Larry Summers, when president of Harvard, conjectured that women are simply innately inferior to men at science and math. His comment, quickly identified as the sort of thing that helps impede women’s advancement, nonetheless revealed a widely-spread belief that men and women’s biological differences underlay differences in achievement in science and math.
A knowledge of the complex conditions for gene expression probably should discourage us from approaching problems in any simple terms about nature versus nurture. However, sometimes there are simple and clarifying moments when nurture changes enough that we can see what the contribution of nature is. And in science and math it is turning out to be zero.
In recent years “men and women faculty in science, engineering and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities,” the panel said in its report, released on Tuesday. It found that women who apply for university jobs and, once they have them, for promotion and tenure, are at least as likely to succeed as men.
In another report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin reviewed a variety of studies and concluded that the achievement gap between boys and girls in mathematics performance had narrowed to the vanishing point.
There are still more boy math prodigies than girl, but the gap is narrowing here too.
The NRC reports a remaining problem:
But compared with their numbers among new Ph.D.’s, women are still underrepresented in applicant pools, a puzzle that offers an opportunity for further research, the panel said.The panel said one factor outshined all others in encouraging women to apply for jobs: having women on the committees appointed to fill them.
Perhaps the reflections of Female Science Professor could offer a clue to the problems:
When I was a postdoc, I was just happy to get through a day without being groped (by an emeritus professor), excluded from using the research facilities I needed (by technical staff), yelled at (by office staff), unnerved (by a large male grad student who frequently expressed the opinion that ‘girls like to be hit’), insulted (by one of a wide range of people), or the target of a scary lab prank (by one particular technician).
Such is not, it is important to note, the typical male postdoc experience, my resident expert tells me.