Saturday, March 14, 2009

Math Class is Tough! (by Phila)

New research into mathematical ability and gender offers an intriguing explanation for the fact that men are more likely than women to succeed at math and the physical sciences. Apparently, men see the hard sciences as a source of authority that complements and reinforces their dominant social status, and are therefore willing to make an extraordinary effort to master the skills that define success within these fields, and to create normative obstacles to female competition.

I'm just kidding. Actually, it's the female deviation from the male standard that cries out for a simplistic explanation.
Women tend to choose non-math-intensive fields for their careers -- not because they lack mathematical ability, but because they want flexibility to raise children or prefer less math-intensive fields of science, reports a new Cornell study.
In other words, if you have a man and a woman with identical mathematical skills, the woman is more likely to avoid math, because she needs to remain "flexible," and pursuing a math-intensive degree offers her much less flexibility than studying millennial subcultures of the English Civil Wars, or mastering Chinese, or becoming a doctor.
"A major reason explaining why women are underrepresented not only in math-intensive fields but also in senior leadership positions in most fields is that many women choose to have children, and the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted," said lead author Stephen J. Ceci, professor of human development at Cornell.
Women sometimes get pregnant and give birth. And having given birth, they remain more likely than their male partners to sacrifice their careers for childcare, whether they're studying low-dimensional topology or Nuer folkways. This is known as "choice."

It seems to me that we're on pretty familiar ground, so far. But perhaps the real revelations are forthcoming.
Women also tend to drop out of scientific fields -- especially math and physical sciences -- at higher rates than do men, particularly as they advance, because of their need for greater flexibility and the demands of parenting and caregiving, said co-author Wendy M. Williams, Cornell professor of human development.

"These are choices that all women, but almost no men, are forced to make," she said.
Alright, now we've learned that women are forced to "choose" to drop out. But why does this happen more often in scientific fields?
Women today comprise about 50 percent of medical school classes; yet women who enter academic medicine are less likely than men to be promoted or serve in leadership posts, the authors report.
So women often don't get promoted and aren't usually put in charge. Could this have something to do with why they drop out?

Apparently not.
[A]lthough "institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers," said Ceci. "The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them toward other careers such as medicine and biology over mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering."
I'm losing my bearing here, so let me recap. It won't help to remove barriers to promoting women, because women's "career preferences and lifestyle choices" — the ones they, but "almost no men," are often forced to make — will ultimately ensure that women are underrepresented in computer science.

Could these "preferences" have anything to do with the existence of "institutional barriers and discrimination" that women recognize in advance, and choose to avoid? And if so, isn't it a little high-handed to call that a "career preference," as opposed to — I don't know — oppression?

The study may actually address this issue. But as usual, the press release doesn't. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And I still have no idea how they reached the conclusion that "women tend to choose non-math-intensive fields for their careers... because they want flexibility to raise children," considering that "non-math fields are also affected" by female "choices," and "only 19 percent of the tenure-track faculty members in the top 20 philosophy departments are women." (I guess philosophy doesn't provide much flexibility either, despite everything you've heard about the Deleuzian plane of immanence.)

They do offer some solutions, for whatever that's worth:
The authors recommended that universities and companies create options for women with math talents who want to pursue math-intensive careers. These could include deferred start-up of tenure-track positions and part-time work that segues to full-time tenure-track work for women who are raising children, and courtesy appointments for women unable to work full time but who would benefit from use of university resources (e-mail, library resources, grant support) to continue their research from home.
Sounds good to me. Then, all they'll have to worry about is the ongoing imbalance in childcare responsibilities, and being passed over for promotion 'cause they're women. And so on.