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Top Jobs in Math and Science—Where are the Women?

By unusualsuspect     Aug 15, 2007 in Science
Why are there so few women in top academic jobs in math and the sciences? The proportion of women studying for math and science careers is nearly equal with men, but employment figures don't even begin to reflect that social change.
These days girls who lean toward the geekier subjects are much less likely to be pressured to give it up for something more "feminine." In fact, encouraging girls to take science and math courses is the current "big thing." There's less complaining by career women that the glass ceiling limits their ambitions. Attitudes are changing, but the numbers still don't look good.
A recent study showed that "In 2005/6, while more than half of all UK students in higher education were female, just 3% of maths and 2% of civil engineering professors were women. More women than ever are studying medicine and are now more than half of med school students. That's a doubling of their numbers since the 1960s.
There's plenty of debate about why female enrollment is so large and upper level career numbers are so low. Some believe that it's partly genetic and trot out the statistics on spatial skills, and the early boy/girl divide of preference for cars and other mechanical objects or for dolls. But spatial skills aren't that essential for many careers, and in any case, the proportion of women who lack those skills doesn't come close to matching the job statistics. As for toy preferences, at least part of that is cultural.
The arguments are certainly more subtle than early claims that women just weren't biologically and psychologically fit for anything except bearing children. But Professor Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Bath, reminds us that "historically, evolutionary arguments have often been used to justify what seemed to be some normal aspect of life at the time - for example, the extreme racism of the late 19th century."
In fact, in 2005 Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, gave a speech that aroused exactly those images. He suggested that genetics was the reason why men did better than women in math and science. The uproar resulted in a vote of no confidence by the university's Arts and Sciences faculty, and an apology from Summers. A more useful outcome was Harvard's commitment, a few months later, to spending $50 million dollars over the next decade, which would be used for mentoring, child care, and late night transportation for women. His office also announced that there would be reforms " 'at every point along the pipeline', from undergraduates to faculty ranks."
But academic reforms only go part way in establishing something closer to equity. Dr. Summers acknowledged that child-bearing and family responsibilities limit women's access to careers. Marriage and children is rarely a reason for a man to give up his career ambitions, while it's quite common for women to do so. Even if no children are involved, income and prestige can come between a husband and wife. The wife who wants to save her marriage will take a back seat, settling for lower-paying, less prestigious jobs, and turning down jobs that would require moving to another city. One reason women are more likely to do that is simply because it's expected of them.
A women who wishes to resume her career later in life has a lot of catching up to do. Her field may have changed in significant ways, and she will be out of touch with the people who once acted as mentors, who gave tips on job openings and wrote recommendations. Basically, everything is to do over, and not every woman has the drive and ambition for that struggle.
More about Women careers, Harvard university, Math science