Another explanation of why so few women in science

“A team of Miami University researchers led by psychologist Amanda Diekman has come up with a different explanation. In a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, they argue women perceive STEM careers (those in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as largely incompatible with one of their core goals: Engaging in work that helps others.” You can read a story about this research here. The paper itself is here.

I admit to considerable skepticism about this. Women and business? Not so altruistic. Women and the law? Maybe.

19 thoughts on “Another explanation of why so few women in science

  1. This is very interesting and surely complicated. If the perception of students at a crucial point is that STEM is non-communal in a way that matters to most women raised in our culture, that’s very important to know.

    The authors do say that they are looking at one factor. The subjects they studied had an average age of 19, and quite possibly what’s going on at that age does not account for the significant drop off of women in STEM from the PhD to tenure.

    Furthermore, biology is, I think, something of an exception; I’ve forgotten the figures, but the percentage of women in bio is comparatively high.

    Most of all, I’m surprised that researchers in STEM still are thought of as lone individuals before benches. There seems to be a huge image-reality gap.

    For one thing, teaching is a communal and helping activity. And if you look at papers published in STEM, they typically have a lot of authors. STEM faculty often work in research groups and collaborate with other research groups. There’s traveling to lots of conferences, long and short distance collaborations, and often within a field what are called “journal groups,” where people meet to discuss some work on a weekly basis. And my experience here is largely from an at-best average university. (I don’t mean to exclude the possibility that some areas of stem do have a lot of loners.) Finally, there are many enormously important and large scale problems one could work on, it’s hard to see how one would think one had to foresake communal goals.

  2. I’ve been reading a lot about stereotypes & prejudices and this sounds a lot like system justification (primary researcher on this is John T. Jost) with some benevolent sexism thrown in (see Susan Fiske’s and Peter Glick’s work): Because women are more nurturing (benevolent sexism stereotype), they want to help others; that women are in more helping professions (which just so happen to be lower paid and lower prestige) is simply a reflection of their natural inclinations. Blaming the victim comes also to mind…

    Probably the most relevant cite is an article by Jost and Aaron C. Kay from 2005: “Exposure to Benevolent Sexism and Complementary Gender Stereotypes,” which builds on Fiske & Glick’s work but incorporating system justification to show how stereotypes can be used to justify the status quo. (PDF of full article).

  3. RAB, I think you raise a very important issue. And thanks for the fascinating references!

    Unfortunately, the female students who participated in the study did seem to check off communal goals more than the guys did. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that at 19, and in some states more than others, socialization produced such a distinction.

    We might then add (a) early socialization and (b) an inaccurate image of science as causes of the lower representation of women. We already knew about (a), but (b) might be something to work on too.

    I do wish researchers like these showed some awareness that the attitudes showing up on their surveys may be quite local and the effects of the attitudes may also be quite local. Are we to suppose that women flourishing in science in some muslim countries are somehow less interested in other people? That’s hardly a good inference.

    At the same time, you are absolutely right to point out that the “communal attitude” is a dangerous stereotype, and there may be severe downsides to acting on it.

  4. Women and business? Not so altruistic.

    That depends a lot on the type of business. Yes, someone somewhere in the middle of the bureaucracy of a Fortune 500 company probably isn’t doing a whole lot to help other people. But someone who does the bookkeeping for a small firm of architects, say architects who specialize in schools and other government buildings, could easily (and, I think, justifiably) feel like she’s helping other people. I don’t know about other schools — Notre Dame could easily be non-representative in this regard — but non-profit administration and management seems to be an extremely popular focus for undergrads in the business school year. I’ve also personally talked to more than one student who decided to major in accounting in order to help out her or his family’s small business after college.

    Some research done in Spain some time ago ago — I can dig up the citation if anyone cares, but I’m too busy right now — suggested more or less the same point being made in this paper: for whatever reasons, young women prefer careers that involve helping others more than do young men, and choose their majors accordingly. The fact that this research was done in Spain suggest it’s not so local as to be, say, exclusively an American or Anglophone phenomenon; though it could easily not generalize to countries that are not as affluent, industrialized, or democratic as Spain and the US (or different in other respects, eg, predominantly Muslim). In any case, it certainly seems to be true here (the US). And I’ve argued that it plays an important role in the underrepresentation of women in (American) philosophy. I think the content of standard Intro to Philosophy courses (lots of esoteric metaphysical and epistemological puzzles, little engagement with real-world problems) drives many brilliant young women away from philosophy.

