While women make up 33 percent of the faculty at doctoral institutions today, they are significantly underrepresented in math-intensive fields such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science. In 2007, women full professors in these fields numbered only 4.4 to 12.3 percent of faculty at the top 100 US universities; they comprised only 16 to 27 percent of assistant professors. In a new study in American Scientists, Cornell human development professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci argue that motherhood is the reason.
Why Are Women So Underrepresented in the Math-Intensive Sciences?
Usually three other factors — ability differences, occupational and lifestyle preferences and sex discrimination — are cited as the reason for women being underrepresented in math-intensive fields. Williams and Ceci review these while arguing that they are unlikely causes.
Surveys have indicated that women tend to be more interested in careers involving living things such as medicine, biology, animal science and psychology, rather than fields such as computer science, mathematics, physics and engineering. Nonetheless, in 2005, women and men were almost equally represented among college math majors; women indeed tend to get better grades in math courses. While sex discrimination in publishing, securing grants and being hired for academic jobs was a factor historically, a 2004 – 2005 survey by the National Research Council committee found that “women applicants were actually more likely to be interviewed and offered tenure-track jobs than were their male competitors, and that there were no differences in tenure and promotion rates for women and men.”
Motherhood Can Be “Detrimental” to Women’s Careers in the Sciences
A desire to have children and for family life is “the single most important factor in explaining women’s underrepresentation” in the math-intensive sciences, say Williams and Ceci. Noting that “women’s optimal fertility is between ages 18 and 31,” the authors write that, for a women seeking an academic career in these areas, the “most significant physical and emotional challenges of their lives” occurs at the same time as she encounters the “most significant professional challenges” in a tenure-track job.
Photo by Argonne National Laboratory
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