Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Science, Engineering, Man, Woman

Another follow-up to the posts (September 18 and 28) on the report by the National Academy of Sciences that women pursuing academic careers in the engineering and science fields suffer discrimination in hiring, support and promotion (the report recommends that the federal government step up enforcement of regulations such as Title IX to help address the problem).

In the last post on this subject, we addressed New York Times' columnist John Tierney's claim (Sept. 26, 2006) that the innate differences between the genders in terms of ability and desire to pursue careers in science and engineering are responsible for any disparity in hiring and promotion in academia.

Further argument that Tierney's "innate abilities" argument (echoing the views of former Harvard president Larry Summers) does not compute comes from Travis Butterworth and Dr. Rebecca Goldin on Stats.org, analyzing the statistics behind assessments of abilities in the math and science fields.

Their article crunches the numbers and explains how, among other things, SAT scores should not be a proxy for innate ability to think at the highest levels of mathematics or science. It also asks pointed questions for those who assume that innate difference, not discrimination, is the driving force behind academia's gender gap in science and engineering. For example, Butterworth and Goldin note that the numbers of women succeeding in those fields has been steadily increasing over time -- if only innate differences were at work, what explains that change? Additionally, studies in other countries, such as Japan and Iceland, show different results in the levels of achievement between boys and girls on standardized tests (in Japan, there's no gender disparity, and in Iceland, girls score higher than boys). Looking at those findings, the "innate ability" argument, without at least some component of considering external factors such as discrimination and how the tests are structured, becomes less and less credible.


Anonymous said...

Your post ignores the elephant in the room: gender differences in preference. More men may prefer science/engineering than women. This is neither discrimination nor innate difference.

It frightens me to think Title IX will be used to gut science and engineering programs. This may not have been the intent of the law; but neither was the loss of men's sports.

EBuz said...

But preference is influenced by the existence or perception of disparate treatment. If I am "chosing" between career path A and career path B and my perception is that path B is particularly disfavorable for women, that is obviously going to factor into my "prefer" path A, maybe even subconsciously.

The value of a study like this is that it inspires critical discourse through which the academic community can examine the barriers to a woman's career in science or engineering. Only when those barriers are eliminated do they stop influencing individual women's preferences.