The debate over gender and science, which helped bring down Harvard President Lawrence Summers this year, has been revived by a new report from the National Academies, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering."
The report endorses the view that the predominance of men in scientific fields is due not to biological differences and personal priorities, as Summers suggested, but to gender bias and unconscious institutional sexism. But is this an effort to find out the truth, or to stamp out heresy?
The makeup of the panel that produced the report is revealing. Chaired by University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala, who is known for her commitment to feminist causes, the panel included a number of strong proponents of the belief that women in science are held back primarily by sexism and that aggressive remedies to these biases are needed.
Noticeably absent were proponents of other viewpoints—including such female scientists as Vanderbilt University psychologist Camilla Persson Benbow or Canadian neuroscientist Doreen Kimura, who argue that biological sex differences influence cognitive skills in some areas.
The report has been hailed as a decisive refutation of what panel member Ana Mari Cauce, executive vice provost of the University of Washington in Seattle, dismissed as "myths" about women in science. A Reuters story stated, "A committee of experts looked at all the possible excuses—biological differences in ability, hormonal influences, childrearing demands, and even differences in ambition—and found no good explanation for why women are being locked out."
But a look at the report, available online from the National Academies Press, shows a much more complex picture.
For instance, the report points to the narrowing gap between boys' and girls' mathematics test scores as evidence that there are no innate differences to inhibit female success. But average test scores are not a good indicator of what it takes to be successful in the scientific field. As the report briefly acknowledges, male scores have far greater variability, with more boys clustered at the bottom, among children with severe learning disabilities, and at the top, among the highly gifted.
The report attempts to neutralize this fact by pointing to a study that found that many women and men in the science, engineering, and mathematics workforce have SAT math scores below the "gifted" level. But there's a caveat: The study looked not primarily at the highest achievers, but mainly at lower-level professionals with bachelor's degrees. If fewer average women than average men go into these fields, maybe because their interests lie elsewhere, is that really a problem?
The body of the report also supports, rather than rebuts, the view that childrearing is a major factor in gender disparities.
It cites a study that "found single women scientists and engineers [were] 16 percent more likely than single men to be in tenure track jobs five years after the PhD, while married women with children were 45 percent less likely than married men with children to be in tenure track positions."
Yet these facts are treated as a result of discrimination against people with family responsibilities and of the outmoded assumption that a scientist has a spouse to take care of such matters. Proposed remedies include more family-friendly policies. But what if single-minded devotion to work really is essential to outstanding success in science?
None of this is to say that women are incapable of being outstanding scientists—many women are, and their advances in these fields have been spectacular—or that nothing can be done further to reduce the gender gap. Cultural stereotypes undoubtedly play a role in the fact that even mathematically and scientifically gifted girls are more likely than boys to choose "human interest" professions rather than science.
We can also do more to reduce lingering prejudice against mothers who are not primary caregivers for their children, and against fathers who are. But even with these changes—which need to take place in the culture as a whole, far more than in academic and scientific institutions—the ratio of women to men in science and engineering may always remain below 1-to-1.
Ultimately, the report is a missed opportunity. It could have addressed the personal and family choices women could make to maximize their career potential, or looked at the factors in the high achievement of Asian-American women in science. (Asian-Americans are virtually ignored in all the talk of minority women in science.) Instead, it upholds an orthodoxy of female victimization. Women, and science, deserve better.
Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor and the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood. This column appeared in the Boston Globe.