Why are women under-represented in fields such as computer science, physics, technology, engineering, chemistry and higher mathematics? Four years ago the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, got into big trouble for suggesting that it may be because of innate differences between men and women. While feminists reached for the smelling salts and consulted anti-discrimination law, researchers from Cornell University got busy and reviewed more than 400 articles and book chapters to reconcile conflicting evidence on why women tend to choose less math-intensive fields (such as biology, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine), and why, when they do choose math-intensive careers, they are more likely to drop out as they advance.

They reveal in the latest Psychological Bulletin that the reason few women become engineers or heads of maths departments lies not in their brains or hormones (not “primarily” anyway) but in the fact that most want to be mothers. And, says lead author Stephen J Ceci, “the timing of childbearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted.” They also drop out of such careers because they need flexibility to care for their children.

As for discrimination against women, much of the evidence was dated or anecdotal, the authors said, and the effects were not strong enough to explain women’s current low numbers in math-intensive fields. Given that there are some institutional barriers, said Ceci, “The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalise the sexes in these fields, especially given that women’s career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them towards other careers such as medicine and biology…”

Men did outscore women on spatial ability tests, a measure that predicts later maths achievement. And in the top 1 per cent of people with math ability, the ratio of men to women is 2:1. Even so, on that basis alone women would hold 33 per cent of the professorships in math-intensive fields, but they currently comprise less than 10 per cent.

The authors think the imbalance could be corrected by universities and other employers adapting themselves to women’s needs for a deferred start on the tenure track, part time work and use of institutional resources while working from home. ~ Newswise, Mar 3

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet