Bias, Barriers, or Biology?

Ashley Thorne

The AAUW, formerly known as the American Association of University Women, has released a 134-page report, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” The report is one of those studies that try to account for why fewer women than men enter math and science. AAUW joins with the National Academy of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Council for Research on Women, and feminists in general in decrying “bias” and “barriers” as the reasons for the disparity.  

On the other side of the debate are scholars such as Christina Hoff Sommers and the twelve other authors who contributed to the book The Science on Women and Science. They contend that because men and women are inherently, biologically different, their interests are different. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers just may not appeal to women as much as they do to men. And that’s ok. 

But the AAUW insists that “girls’ achievements and interest in math and science are shaped by the environment around them,” and that colleges and universities must change in order to attract more women to the sciences. The report opens by calling the question—“why aren’t there more women scientists and engineers?”—“puzzling.” This could be the equivalent of asking “why aren’t there more women who drive big pickup trucks?” or “why aren't there more women hunters?” Or for that matter, “why don't more women grow beards?” These are puzzling questions. 

In any case the authors, Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose, AAUW researchers, earnestly believe the STEM fields could be more welcoming to women. They write: 

Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1. This increase in the number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted” suggests that education can and does make a difference at the highest levels of mathematical achievement. While biological gender differences, yet to be well understood, may play a role, they clearly are not the whole story. 

True enough, biology isn’t the whole story. In previous ages, women were not pilots or doctors or soldiers; today they are. Likewise, it is now socially acceptable for women to pursue careers in math and science. And certainly when it comes to math SATs, girls are likely more motivated to perform better when teachers and parents encourage them and when they know that there could be a math-related career for them down the road.  

The 3:1 ratio shows that women are mathematically capable, even if they choose not to go into math professionally. A business career requires both verbal and quantitative fluency, and as the AAUW report points out, more and more women are going into business, a “historically male field.” 

The authors maintain that despite girls’ improved academic performance, “the stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science” can cause girls to score lower on tests (teachers and parents should counteract that mindset by boosting girls’ self-esteem). Here the AAUW authors use the same argument employed by affirmative action supporters: that minority students perform poorly on standardized tests such as the SAT because of “stereotype threat,” the fear that they will confirm negative stereotypes about the identity groups they represent. Last year Roger Clegg wrote a response to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on stereotype threat and affirmative action; he said, “The best way to ensure that black and Hispanic students not fear that they have been admitted because of their ethnicity would be for them to know that, in fact, they were not admitted because of their ethnicity.”  

The same applies to women. The AAUW doesn’t seem to be advocating affirmative action for women, but it does want to see higher education bend over backwards in other ways.  

The report’s section on “The College Student Experience” focuses on two departments: computer science and physics. Hill, Corbett, and St. Rose cite research from the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher; and the project “What Works for Women in Physics?” by Colorado College physics professor Barbara Whitten. 

In the segment on computer science, the authors note several main reasons why fewer women study computer science than men: 

  1. Departmental atmosphere: computer science programs are designed with men in mind, and male enthusiasm can be daunting for would-be female classmates. According to Margolis: 

There is a subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male and enshrine in its culture their preference for single-minded intensity and focus on technology. 

Do men have no tact? Here they are, excited about a subject they love—“burning with a passion” for computer science—and making women uneasy. We can’t have that. Men will just have to temper their enthusiasm to make things more comfortable for the tepid ones among them. 

The AAUW report says “feeling like a misfit can lower confidence,” and that women who major in computer science grow less and less excited about their studies as the semesters progress. Margolis and Fisher say this means there is “an institutional problem.” But could it be that students in other majors commonly lose that first excitement as time goes on? Margolis and Fisher don’t consider the possibility. 

  1. Curriculum: coursework in computer science emphasizes its technical aspects before looking at its broader applications. To retain women, the syllabus should switch the two, since women are more attracted by the broader applications than the hands-on, technical work.  
  1. Culture: the archetypal computer science student is a geek; fewer women than men see themselves as geeks.  

Margolis and Fisher see an opportunity for transformation. Don’t make women change to fit computer science; rather, “change computer science” to fit women, they say. They urge universities to take a number of steps to move toward this fit: host summer institutes for AP computer science teachers at local high schools; send prospective students “an inclusive message about who makes a good computer science student”; stop student “cliques” from dominating the major; and introduce broad concepts at the beginning of the program. 

