General Question

nikipedia's avatar

Why are women underrepresented in math and science?

Asked by nikipedia (27818points) August 12th, 2008

Steve Pinker and Larry Summers (a Harvard/MIT psychologist and the former president of Harvard University, respectively) think women and men have innate differences in ability in math and science.

Ben Barres, a Stanford neuroscientist (and former woman!), argues that this hypothesis is incorrect.

What do you think?

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25 Answers

tonedef's avatar

I think that being told your entire life that you would never be able to accomplish something would be a serious barrier you’d have to seeking a career in that field.

The act of trying to draw conclusions that women are less apt in math and science is, itself, tampering with the results with such research. The conclusions are broadcast in the news, mentioned in classrooms, and pretty much branded on women.

Even if women were less able to comprehend math and science concepts (which I don’t think they are), that difference is probably much less significant than the gender disparity that these researchers create by disseminating sensationalist research.

flameboi's avatar

Women are brighter than men, that has been proved way before the hellenic period, is not that women are told something, or underrepresenetd in a specific area, is just that we (men) refuse to accept that women are superior… (not in physical strenght, obviously)

redsgirl4eva's avatar

I agree that many women don’t get much representation in math and science because in our society those fields are basically what some call a “man’s field” and women are not accepted in these fields. I am going into a known “man’s field” Computer Science. I have not even started classes for them and I get a lot of bull about what kind of field I should be going into I think it is just wrong. I am sticking with Computer Science no mater what ANYBODY says it is the field I am interested in and I refuse to do something that I am not interested in. I am sorry if I am stepping on anybody’s toes but I HAVE TO BE ME!!!

girlofscience's avatar

Whoa, you can tag people? So cool! Unfortunately, I have to leave work now and go to happy hour with my coworkers, but I will address this later!

tinyfaery's avatar

If I remember correctly, in my college Psych. of Gender class we read that girls are either ahead of or equal to boys when it comes to abilities in science and math. It isn’t until about middle school when test scores and grades go down. Why? The possibilities are endless. One possibility refers to the type of games/toys girls and boys play with.

If you present a math problem to a girl in an area of something familiar to her (cooking for example I realize this is stereotypical) she is just as likely to grasp the concept as a boy presented with the same problem, but in another scenario.

AstroChuck's avatar

@flameboi- women are not smarter than men, nor the other was around. It’s dangerous to start thinking in terms as that.

Les's avatar

Oh boy. This question opens up a very large can of worms.
I am a woman in science and, as I have mentioned several times before on Fluther, I am currently in grad school. There were times in my life when I was told that I wouldn’t be able to “handle” the pressures of my field (meteorology/ atmospheric science), and that I should give up. But I wanted to show all those people that had these thoughts that I could do whatever I wanted to do. Well, the times have changed, and I no longer think I will go for that PhD that I have had my sights set on for the majority of my life.

I don’t think this change of heart comes as a result of my being a woman, but more that I feel the need to be human. I see these people I work for and hope and pray that I never end up like them. The majority of the people I work with are focused on their work to the point of being obsessed (and not in a good way), have no time for their families, and when they do “retire”, continue to work in the same office as a new “Professor Emeritus”. It is ridiculous.
I think that science is a fabulous thing to be involved in, but I don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture in life. I want to have a family, have a home, go on vacation, etc. So far in my higher education, I have not run into the “you can’t do it because you’re a woman” mentality. What I find more of is the “you can’t do it because you can’t possibly want this as much as you say you do” idea. This drives me crazy. There is this right of passage that one must go through in order to become a scientist, and most educators I have come across (in the higher levels) seem to think that none of us young ‘uns are any good, regardless of gender.

Having said all of this, I think many of these problems exist in academia, but not in the “real world” jobs that await us upon graduating with a Master’s or PhD. I think women hold a very powerful hand of cards in my field (or in many other scientific jobs) when it comes to looking for a job. We are the minority, and many employers like the idea of diversifying their offices with intelligent women.

If science is what you truly want to pursue (as a woman), I say go for it. But expect there to be obstacles in the academic world that will try to beat you down. It is a lot like American Gladiators. It is hell to get through the Gauntlet, but once you’re through, relish in your success.

wundayatta's avatar

If I recall, there was a recent study suggesting that it is preference. Women, it turns out, score better than men on both language and math, in more recent tests. So they are equally capable, or women are even more talented.

However choice enters into the issue. There are still traditional roles in the household, and women, on average, want to make more time for household chores than men do. Additionally, since they are so capable, they have their choice of jobs, and they may prefer the jobs that allow them to make more money and spend more time at home. So they take up all the cushy jobs, and leave what they consider to be the less desirable ones for men.

