Women's Choices, Not Discrimination, to Blame for Mediocre Progress

Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 4:04 PM EST

Math, engineering and science-related professions remain male-dominated fields, and the assumption has long been that gender discrimination plays a role. But a new study by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, both professors at Cornell University, reviews 20 years of research on the dearth of women in academia in these math-intensive disciplines, and finds that overt discrimination against women is a thing of the past.

The shortage of women in these fields, the authors find, can not be attributed to bias on the part of those who hire, review scholarly papers, or bestow grant money. Instead, the authors claim, the relative lack of women can be attributed to three factors:

  • A preference among young women-even women that show great potential in mathematics--for careers that emphasize people rather than things. This accounts for women's 'burgeoning numbers' in medicine and biology, the authors write, and their 'smaller presence' in computer science, physics, engineering, chemistry and mathematics.
  • The timetable of academic life. "The tenure structure in academe," the authors write, "demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements, a feat not expected of men. When women opt out of full-time careers to have and rear children, this is a choice-constrained by biology-that men are not required to make."
  • The fact that more men than women seem to have an extremely high aptitude for math, as measured by SAT scores. Since the mid-1990s, the representation of boys at the top .01% of SAT math scores has been about four times that of girls. But if ability as measured by the SAT were the only determining factor, the authors write, we would still expect to have more tenured women in the hard sciences.
The authors scoured the studies, looking for evidence of discrimination against women, and essentially, found none. Among their myth-busting findings:
  • Women and men professors were treated equally by funders, according to several other large-scale studies, in several countries.
  • Women who apply for tenure-track jobs at top research universities are actually slightly more likely to get those jobs than men.
  • There were no sex differences in the acceptance rates of papers submitted for publication in scholarly journals. Men and women with "similar resources and characteristics" published the same amount of work. But, the Cornell professors noted, women are more likely to have jobs that are teaching-intensive as opposed to research intensive, which means that, overall, women publish less.
Yet, female math and science professors are far less likely to hold tenured slots and be published in journals. Why is that? The study points to choices women make, due to work-family issues. Almost one out of three--31%--of female graduate students said it was "important" or "extremely important" to work part-time for some part of their careers, compared to just 9% of their male colleagues. In practice, that means more women take teaching-intensive jobs with fewer research opportunities.

Do you think these findings hold to other industries? Are women being held back not by discrimination but due to their desire to work part-time and other factors?

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photo courtesy flickr user stuartpilbrow
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance editor and writer. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.