  5. There is also support for the “altruistic motivation” thesis in this paper:
    “A Moral Imperative: Retaining Women of Color in Science Education” by
    Angela Johnson, Sybol Cook Anderson and Kathryn Norlock
    This article considers the experiences of a group of women science students of color who reported encountering moral injustices, including misrecognition, lack of peer support, and disregard for their altruistic motives. We contend that university science departments face a moral imperative to cultivate equal relationships and the altruistic power of science.

    The paper is in the women’s studies journal Atlantis,
    33.2 (Spring ’09) .

  6. About local:

    1. Re #4: I think the study in the Tierney work is local. There are countries where that discrepancy in the “right tail” of maths scores does not exist – or so my understanding goes. E.g., Scandinavian countries, which are a lot better for women on equality measures. (The Tierney stuff is concerned with the very high scoring outliers and the fact that though the proportion of male-female in that range has dropped from 13-1 to 4-1, that later proportion been steady in the US for the last 10-20 years.)

    2. Re #5: I’m surprised you take bookkeeping for architects as your example of a woman in business??
    Spain as non-local. One needn’t think of “local” very literally; to the extent that Spain has had the structure of the RC catholic church as a paradigm, it’s been probably more patriarchal than Florida, though actually one would expect some overlap in historical influences.

    I think your comments, Dan, about Intro are so interesting. I have wondered whether “real life” doesn’t encompass so many things that the influential factors are not obvious. Let me throw something else out. On the Meyers-Briggs personality/cognitive-style tests, the category INTJ captures the people who are very keen on closure. That is, they like to take one problem and work and work on it until it is solved. Then they’ll move onto another problem. While INTJs are only a small proportion of the population, they are something like 95% of the professoriate. (Or were a number of years ago.) They are also not keen on what goes on with people who are not interested in closure.

    People who aren’t interested in closure are much more interested in relations among problems than in solving one problem. The study at Carnegie Mellon (Unlocking the Clubhouse Door) reported a difference in cognitive style between male and female grad students in computer science, and sometimes it looked like a “relevant to helping people” difference, but I thought it could also be a “not interested in closure” difference.

    People who aren’t interested in closure are not incapable of reaching conclusions, but they might be happy to leave someone else to hammer out the precise details of the right answer which they have found.

  7. THAT is useful information. That may be why the jump from college to university was so difficult for me. I’m an INTP. INTJ types (unless they’re experts on human behaviour) tend to misread my holistic processing style as “flakiness.” And yes, I do misread their laser-sharp focus as condescending aloofness punctuated by pecking.

    In the future, I will make sure that I point out to anybody who seems to be misreading me that a person who is more comfortable with cladograms than he/she is with syllogisms IS NOT incapable of learning the latter. I learned to “get over” my natural left-handedness, too.

  8. jj –

    My mom designs homes; before she started her own business, she was a drafter at a small firm of architects who mostly designed schools. Her degree was in architecture, but I imagine they also employed people with degrees in business (either administration or accounting).

    The Meyers-Briggs typology, despite its popularity, has a lot of problems. The test instrument is unreliable — people classified as one type can easily be classified as a very different type a short time later — and measures the subject’s self-perception, not her or his actual behavior. The distribution of scores in each of its four dimensions is normal, not bimodal — that is, people don’t cluster into statistically distinct `types’ (like INTJ), but instead cluster in one big blob in the middle. The typology itself is based on Carl Jung’s work, and isn’t considered rigorous by the standards of contemporary psychology. More on these sorts of criticisms here.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t some connections between gender, a preference for (roughly speaking) exploring the connections between different problems over working out fully the solution to one single problem at a time, and the dominant cognitive style or methodology of a given discipline at a given time. I just don’t think Meyers-Briggs provides either good reasons for thinking such a connection exists or a good explanation of such connection as is found to exist.

