Attended the book reading of ‘Mathematics of sex’.
The book ought to be valuable for all interested in the gender question though the data is specific to the US, issues dealt within it should be relevant anywhere. Definitely contains lots of thinking material for parents with girls.
The review goes something like this:
Nearly half of all physicians and biologists are females, as are the majority of new psychologists, veterinarians, and dentists, suggesting that women have achieved equality with men in the workforce. But the ranks of professionals in math-intensive careers remain lopsidedly male; up to 93% of tenure-track academic positions in some of the most mathematically-oriented fields are held by men. Three main explanations have been advanced to explain the dearth of women in math-intensive careers, and in The Mathematics of Sex, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams describe and dissect the evidence for each. The first explanation involves innate ability--male brains are physiologically optimized to perform advanced mathematical and spatial operations; the second is that social and cultural biases inhibit females' training and success in mathematical fields; the third alleges that women are less interested in math-intensive careers than are men, preferring people-oriented pursuits. Drawing on research in endocrinology, economics, sociology, education, genetics, and psychology to arrive at their own unique, evidence-based conclusion, the authors argue that the problem is due to certain choices that women (but not men) are compelled to make in our society; that women tend not to favor math-intensive careers for certain reasons, and that sex differences in math and spatial ability cannot adequately explain the scarcity of women in these fields. The Mathematics of Sex represents the first time such a thorough synthesis of data has been carried out to solve the puzzle of women's underrepresentation in math-intensive careers.
Here, I am trying to put down the highlights of the more interesting part of the reading -the Q and A session with authors Stephen and Wendy.
Audience: Maybe two men and many women and girls who don’t need a book or statistics to tell them what they live through as most came from math intensive departments. They were there to confirm or contest the major observations in the book.
Wendy: It is a non issue with lopsided numbers in any area as long as it was because women made an informed decision about not being in those careers, however it has to be analyzed and rectified if the numbers reflect some unconscious and conscious biases towards making and sticking it out with these careers.
Stephen emphasized that girls were better or equal mathematicians right through school, and the first drop in numbers begins in the choice they make for undergraduate courses, the ones who persist and opt for math intensive graduate courses continue performing just as well as the boys. After Ph.D, females are still on par with their male colleagues in job placements, renumeration, publishing, advancements etc. However, in their thirties a major bleeding out of females from math intensive careers happens.
Wendy took over to say, the need for having a family and unwillingness to relegate childrearing to third party (nannies) is one of the big reasons for this age/stage specific drop out. Analyzing this it is evident that women cannot postpone their decision to bear children if they want to avoid infertility issues with older age. However, this period also critically co-incides with the time when high productivity is expected of young faculty and women take the drastic decision to drop out of careers that they had invested and excelled in all along. Usually never to get back to the system.
Is this an individual loss or loss to the country? The country has invested equally heavily in the training of these women and just when they are about to make a contribution, they reach this impasse. The female attrition is a big loss to the country just as it is to the personal.
Responses that I recall which were interesting, amusing and insightful:
1) A girl from math dept: is there data to show fall in female representation as one goes higher in heiarchy of elite institutes? if the usual explanations don’t account for this, would it indicate sexism is more prevalent in these places?
Others from the same dept : “Of course !”
2) What about non math-intensive careers, why is there no drastic fall there, the biology and early to mid-career demands for high productivity must exist for say law? How have the women overcome this?
Authors answer: Those careers are equally demanding and one does see a fall in the highest levels and few women make it partners, yet such jobs seem to be a little more friendlier to decisions of family and work. And Wendy wondered if it has also to do with female preference for careers that provide an interface with people, making it bearable to hang on in tough times, unlike math-intensive careers which can be isolating.
(I found the answers unsatisfactory. None of this explains 93% male domination.)
3) Another student from math dept, detailed how she started to see fewer and fewer females as she went into higher levels. And contested the data in the book that there were equal number of females at the graduate level. She said in her experience she found herself usually among the very few or sometimes the only one.
Response from a much older faculty: “Looks like little has changed from my time ” to the younger women’s chuckling and sound of weary laughter at all these revelations!!
4) A male student: How come motherhood becomes so important that women take such decisions, the man is the parent too, why does he not have the same response?
Authors: It is changing to some extent.
A mother of 1 year old: “Have to run to pick up my baby (it was after 5.30pm), but want to say my bit, something happens post childbirth, maybe hormones or something that clicks into the mother not the father.”
Student to this:” Really? Interesting! what hormones does one need to clean the bathroom?”
Wendy: When women give up the decision to have families/children then they are exactly like their male colleagues, so none of theories on brain apititute, biases etc are needed.
5) Question: In the 6% of women who have managed to remain in their careers and reach the top positions, is there data on how many of them chose not to have families and how many have families?
Authors: No clear data, but most of these women are non American, immigrants from European countries, where math ed. is always a push. So, once identified as good in math, the entire system gets them to focus only to enhance their aptitude in it.
Response to this: How does that explain the US having lower numbers of women excelling in math?
Wendy: That is a paradox, one would expect women from more patriarchal societies (Turkey), with lesser freedom to make choices would lead to them not taking up math-intensive careers but the data shows otherwise. One wonders if when presented with choice, women inherently choose what is more satisfying of their need to be in non-isolating careers?
Indicators of solutions (from random reading over the years):
Studying department structures and cultures-
Departmental attrition data from one state show that the difference between male and female rates of undergraduate attrition from computer science varies by institution. This analysis suggests that departmental factors are important in attrition from CS. Some CS departments inhibit female persistence at the undergraduate level while other departments promote persistence. The observed variation encourages research that compares departmental characteristics such as structure and culture, and relates them to departmental outcomes. Shifting the research focus to departmental characteristics and outcomes will identify effective methods for retaining women.
By taking a hard look at work-family policies-
Employee Assistance Plans, dependent care flexible spending accounts, and emergency child care are associated with increases in the percentage of associates who are female. Second, these policies are linked to reductions in the turnover rates of associates. This, combined with the first finding, indicates that work-family policies help retain female employees. Overall, these findings suggest that firm provision of work-family policies can play an important role in retaining female employees without hurting firm profitability.
Additional useful material is here