I know firsthand how few women there are in science in engineering: I briefly attended a tech school with a ratio of 3.5 males to every 1 female. There is a commonly held cultural belief that men are better at math and science than women, whereas women are supposedly better at English and the arts – this is even justified by scientific studies. Only a few years ago, Harvard President Lawrence Summers implied his belief that men have an innate ability at mathematics that women lack, and although he has since apologized, his remark is indicative of a cultural hostility to women in the sciences that permeates our society still.
What bothers me most about this sexism is that it disguises itself as science. Studies that find differences in brain chemistry among men and women are used to justify restrictive gender roles, often while neglecting to note that any differences found are not independent of the fact that our gender roles are incredibly powerful and restrictive, as well as the fact that the process of “gendering” begins at birth. I don’t think the scientists themselves are to blame, nor do I believe the results are fabricated or manipulated to try to support some sort of patriarchal conspiracy. The failure lies in science reporting, which often exaggerates and applies a narrative to discovered correlations. It could be that our cultural attitudes toward gender are so powerful that they influence brain chemistry in a physical, measurable way. It is even possible – though I doubt this is as true as some would like us to believe – that there are some small innate differences in brain chemistry between chromosomal males and chromosomal females. However, the problem arises when this is used to justify the glass ceiling and sexism in general, as well as the fact that science reporting often overlooks sections of the studies where they comment on weaknesses in the results and inevitably suggest that further experimentation is needed. Using science to say that there is nothing wrong with the current gender ratio in engineering is evident of a cultural insistence that mathematics and engineering remain a male-dominated world, and is also evident of a failure to understand that challenging cultural norms is not the same as insisting that less qualified female candidates should be favored over more qualified male candidates.
Fortunately, a recent study has found a result that supports the idea that the absence of women in engineering is a cultural problem, not a biological one. The study shows that in countries where there is greater “gender equity,” such as Germany, girls are “more likely to perform better on mathematics assessment tests.” However, even in light of these studies, some remain unconvinced. La Griffe identifies several perhaps even legitimate problems with two recent studies showing that the gender gap in mathematics in engineering is “malleable and consequently eraseable.” One argument La Griffe uses to discredit the studies is that the gender gap does not show up until after puberty, but in Newsweek, Sharon Begley notes that “high school girls now take calculus at the same rate as boys” and that “tests mandated by No Child Left Behind show that girls have reached parity with boys in math achievement through high school; and tests of complex problem-solving (which NCLB doesn’t measure) find that girls have now pulled even with boys through 12th grade on this skill, too”. In fact, Begley addresses several key parts of La Griffe’s argument, including his identification of a higher number of male math prodigies.
The science of it may be debatable, but the fact that mathematical prodigy is being assumed to be innate and not a product of cultural values given the current gender gap shows how acceptable sexism still is in our society. If we changed the variable from gender to race, it would be easily recognized as morally indefensible to claim that one race is naturally better at math than another. Anyone suggesting such a thing would be subject to harsh criticism. Any published study showing the lack of math performance among minority races in the United States would be instantly recognized as a symptom of inequality, rather than biological differences in ability. However, despite the fact that we live in a society that still contains a great deal of sexism, it is culturally acceptable to claim that women are naturally less gifted in mathematics and engineering than men.
This is another reason to support the STEM Expos that are touring colleges across the state, encouraging more women to get involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I cannot think of a better way to change these sexist cultural beliefs and increase the ratio of women in the sciences and engineering.
C.B. Kreutzkamp, Ed. L. Herrera♥3