It’s not that extra X chromosome

Amazingly, discrimination and low expectations aren't keeping women out of science.

Amazingly, discrimination and low expectations aren't keeping women out of science.

Looking at most colleges’ graduating classes, you’d think that the gap in science professorships between men and women is primarily generational: women earn a majority of science bachelor’s degrees (some colleges have begun to give preference to male candidates), and no field other than computer science and engineering is made up of less than 40% women. And yet the advancement rates are depressing: over 50% of chemistry bachelors degree’s are awarded to women, yet less than 32% of PhDs and 22% of assistant professorships are. Why the discrepancy? Apparently, it comes down to lifestyle.


There’s an article in this month’s Psychological Bulletin that examines several different hypotheses. First is the “right tail hypothesis.” Basically this proposes that, although there may be more above average mathematicians (because of biological or developmental factors) among women than among men, there are more extremely good mathematicians among men than among women. (And more extremely bad mathematicians, but we’re not interested in those.) But while this might have some role in the discrepency, it can’t explain all of it. For one thing, not all countries show the same professorship gap, even though most show the same right tail bias.

Another possibility is discrimination either directly affecting women’s ability to get professorships or decreasing motivation. Neither seems to play a large role, though. Although there are anecdotes of women being passed up for grants and advancement because of their sex, the problem doesn’t seem to be widespread enough to reach statistic significance. Decreasing motivation doesn’t seem to be a huge factor either. First, as the article’s authors write, one “might wonder why boys do not acquire negative stereotypes about their math ability after years of witnessing girls outperform them in class.” Even if girls and young women are getting messages that women are less capable at math than men, they don’t seem to be getting through: studies suggest that stereotypes about sex differences in math skill aren’t embraced by most younger academics. Also, the percentage of women in science doesn’t match the percentage that get high scores on the SAT-M or GRE-Q tests.

So, the authors conclude, the solution is that women aren’t dropping out of math-intensive fields. They’re dropping out of time intensive fields. Women are expected, pressured, conditioned, or driven by biological urges to spend more time on child-rearing, housework, and other time-consuming, non-career-advancing activities. (Consider the accusations of being a “bad mother” levied against career women, and the relative silence surrounding career men.) Women are also more likely to change or abandon jobs to advance their partner’s career, which simply does not fly in the tenure track system. The road to a full professorship is essentially one way, with exactly one route on. One starts as a postdoc, then an assistant professor, then an associate professor, and then finally a full, tenured professor. Any break in the process, either moving to a new university or taking a break to raise children derails this orderly procession to professorship.

How do universities increase the number of women advancing in scientific fields? I am certainly not an expert in university administration, but it seems like the obvious solution, making the workplace more friendly to breaks, won’t work all that well. Unlike in law or medicine, where credentials don’t have much of a shelf-life, being out of the loop for a year or two in scientific research can put one back at the grad student level. Universities might be able to accommodate women (and men) who want to work a less intensive schedule for a time, but achieving full employment parity would probably require more than that. Instead, I think the answer is to change gender expectations. The less women are expected to give up their careers for their children, and the more men are expected to share household duties, the greater parity we will see. More importantly, the parity will be a reflection of equality in lifestyle, rather than an adjustment in the system to accommodate women. As I talk to my undergraduate friends I have hope that we’re moving in this direction: many of my female classmates (especially those that are planning to go into academia) are adamant that they will maintain parity in their personal lives, and a large proportion (though by no means enough) of my male classmates have recognized that they need to work to maintain equality in their relationships. We’ll see if it’s translated into action.


6 responses to “It’s not that extra X chromosome

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