor, Mark Zachary | Academe, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview

Why Are We Still Worried about Women in Science?


Rosser, Sue V., Taylor, Mark Zachary, Academe


We still haven't solved the problems that kept women out of science decades ago.

On January 14, 2005, Sue Rosser, one of this article's co-authors, was an invited speaker at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research at Harvard University. The same day, economist Lawrence Summers, who was then Harvard's president, delivered his now-infamous speech to the conference about why elite institutions have so few tenured women scientists and engineers on their faculties. His remarks fueled a national debate about women and science.

Summers drew on anecdotes and popular but outdated science or pseudo-science to make three points about the paucity of women scientists and engineers: (1) women are unwilling or unable to work the eighty-hour weeks required for success in science at top-flight academic institutions; (2) innate or biological factors, not socialization, probably account for sex differences in mathematical aptitude and also for adult choices of fields of academic study and occupation; and (3) discrimination, which he defined as a "taste" for hiring people like oneself, does not exist in academia, because market forces eliminate it when less elite institutions hire highly qualified women and minorities, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Today, four years after Summers's remarks and three years after he was forced to resign from the Harvard presidency, interest in the question of women in science remains. (Summers is now chief economic adviser to the Obama administration.) On July 15, 2008, journalist John Tierney intensified the debate in a New York Times article attacking Congress, some federal agencies, and women's groups. "Members of Congress and women's groups ... say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of the evidence is disputed," he wrote. "Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women's interest in some fields isn't the same as men's." In a similar vein, a December 3, 2008, column in the Washington Post by Ruth Marcus carried the title, "Was Summers Right?"

Why has the women-in-science question not been resolved after years of debate and the investment of millions of federal and foundation dollars in programs encouraging women to enter science and engineering? What is the evidence for discrimination in academia, when many more women now earn degrees in science and engineering compared with thirty years ago?

Hidden Trends

Over the past three decades, the overall percentage of women receiving degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - known collectively as the STEM disciplines - has increased dramatically. This growth tends to mask at least three other aspects of the demographics of the science and technology workforce.

To start, it masks a decrease over recent decades in white U.S. men, the traditional group from which this country has drawn its STEM workforce. In the United States, women now earn more bachelor's and master's degrees than men (see table 1). The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in 2007 in Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science in Engineering that in 2004, women earned 57.6 percent of the bachelor's degrees in all fields and 59.1 percent of all master's degrees. Beginning in 2000, women also earned more of the bachelor's degrees in science and engineering, although they earned only 43.6 percent of the master's degrees in those fields. In 2004, women earned 60 percent of the PhDs in fields other than science and engineering, but only 44 percent of the PhDs in science and engineering received by U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

The aggregated data also hide the wide variance in women's participation in STEM fields. The NSF reports that, overall, women earn most of the bachelor's degrees in fields other than science and engineering, such as humanities, education, and fine arts, and in the science and engineering fields of psychology, social sciences, and biological sciences. …

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