Here’s a story about that research This article covers a number of studies suggesting that choice explains this disparity.

flameboi's avatar


eadinad's avatar

@ daloon – I’m not sure it’s entirely as you suggest. I don’t think it’s always that women so desperately WANT to do chores, clean the house, cook food, run around after the children, etc, as that it is still the woman’s job, according to society. A lot of men and women – in relationships ranging from personal to professional – assume the woman will take care of that kind of stuff. So she has to be able to be at home more, and have more flexibility at work – otherwise things won’t get done – which in turn can prevent her from rising as high as others/mostly men.

It used to be common knowledge that women couldn’t make art or write or speak or read as well as a man either, and what do you know? As soon as it turned out that they actually could, suddenly those things became woman stuff. I wonder how many more things society will decide that women just can’t do as well as men, before we finally give up and admit there isn’t anything, really?

(Except perhaps weight-lifting or something? But that’s okay, women have got the whole creation-of-life bit.)

wundayatta's avatar

@eadinad: I don’t for a second think that all or most women have a preference for doing those things. I do, however, believe that, on average, women get more satisfaction from things having to do with raising children, and other domestic activities than men do. This, in combination with our historic division of sex roles, and women’s acquiescence to taking over domestic roles when men refuse to do them, seems to me to lead to a continued difference that can be called a preference.

I’m suggesting that women can do just about everything better than men (except for the examples you raised). I believe that women are responsible for civilization (but that’s another discussion). Further, I believe that the feminization of society has lead to discrimination against boys in schools and the home. Schools are designed for girls, these days, not boys, and part of the reason so many boys are diagnosed with ADD and other learning disorders is for the convenience of teachers, who are predominantly female.

Michael's avatar

Larry Summers’ views on women in math and science were widely misunderstood. Summers was not suggesting that men are inherently better at math/science then women are. Instead he was making an argument about the distribution of math/science skills among men and women. Here is what he was saying, in a nutshell:

Imagine you gave a test to the entire adult population and further imagine that this test was a perfect tool for determining math/science ability. We would expect the results of this test to closely follow the “normal curve”, which is to say that we would expect most people to be close to average (say a score of 50 is average), and then very few people to be extremely far from average on either end (say a score of 10 or a score of 90). Now imagine that we split up those scores into men and women. Larry Summers was not suggesting that the average score for men would be higher than the average for women (if it was that would suggest that men, in general, are better at math/science than are women). Instead, Summers was suggesting that perhaps the standard deviation of those scores is higher for men then for women. In other words, Summers was saying that the spread around the average might be larger for men even though the average is the same for both groups. This would mean that there were more men scoring at the very top of the scale then women (incidentally, it would also mean that there were more men scoring at the very bottom of the scale as well).

Let’s take this one step further to see how this theory would explain the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of math/science. Let’s pretend that, in order to get a job at the very top of the math/science profession you need a score of, say 90 on that fictional test. Let’s further assume that the average for both men and women is 50, but the standard deviation of men’s scores is 20, while the SD of the women’s scores is 15. Using the rules of normal curves, we can easily calculate what percentage of men and women have scores above 90. Under these assumptions, 2.5% of men scored above 90, but only about 0.4% of women scored that high. If these general characteristics were true, that would certainly explain why there were fewer women at the highest levels of math/science, despite the assumption that women and men, on average, have the same abilities.

***DISCLAIMER***: I do not endorse Larry Summers’ view at all. This post was intended only to clarify what he was saying, not to justify or support it. In fact, it seems to me that there is very little, if any, evidence to suggest that the standard deviations for men and women are different, and therefore, societal factors are more likely to be the culprits here.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

I read an article recently, saying that on national high school level standarized testing, women and men are now equal in mathmatics, on a level-by-level basis.

Women still do not take as many upper-level math classes as men, but the number is skyrocketing compared to previous decades. The researchers believe that women have historically been discouraged from pursuing math and science, and that as this trend (of women being discouraged and or taking fewer upper-level courses in the two subjects) comes to a halt, the two genders performace will be, on average, equal.

tinyfaery's avatar

@daloon Gender is a cultural construct, sex is biologically determined. Maybe in America, women are expected to focus on home and family, but this is not universally true.

marinelife's avatar

I think this question encompasses two different things with two different answers. Yes, I do think men’s and women’s brains work differently with different strengths in some areas. I also think there is insufficient research to know precisely what the differences are.

