Cornell Researchers: Discrimination not a Major Factor for Women in STEM Fields

 I’ve often pointed out that, for fathers to get more parenting time with their kids, both mothers and fathers need to tweak their work/life balances a bit.  Plentiful data show that men do more paid work than women and women do more domestic work including childcare than men.  If women spent more time at the office or plant, it would free men to spend more time with  their kids.  And if men did more childcare, it would free women to earn more.

If women earned more, they’d be less dependent on men and they’d advance more in their careers and save more for retirement.  If men spent more time raising their children, the kids would benefit and I think the guys would too.  Men who spend significant time with their sons and daughters tend to report feeling more complete as men than if they spend all their time working. 

Fathers often complain that they feel that divorce courts treat them like walking ATM machines, but often they treat themselves that way – as if their only function in life is to work and earn.

That brings us, somewhat indirectly, to this article reporting on another study by Cornell social scientist Dr. Stephen Ceci and his colleague Wendy Williams (Science Daily, 10/26/10).  I’ve reported on their research before that inquires into, among other things, why women tend to avoid the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathmatics) fields in academia.

Ceci and Williams join a long line of researchers who have found that those disciplines have relatively few women working at the highest levels of academia.  Indeed,

In the top 100 U.S. universities, only 9% to 16% of tenure-track positions in these kinds of fields are held by women.

That’s true despite the fact that high school girls and boys score about the same on standardized tests relating to STEM subjects.  So how do we explain those facts?

Feminist organizations like the American Association of University Women are quick to cry “foul.”  To them, STEM fields are a good-old-boy club that wants no part of women in the lab. 

But the AAUW has shown itself to be an unreliable source where social policy on women is concerned.  Time and again in the past they’ve demonstrated a willingness to play fast and loose with facts and to draw plainly unwarranted conclusions.  From denying the real problems boys have in schools to asserting fictional ones suffered by girls, and many other acts of intellectual malpractice, the AAUW is simply not to be trusted, and so it is with women in the STEM fields.

Ceci and Williams are among many researchers to make the point.

Williams and Ceci 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 fields.

Instead, Williams and Ceci think the problem is that women actually choose not to go into math-heavy fields, or drop out once they have started. “When you look at surveys of adolescent boys and girls and you say to them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ you never see girls saying, ‘I want to be a physicist or an engineer,'” Ceci says. That doesn’t mean they’re rejecting science, but they’re more likely to want to be physicians or veterinarians.

And those preferences persist. Studies of college students find that women are more interested in organic and social fields, while men are more interested in systematizing things. And indeed, more than half of new medical doctors and biologists are women today — and in veterinary medicine, women are more than 75% of new graduates.

So, as other researchers have discovered about women in science, they often tend to gravitate toward certain fields and men to others.  If preferring medicine to math is a problem, it’s news to me.

But women also tend to have other preferences that affect their work in the STEM and other fields.  That preference is for children and childcare.  Of course that’s not unique to female scientists or academics.  Across the spectrum of work and careers, women tend to do more childcare than do men.  And that can mean less prestige, less advancement and lower earnings. 

Again, it’s a choice and one I would never criticize them for making.  If a woman wants to take a few months – or a few years – off and care for her children, it won’t bother me a bit.  As I said earlier, I wish more men would do that.

Ceci and Williams contend that academia can change to accomodate women’s need to bear and raise children.

On the other hand, women shouldn’t have to drop out because the tenure schedule conflicts with their fertility schedule. “Universities can and should do a lot more for women and for those men engaged in comparably-intensive caretaking,” says Williams. Coming up with alternative schedules for parents of young children who are seeking tenure, for example, or finding other ways to ease the burden on parents or young children, could help women stay in academic careers — and not only in math-intensive fields.

I agree, with an important addition.  If accomodation is made for mothers’ parenting needs, then it needs to be made for fathers’ as well.  If colleges and universities are going to bend over backward to allow mothers to have children, stay home with them and also stay in tenure-track positions, then fathers need to have the same opportunity.  To do otherwise would not only be inequitable but would tend to deprive fathers of the opportunity to be with their children when they’re very young, a time that most parents would describe as all too brief.

Not only that, but colleges and universities must, if they offer such accomodations to women and men, make it clear to men that they are the beneficiaries as well as women. 

Women’s entry into the workplace has resulted in many changes over the years.  If one of those changes is to make the workplace more amenable to fathers’ parenting time with their children, I’m all for it.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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