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Why aren't there more women in science and engineering? Controversial new research suggests: They just aren't interested.

Original post made by mike w b, Palo Alto High School, on May 19, 2008

"Women make up almost half of today's workforce, yet hold just a fraction of the jobs in certain high-earning, high-qualification fields.

They constitute 20 percent of the nation's engineers, fewer than one-third of chemists, and only about a quarter of computer and math professionals.

Over the past decade and more, scores of conferences, studies, and government hearings have been directed at understanding the gap.

Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion:
An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves.

When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else."
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Comments (21)

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Posted by sally
a resident of Ohlone School
on May 19, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Interesting insight from the article linked

"The United States, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and the United

Kingdom, which offer women the most financial stability and legal

protections in job choice, have the greatest gender split in careers.

In countries with less economic opportunity, like the Philippines,

Thailand, and Russia, she writes, the number of women in physics is as

high as 30 to 35 percent, versus 5 percent in Canada, Japan, and Germany.

"It's the opposite of what we'd expect," says Pinker. "You'd think the more family-friendly policies, and richer the economy, the more women should behave like men, but it's the opposite.
I think with economic opportunity comes choices, comes freedom."

Guess its too late to give Larry Summers hid job back as head of Harvard oh well-- never mind

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Posted by pam
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I remember poor Larry Summers he was toast when MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins leaked comments he made at a closed economics conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research to the media,
she said his talk made her feel unwell, a touch of The Vapors, I believe.

They used to have smelling salts for that condition in Victorian times

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 19, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Larry Summers comments were idiotic. He suggested that it was something innate, whereas if you look at the issue globally, it's pretty clearly cultural.

He based some of his views on how his daughter played with trucks--a mommy truck and a baby truck. *I* could have told him that little boys also enact parent/child relationships when they play.

So, given the level of Summer's analysis, I don't think Harvard suffered a big loss on this one.

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Posted by sam
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2008 at 4:13 pm

"So, given the level of Summer's analysis, I don't think Harvard suffered a big loss on this one."

I suppose thats why Bill Clinton made him Secretary of the Treasury.

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on May 19, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Wasn't he the SecTreas who balanced the budget?

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Posted by logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Those who excel in science and engineering should be studied with the intent to foster more and better scientists and engineers.

Injecting "Political Correctness" into this is..... well, as un-scientific as "Political Correctness" itself.

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Posted by Papa Doodle
a resident of Greater Miranda
on May 19, 2008 at 9:00 pm

People let's be frank.

Women are always quick to point out their gender differences and redly proclaim how in touch with they are with emotions, compassion and understanding capabilities. Now I do not doubt these claims and I will quickly suggest that there are many differences between women and men. Most critical of these are logic and emotionless fact evaluations. It is clear that women are better at things other than science and engineering.

This story repeats what we men have known for a long, long time; women don't like science and math. It is only these loud mouth liberal women who don't have a man that don't get it. In fact the ones that shout the loudest could not pass and Paly High Algebra I class. Yet, these noisy broads have convinced the politicians who as a group know even less about math, science and most notabily logic to push these classes for women. These gals would be far better off taking classes on loyalty, faithfulness and on how to treat a man.

So I say back to those tough laundry stains, honey.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2008 at 4:25 am

Can't let this slip by. Apply Title IX to academics and trade apprenticeships. After 25 years, my old IBEW union has no women enrolled in the apprenticeship program.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2008 at 8:45 am

I was never much of a math person myself at school, but I had many friends who were. As they tried to pursue their chosen careers, they discovered, surprise, surprise, that they were the ideal gender for dealing with the children that they gave birth to. This was not what they had expected, they thought that they could run home and work but discovered that as soon as the babies arrived, the attractions of being a full time math/science genius paled in contrast to the attractions of that delightful baby waiting at home. They also discovered that their husbands/partners, although very willing, didn't do the childcare job as well as they could.