That said, I think women can perform just as well as men in math and science. I was an Oceanography major. I know many brilliant women scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

wundayatta's avatar

@tinyfaery: you could be right, but I’ll do some research, and see what the data have to say about it.

tinyfaery's avatar

In some cultures only men are allowed to cook, in others men are required to help in child care. Good luck. I’d try some cross-cultural anthro books; perhaps one on kinship and gender roles.

wildflower's avatar

I’m sure I heard somewhere something about men and women’s general likeliness to be stronger logically and creatively respectively – whether this is entirely true or not, I don’t know, but it would make sense to me (using myself and people I know as examples) that women typically (of course with exceptions) are more drawn to creative problem solving while men are typically (again, with exceptions) more inclined to choose logical problem solving. This, to me, would explain why more men choose maths and science as their field, while women may choose fields requiring more innovation, rather than applying rules and laws.
Personally, I’d make a lousy soldier (I’d question every order given to me) and maths bored me at best and wrecked my head at worst because you have to apply rules and you’re only looking to uncover, not create….

zarnold's avatar

“I was told that I wouldn’t be able to “handle” the pressures of my field (meteorology/ atmospheric science)”

@Les – pun intended? :)

wundayatta's avatar

The Allocation of Women’s Time: An International Comparison from 1982 (old, I know), compares how women’s time is spent across nations and finds that those in planned economies spend more time at work and doing home work. It says that the more women work (for money) the less leisure time they have (doing two jobs). But is this still true?

An 1993 book found that “Men’s housework changes very little with women’s work demands.”

A 2004 book used 1994 data regarding 22 countries. It found that gender division of domestic labor persisted, and suggested that a change in domestic labor roles depends on willingness of both partners to consent to change. It seems to suggest that although women want a change, men, on average, still resist that change in roles internationally.

Then there’s a 2006 paper that used data from an international comparative study conducted in 12 European countries between 2000 and 2003. The paper by Marietta Pongrácz was called Opinions on Gender Roles and it had this relevant table:

Who usually does the housework in your home?”—distribution of responses in international comparison (data refer to couples aged 20–40, %)

Country ....Me….....My partner…We share housework equally…Someone else…Total
Female respondent
Austria .........73….........4….............. 22…................................. 2….................. 100
Lithuania ......62 ...........2 .................34 ....................................2 .....................100
Hungary .......71 ...........2 .................34 ....................................2 .....................100
Romania ......51 ...........5 .................37 ....................................7 .....................100
Male respondent
Austria .........3 ..........67 .................26 ....................................4 .....................100
Lithuania ......3 ..........52 .................43 ....................................1 .....................100
Hungary .......3 ..........69 .................24 ....................................4 .....................100
Romania ......8 ..........34 .................54 ....................................3 .....................100

I am arguing that it is pretty much universally true across nations, that women are expected to focus on home and family. Can I rest my case now?

I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that it is an accurate description of the current state of opinion. There are opportunities for change, but by and large, men are resistant to change, and women can’t unilaterally make the change, unless they are prepared to divorce their husbands. But where would that get them? They’d still have to do all the housework.

Remember, these are averages, and there is variation, so you can find examples of households where things are different. But overall, it simply doesn’t appear to be true.

redsgirl4eva's avatar

Also I have realized that in what society conciders a mans job when women get into that field they get less pay for the same or more work or degrees then the man. I don’t agree with this no. I am getting into what society conciders a mans job and although I know this happens I am not letting it stop me but maybe it has stopped some women from persuing their dreams.

tinyfaery's avatar

@daloon What about non-industrialized cultures? Or non-white cultures?

wundayatta's avatar

@tinyfaery: like I said, you will have to put up a wager before I’m willing to do the work on that one. But I think I’ve earned the right to believe that the story is probably the same there, too. But to help:

Just think about the cultures where machismo is very important? Ok, that takes Central and South America out of play. How about arabic cultures? Ok, half of Africa, and a good deal of Asia. Japan? Well, not third world, but ditto. Mongolia. Of course. I doubt you could make much argument for Indonesia, or Southeast Asia, either. Southern and Western Africa? Can you say Rwanda? Somalia? Mobuto?

Nope. The odds seem very low to me that you can find any culture in the world where men, on average, do half the housework. As I said before, it’s not pretty for those who believe in egalitarianness. We’ve got a long way to go, still. I don’t know if we’ll ever even get close.

tinyfaery's avatar

@daloon see your pm

cwilbur's avatar

Two possible answers. Each of them probably contains part of the truth.

Because women are smart. They look at the incredible sacrifices it takes to be a researcher—investing 5+ years in the PhD, then playing the academic game long enough to get a reasonably well paying job (forget job security for the moment), then playing the political game well enough to get research grants and publications, playing the teaching game well enough to get tenure. They realize that they can make five times as much with an MBA, and do that instead.

Because there are more people interested in being in the research science community than there are positions to hold, and so any arbitrary decision is used to eliminate people. To be successful, scientists need to be willing to sacrifice everything to their careers. A male scientist with a wife and kids can get away with it because all he has to do is donate sperm in an appropriate manner; a female scientist who takes time off to be pregnant and who has to worry about things like breastfeeding is seen as someone who has other priorities than pure science and is thus discriminated against. And then you get the predictive view, where a female scientists may get pregnant and lose a year of productive research time, and so it’s better to just hire the man.

Academia is incredibly inhumane. And it’s worse in the humanities, ironically enough.

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