Another article last week, Do Inferior Numbers Scare Women Away From Science And Engineering?, expressed concern that there aren't enough women ( and minorities ) in science, engineering and math. A lot of math and science and engineering is getting done, it is just getting done primarily by men and that is a concern.

But why? I know why it should be a concern. I have enough of a liberal leaning to reflexively know it is supposed to be a concern but that is balanced out by age and the hard-earned realization that spending more money, in the case of awareness programs, or implementing quotas won't actually produce better science.

This issue has come up frequently in the last three years. In 2004, Donna Nelson of the University of Oklahoma presented a study showing that only 8.3 percent of full professorships in math were women. This was a correlation/causation relationship to fewer women students in math, she said.

"Women are less likely to go into and remain in science and engineering when they lack mentors and role models," the survey said. "When female professors are not hired, treated fairly and retained, female students perceive that they will be treated similarly."

Yet in that same study she justifies a need for more female math professors on the basis that 48.2 percent of math students are women. Almost half of all math students are women yet the contention is unless more professors are women, women won't become math students. That doesn't make much sense.

Would it not be the case that women will become math students if they like math rather than on the basis of gender representation? If anything, the notion that women will only become math students if their professors are female is more of an insidious slight on the reasoning powers of women than claims of academic bias by men. I think we all agree that the gender of the teacher should have no impact but, if it does, how much?

The latest census says that 71% of America's 6.2 million teachers are women. If just elementary and middle schools are included, that number is 79 percent. I never see articles lamenting there aren't enough men in education but that's a separate issue. Looking at these numbers, if girls are being discouraged from entering science and math, they are being discouraged by women.

I have talked about 'science' in a broad sense but that doesn't tell the entire story. In biology, for example, the numbers of degrees matches closely with the population. In psychology, women receive an overwhelming 73 percent of the degrees.

Is anyone funding a campaign to place more men in psychology? Not likely.

Back to the issue, 71 percent of teachers are female yet females only receive 37 percent of science and engineering doctorates. Is that a cause for action? It is if you believe so, much like you might want to believe there aren't enough white NBA players or Muslim farmers in America or men in psychology.

Yet this was bound to come up, especially after former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers's controversial remarks about the roles of 'issues of intrinsic aptitude' ( designed to be provocative and evoke debate, he stated, though he must regret provoking debate in an academic audience now ) in limiting the number of female professors in science and math.

The news release by APS again brings up Summers

suggesting that women may not possess the same “innate ability” or “natural ability” in these fields as do men

which seems to be implying that those northeastern colleges are a good old boy network showing bias against women. There's no evidence for that, other than extrapolating the remarks of one person out to be endemic of all academia. And the circumstantial evidence the other way is more overwhelming: women get 37 percent of doctorates in science, math and engineering today but 40 years ago that number was only 8 percent.

A few points need to be made. First, science is hard. Less than 35% of degrees conferred are in science. We just plain need more scientists. Men, women, black, white, green aliens from Mars, wherever they will come from, we need more than we are producing now.

Second, assuming we can't produce more American scientists, we should make more scientists Americans, or at least make it easier for foreign scientists who do their post-docs here to get their green cards. We are basically training our competitors and sending them back home, spurned. We can fix the brain drain by keeping more of our brain power here rather than trying to encourage demographics who aren't drawn to science to become scientists.

Third, if universities and the private sector are going to take issues regarding equality, gender is not the place to start. Disabilities are.

National Science Foundation (NSF) data states that fewer than 300 people with disabilities receive Ph.D.s in science or engineering each year - yet 140,000 freshmen students list a disability. Census data show that people with disabilities are 10.4 percent of the overall workforce but only 2.7 percent science and engineering.

So if we're going to start targeting demographics based on under-representation, we can start there. If the goal is to make sure all occupations will have representation based on population, we're also going to need a lot more Latino hockey players.


Persistent Disparity in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering, National Science Foundation., U.S. Census Bureau’s Facts for Features

Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development , National Academy of Engineering

National Center For Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education