There may be some genetics to this. Women, are genetically formed for not only giving birth, but also for nurturing. In nature, I think it is only the male sea horse that can give better nurturing to its offspring rather the female. We shouldn't be too surprised therefore if the most ardent female scientist puts their career on the back boiler once the kids come along. Unfortunately, and this may be the real crux of the matter, it is really difficult for them to get back into their former careers once the kids are older. Maybe the ardent feminists should concentrate on this aspect rather than trying to get those who don't want to become supermoms feel guilty for getting out of the rat race.

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on May 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm

"Injecting "Political Correctness" into this is..... well, as un-scientific as "Political Correctness" itself."

That is an unsupportable and hence unscientific opinion.

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Posted by Logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2008 at 4:19 pm


Then please explain the scientific basis of "Political Correctness"

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on May 20, 2008 at 4:52 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2008 at 5:27 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by I supported Larry Summers
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2008 at 6:33 pm

All I can say in response to this article is


This is what Larry Summers was talking about. But, he was shouted down whenever he tried to explain that women make different choices in many ways from men, and this is the "innate" part of the gender differences.

We make different choices for many reasons. Some of them because a higher percentage of us versus men aren't wired for the math/engineering. Some of them because a higher percentage of us don't want to study for careers that demand full-time and more. Some of us because, even if we study for the math/engineering/science careers, like many doctors and PhDs in any of the above I know who are female..we drop down or even completely out when we have our babies so that we can be with our kids more often than an hour per night and some on weekends. This means we don't go as high in the career world, but oh well!!

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Posted by Logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2008 at 7:33 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 21, 2008 at 1:39 pm

The article says *nothing* that supports there being a greater aptitude for math and science in one sex than the other. Remember, this is where Larry Summers fell down.

Harvard has a huge endowment, so, no, Summers' particular aptitude wasn't critical. It does show, however, that the ability to analyze dollars and cents doesn't translate into an understanding of causal factors of human behavior.

Please note that many of these women in the study did go into the sciences--medicine and biology. What they avoided were professions where there was a high percentage of men with poor social skills (goes with preferring things to people).

Gee--let's see, better pay, more interesting work, more socially adept coworkers--why wouldn't a mathematically talented woman pick medicine over engineering?

I've been around long enough to remember versions of these same old sexist arguments (that there's something innate about women) about other profressions--you know, the ones with tons of women in them now--i.e. law, medicine, journalism, academia.

From my observation, lots of women do stay home with the kids when they're young, but start moving back into the work world when the kids hit elementary school. Some of that's desire, but a lot of it is simply about hard choices. Good childcare is expensive and most professional careers require way more than the old 40 hours a week.

Reducing this all to personal choice is to (conveniently?) ignore the larger social realities at play here. I know a lot of preschool moms who would love to work at least part-time if there was some affordable way to do it that wouldn't mean putting their kids in daycare 45 hours a week.

When the time becomes available--the kids are in grade school and there's on-site aftercare--yep, back to work they go.

Here, though, underlying assumptions come into play again. Women in fields with a higher percentage of women tend to have an easier time getting back in. Academia, among other areas, can be weirdly hostile to women who stop out for the kids--get your tenure first.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2008 at 12:38 am


I've commented on a similiar thread a while back. The problem with the original article is that it lumps all of science and engineering together, along with IT (which I would contend is a whole separate field - and world).

Like you said, women are interested in certain fields, namely biology and chemistry (along with their engineering counterparts - biomed engineering and chemical engineering) - and actually math as well.

What they're not as interested in are physics (along with their engineering counterparts - electricial and mechanical engineering) and and computer science.

You do hit on it with the "socially inept" part - having interacted extensively with scientists, engineers and computer people, you do see a very distinct difference between the two "camps".

Its also interesting to note that physicists and their electrical/mechanical engineering counterparts tend to have very conservative viewpoints (and tend to insist on pushing those viewpoints on folks) - you can see that even here with the notorious Walter Wallis, who is an old-time electrical engineer.

Computer folks, on the other hand, tend to be Libertarian in outlook, although they don't really push it outwardly onto others like the conservative physics folks do.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 22, 2008 at 6:37 am

Let's see. I am an EE and ME, a nominal libertarian, a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, one of the two members who did not make millions in computers [If only I had given those two kids $50 for a business share after they made their Apple one play Fool on the Hill at a meeting] and I have mentored one woman and several men toward engineering registration. I also contributed to the Voyager around the world flight. And was it not physicists who discovered a cat that had not 9 lives but a half life?
Care to plot a line through them datums, Observer?

