Politics & Policy

Gender Discrimination in Science Is a Myth

Statistics show that women are treated fairly in technical fields.

In the prestigious scientific journal Nature, my fellow University of Washington graduate, Dr. Jennifer Rohn, recently accused the entire scientific community of being “inherently sexist.” Her evidence? There are not enough female scientific “pundits” in the mainstream media. Instead of supporting her case with facts or statistics, she relied entirely on unpersuasive anecdotes about timid, defenseless women being bullied in a world full of big, scary men.

Anyone who has spent enough time in academic circles has heard this argument repeated ad nauseam. The viewpoint is so widely held and sacrosanct that even hinting that it might be exaggerated can cause a person serious trouble. On sensitive issues such as gender discrimination, facts have been replaced by emotion; science has been replaced by myth. No longer should this be tolerated. Let us reassess the “gender gap” in academia.

Those who espouse the idea of gender discrimination invariably point to the same three statistics: 1) The number of women who get Ph.D.’s in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science is dwarfed by the number of men who do; 2) there are more male than female professors in these fields; and 3) there is a wage gap between male and female professors.

For the sake of argument, I will not challenge these statistics. It is the conclusion that sexism is the only plausible explanation for these observations that needs to be vigorously challenged, especially in light of the following:

In the 2008–09 academic year, for the first time ever, more women received Ph.D.’s than men in the United States. They also received 60 percent of master’s degrees. Additionally, among undergraduates, females outnumbered males 57 percent to 43 percent (females have outnumbered males since 2003). Even though men received most of the hard-science Ph.D.’s, women dominated the soft sciences. Indeed, women received 60 percent of social- and behavioral-science Ph.D.’s and 70 percent of health-science Ph.D.’s (including nursing).

Even in the hard sciences, women are making significant inroads. In the biological and agricultural sciences, women now receive 51 percent of Ph.D.’s. Also, women make up more than half of new medical doctors and more than 75 percent of new veterinarians.

Obviously, this is great news for women. But why do men still dominate the hard sciences and engineering? Several explanations have been proposed, including the understandably controversial yet biologically plausible hypothesis that men are genetically more likely to be outstanding at mathematical and spatial reasoning than women. This suggestion rarely goes over well; just ask Lawrence Summers.

The more likely explanation is simply one of preference: Women, for personal reasons, prefer not to enter the hard sciences. And that is exactly what recent research from Cornell University reveals:

Two psychological scientists have reviewed all of the evidence and concluded that the main factor is women’s choices — both freely made, such as that they’d rather study biology than math, and constrained, such as the fact that the difficult first years as a professor coincide with the time when many women are having children.

#PAGE#The Association for Psychological Science press release continues:

[The Cornell authors] also reviewed research on sex discrimination and decided that it is no longer a major factor. In fact, one large-scale national study found that women are actually slightly more likely than men to be invited to interview for and to be offered tenure-track jobs in math-intensive STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] fields.

Indeed, as reported by Science 2.0, “the gender gap is closing without quotas and with a consistent expectation of excellence.”

What about the wage gap? It probably exists, but the problem is not unique to science, and there are less nefarious reasons than misogyny to explain this discrepancy. For instance, women are more likely to stay at home with children or take care of sick relatives. Also, women are often less assertive than men in salary negotiations.

Taken together, what does all of this mean?

First, because women far outnumber men in the academic pipeline, it is simply a matter of time before the majority of professors are female. The perceived “gender gap” is in the midst of self-correction, and academia will be facing a major gender realignment in the near future.

Second, as any man who has tried to watch college football on a Saturday afternoon can verify, men and women do not always share the same interests or priorities. Women may avoid the non-biological hard sciences out of personal preference; a disparity does not necessarily indicate discrimination.

Finally, it is worth noting that most complaints about gender inequality in academia come from those sympathetic with center-left, egalitarian ideologies. Notably, only 6 percent of scientists are Republicans. Why does no one complain about the “ideology gap”?

For the vast majority of scientific pursuits, this ideology gap hardly matters. However, the gap should be kept in mind when assessing the veracity of claims made by scientists or other academics when they venture into the realm of public policy. When academics speak on issues such as social equality, they are speaking as policy advocates and political activists. It is not unusual for political activists to play fast and loose with the facts when discussing emotionally charged issues such as gender discrimination. Scientists are no different.

In summary, gender disparity, not gender discrimination, exists in academia, but it is a self-correcting phenomenon. While sexism in academia likely existed decades ago, today it is largely a myth.

— Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.


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