The report’s section on undergraduate physics gives findings similar to those of the computer science section. Professor Whitten suggests that physics departments can attract more women if they sponsor departmental social activities, provide a student lounge, aggressively recruit students, and/or sponsor a special group for women in physics.  

Such adaptations and special groups as Margolis, Fisher, and Whitten recommend sound much like the recommendations we normally see for racial and ethnic minorities on campus. Cloistering off by identity group is nothing new. Supposedly it boosts the confidence of its members to face an environment in which few other people look like them. But it teaches students to keep company only with those of their own kind, to voluntarily segregate. This propensity to emphasize differences, whether racial or sexual, tends to cause division rather than a blending of groups.  

AAUW puts its concerns in terms of women’s “representation” or “underrepresentation,” more language from the racial diversity movement. It’s not really clear what satisfactory “representation” would look like. The same number of women as men in STEM fields? A ratio matching the number of men to women worldwide (according to the CIA fact book, it’s 1.1 males to females)? More women than men? 

What’s the magic number? 

We’ve seen Title IX, an anti-discrimination law, distorted into a quota system for college sports. Men’s wrestling and swimming teams have been shut down in order to ensure an equal number of men’s and women’s teams. The system is completely unfair to men in the name of fairness to women. Is that what we want to do to math and science? As far as I can tell, AAUW does not advocate quotas, but it uses the vague word “representation” to describe its ideal.  

NAS has been following this impulse to “Title Nine” science. In 2008 we published Patricia Hausman’s incisive Academic Questions article, “Feminizing Science: The Alchemy of Title IX.”  Hausman analyzes the National Academy of Sciences report Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, the predecessor of AAUW’s Why So Few? She ironically notes that, Bias and Barriers “inadvertently undermines its own purpose. The false portrait it paints of the environment for women in the physical sciences and engineering––as unwelcoming, abusive, and misogynistic––is so depressing it would make any interested female wonder why she should consider it.”  

AAUW too relies on the notion that bias is keeping women out: 

Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female,” according to research examined in this report. Implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias not only affects individuals’ attitudes toward others but may also influence girls’ and women’s likelihood of cultivating their own interest in math and science. Taking the implicit bias test at can help people identify and understand their biases so that they can work to compensate for them. 

I dutifully went to Harvard’s site and took the implicit bias test. My result read, “Moderate automatic association with conservatives over liberals.” The test measures whether you identify as a conservative or a liberal, not whether you nurture prejudice against women. Moving on...

The associations AAUW mentions do bring up a good point. Socially, we make assumptions that people in certain careers have certain characteristics. This is natural, and it’s something I wrote about for NAS in “Typecasting: Why Nurses are Women, Cops are Conservatives, and Professors are Liberals.” For the same reason that it would be unreasonable to aim for a “balance” of conservative and liberal professors in higher education, it is unreasonable to aim for a balance of men and women in STEM majors or careers.  

AAUW believes that with enough cheerleading from their mentors and peers, girls will retain an interest in math and science. At the University of Massachusetts, computer scientists are developing software as an intervention to make math appealing to middle school girls. The software matches the student with a digital tutor by race and ethnicity. UMass and AAUW’s idea is that the more personal attention we give girls as they study math and science, the more likely they will be to gain “confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.” 

This is true, but again, how far do we need to prod to get girls involved in an area they might not naturally be attracted to? What is the magic number at which feminists and women’s groups are satisfied?  

In the academic year 2006-2007, 230,781 women received associates, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. That same year,only 64,453 men received education degrees. So where is the campaign to make education “man-friendly”? Do we need to form men-in-ed special groups? Rework the curriculum? Examine our biases? In many other subjects, such as English, psychology, journalism, and foreign languages, women outnumber men. The same is true for some professional degrees in scientific fields: optometry, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine.  

We don’t see Why So Few reports about men, but using AAUW’s logic, they are “underrepresented” in a variety of disciplines. While I agree with AAUW that it doesn’t hurt to encourage girls to excel in STEM subjects, I have to go with Christina Hoff Sommers in concluding that the evidence for bias is weak and that what matters is that our nation honors ability rather than identity. In the Olympics there are few black swimmers, but the best runners are usually black. This is the due both to natural ability and cultural norms. And it’s ok!  

Having fewer women than men in math and science is ok too. 

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