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on May 22, 2008 at 12:36 pm

What's missing from all this is the FACT that - in addition to conscious choices made by women (like the one OP pointed out) - is that there ARE differences in brains, NOT exclusive to sex (but SOMETIMES influenced by biology) that ARE good indicators of how individuals cognate problems, or structure their world.

For instance, testosterone has a very large influence in how certain parts of the brain develop, relative to the brain's ability to do abstract mathematical tasks, like object rotation and construction, a necessary prerequisite to having the ability to do certain kinds of math, like the calculus, well.

It just so happens that men are programmed with more testosterone, in general, BUT many women also receive lots of early testosterone influence, in the womb, and from their own natural secretions. Many of those women will develop a propensity to excel in mathematics (this is a VERY narrow example, used for argument's sake).

Another for instance: studies have shown a higher incidence of testosterone in trial lawyers, as opposed to lawyers from other disciplines. Makes sense.

Testosterone exposure in prenatal environments, and testosterone secretion (women produce testosterone, although generally in small quantities than men) is just ONE of MANY of variables in the developmental pathway that creates wired *propensities* toward certain activity *preferences*.

There are GENERAL differences that exist between the sexes, but within those generalities there is LOTS of variation, as it should be, for diversity's sake (one driver of evolution). Thus, it's folly to make GENERAL conclusions about certain skill sets that are UNIVERSALLY applied to one sex or the other. Anyone who claims otherwise is most likely walking down the wrong path, as good science seems to contradict them.

It's also important to emphasize that environment DOES play a role in much of this, even to the point where certain combinations of gene-driven traits are triggered - or not - by the kind of environment experienced (social - e.g. nurturing in a certain direction; or, natural - e.g. availability of certain kinds of nutrition, etc. etc.).

It's best to provide a wide range of opportunity for everyone, so that everyone has an opportunity to resonate best with what's available, instead of having those choices made for them.

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Posted by KeenObserver
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Walter E Wallis:
"Care to plot a line through them datums, Observer?"

No, Walter, your many posts speak volumes as to who you are: Full of testosterone and false bravado, while short on real courage and accomplishments.

Your joy in life is pissing people off with your inane, non-constructive and often offensive posts. That's why, despite whining about censorship, you couldn't stop posting on this site despite saying that you would - taking "pot shots" in cyber-space is all you have now. It's quite sad, actually - you've become the living embodiment of the classic pitiful "angry old man."

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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 24, 2008 at 12:14 am

Hmmm, I know a woman who broke down a lot of barriers to become a trial lawyer--but had all the hallmarks of high estrogen production. One of the tricky things about hormones is that male and female hormones, per se, are pretty similar.

The bigger point that seems to get lost, and this connects with Mike's overall point, is that the brain *adapts* and changes. We're not that hardwired. One of the classic male/female brain differences is that men are better at orienteering themselves--unless you're dealing with a culture where the women wander around as much as the men. Even in the U.S. we allow our girls less unsupervised wandering than our boys (fear of predators of various sorts).


I've noticed some similar political breakdowns--CS libertarians, definitely. I've seen a split in physicists--some are Jesus-freak conservatives and others are wayyyy out in left field. Idealists.

Physics, in particular, strikes me as requiring the ability to detach from the world at large so as to think long and deep about theorems and concepts. I think girls are socialized away from that very, very early. I mean a mom who tunes out the baby, is a mom who can endanger her kid.

I've also known a number of conservative engineers--as my SO says, "Engineers think that there is A solution." Which is great for fixing objects, less so when analyzing social problems, and also explains why the black-and-white conservative outlook often jibes with theirs.

And, yes, Walter--you fall right into that engineering trap--thus, your repeated "Sunset Tinsley"--never mind that that's extremely unlikely or what the counter arguments are. You don't address them, let alone process them and come up with a more evolved concept. You just go right to "Sunset Tinsley". There are numerous other examples.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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