  9. Peck Peck. Dan Hicks must have a J at the end of his MBTI score, too ;-)

    Yeah, I don’t like psych theories (like Chomsky on language acquisition) that subscribe to the notion of inborn tendencies either. Too close to something quasi-religious.

    MBTI is a quick easy guideline for everyday use by people who just want to watch for potential conflicts, though. And don’t give me any nitpicky smart talk about how observing something changes it. A person doesn’t need a degree in electrical engineering to flip a light switch or change a bulb. MBTI is convenient and user friendly. So there.

    And that just proves your own point about the factors that drive women away from philosophy.

    My ethics&political philosophy prof stated it brilliantly: I do what I do, rather than doing something like epistemology because I can’t see myself sitting there for my entire career going “Is this my hand?” Of course it’s my hand. I have more important things to think about.

  10. I like Jean Shinoda Bolen’s version of Myers Briggs. It really appeals to my geek LARPie side.

  11. Perhaps I was a bit unfair to epistemologists in that example.

    To be clear, I don’t think that `engaged philosophy’ or `community-oriented philosophy’ is the same thing as ethics and political philosophy. Utilitarianism vs. Kantian debates, especially at the level of an Intro class, are often just as `disengaged’ as the ontological argument (metaphysics) and worrying about Gettier cases (epistemology).

    In my Intro class, I relate meta-ethical relativism to the culture war and the red/blue divide*; present epistemology and informal logic in terms of the formal methodologies of science and the informal methodologies of a productive discussion about a divisive issue; and use philosophy of science to partly explain why some science policy disputes are so intractable (eg, climate change). Perhaps I misspoke before: it’s not the content of an Intro course so much the way in which it’s presented. We don’t have to — and shouldn’t — replace Intro to Philosophy with Intro to Ethics to deal with any of our underrepresentation problems.

    * For non-Americans who don’t understand the reference: The red/blue divide describes by deep and bitter split in the political culture of the US between conservatives and liberals/progressives.

  12. Just to be clear: I didn’t mean to suggest there’s some gender distinction that Meyers Briggs describes. My point was principally to suggest that the contrast between what is sometimes called divergent and convergent thinking could be behind the distinctions being described.

    If there’s any truth to the idea that INTJs are rare in the general population, then it’s not going to turn out that that set characterizes all or most men.

    I think Meyers Briggs gives one useful coarse grained categories. They aren’t less likely to be applicable than the ones the post refers to, as far as I can see.

    Xena, sorry to miss your amusing comments here. You are clearly not a “j”! Nor am I, despite appearances.

  13. @Kathryn :-D

    DH, I was teasing, more or less. Your course sounds interesting, and full of real world relevance.

    Rob, MRI’s as employability tests!?! That’s like using a GPS on a scavenger hunt! Talk about your brain in a vat!! That’s what I was getting at when I defended the Myers Briggs scale. Subject participation and free choice are more important than precision on matters of career aptitude. No way would I let some Frank N Furter guy in a lab coat stick me in some space-age machine to tell me what job best matches my brain waves. That’s way too Aldous Huxley for my taste.

    JJ, I may be on thin ice quoting half-remembered sources again, but I think I read somewhere that while a J at the end of an MBTI score is only slightly more common among men, something like twice as many men are INTJ’s compared to women. Then again, I said I liked the scale for its flexibility and user-friendliness. My T sometimes shows up as an F, and the scores are always extremely close. I tell the person administering the test that I taught myself how to think so I’ll have something to keep me grounded against my own impractical daydreams :-) Maybe others can work on traits that don’t work for them too?

    I think you’ve nailed it with the convergent vs. divergent thinking models, though. There are still too many debates about holistic/multi-tasking/”gatherer'” vs. linear/focused/”hunter” processing styles that categorize the former as “naturally” feminine/receptive and the latter as masculine/projective. It’s easy to see how slanted interview questions directed at teenage girls could give them the impression that one mode of problem-solving is “helpful” while the other is not. Young women with a knack for memorizing 18 people’s genealogies, while simultaneously carrying on 2 conversations AND reading a novel are often encouraged to become childcare workers or secretaries, rather than managers or researchers because of this perceived split between “go-getters” and “nurturers”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s