Normally I avoid writing about the topic headlined here, not because it’s not of interest or not important, but because the usual discussions it attracts seem to me ideologically-driven, containing far more heat than light. The New York Times Magazine however has just published an excellent article on the subject, by Eileen Pollack. Pollack describes in detail her experience as a physics student at Yale, including that of having a senior thesis supervised by the great representation theorist Roger Howe. This includes her decision not to go on in the field, with this description of the perception of the Princeton graduate program:
By the start of my senior year, I was at the top of my class, with the most experience conducting research. But not a single professor asked me if I was going on to graduate school. When I mentioned shyly to Professor Zeller that my dream was to apply to Princeton and become a theoretician, he shook his head and said that if you went to Princeton, you had better put your ego in your back pocket, because those guys were so brilliant and competitive that you would get that ego crushed, which made me feel as if I weren’t brilliant or competitive enough to apply.
I think Pollack very much gets it right, including emphasizing many of the subtleties of this problem, and urge anyone interested in this to read the article. A couple comments though about two aspects of the issue she doesn’t really address.
- There is a serious effort at an institutional level to have an impact on this problem, but it takes place mostly only at specific points where the institution can measure what is happening. In particular, in my experience academic departments do take seriously the issue at the point of the graduate school admission process, with often a careful attempt to identify promising female applicants. This isn’t at all inconsistent with Pollack’s story, which explains why she didn’t even apply to graduate school.
At the point of hiring faculty, university administrations often provide serious incentives to departments to hire women (i.e. by providing faculty lines that can only be used for female or minority candidates). Again, this is often past the point where the problems Pollack identifies have already worked to make the number of viable female candidates small.
- Pollack repeats the claim of a serious shortage of students in STEM fields:
Last year, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology issued an urgent plea for substantial reform if we are to meet the demand for one million more STEM professionals than the United States is currently on track to produce in the next decade.
something which is actually only a shortage of talented people willing to work for low wages. She opens her article with the all-too-plausible results of a Yale research study showing that
Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s.
This is good evidence that attitudes (women’s as well as men’s, since they were just as biased) remain a problem. But Pollack doesn’t comment on the absolute value of the salaries chosen as typical ($26,508 for a lab manager with a science bachelor’s degree), which is less than what a typical Starbucks barista makes here in New York (see here, where my location automatically gives the NYC data). Part of the story may well be women’s differential willingness not only to deal with competitive ego-crushing Princetonians, but also abusive, badly-paid working conditions for many parts of the science job market. If the pay, hours and coffee are better at Starbucks (and your co-workers are nicer…), lots of people are going to reasonably make the decision to work there instead.
Update: As anyone could have predicted, allowing anonymous comments on a topic like this soon becomes untenable. On a more positive not, Sabine Hossenfelder’s reaction to the NYT article is highly recommended.
Update: From Fabien Besnard
I’m in a special position with respect to this question, since my institution, l’école polytechnique féminine was formerly for girls only. Up to the 1980′s, the vast majority of french female engineers were formed in this “grande école”.Then, since the other grandes écoles were gradually more and more open to girls, the EPF began to be perceived not as “the engineering school for girls”, but “the engineering school for girls who can’t go anywhere else”.It reacted by opening itself to boys, while keeping its name “féminine”. Few boys came at first, but the proportion gradually rose, until a point where the EPF was not anymore perceived as a “girl only” institution. Then the boys massively came. There is a now about 60% boys among the students, a proportion which is roughly constant for the last 10 years.
The proportion of girls is still the highest in a school of engineers, and when you ask a student why she came, a very frequent answer is that it is precisely because she knew there would be many other girls. Another interesting aspect is that among the top 25% of the students, the proportion is rather inverse : 60 % of the best students are girls. The reason is that the best among the girls could have applied to one of the more selective “classe prépas” but refrained to do so for fear of being confronted to a stressful environment, with a lot of competition and… boys. Many of them seem to underestimate their chance of success in such an environment.
Lastly, in the final year of our formation (which is the fifth), the students must choose an option that will largely determine their future career. We offer a wide range of choices, from aeronautics to medical engineering and computer sciences. It is a fact that girls do not evenly distribute themselves among these different options. However, there is a fair amount of girls in each one of them.
So my experience largely confirms that the “negative feedback” effect of having too many samples of a single sex in a class acts as a magnifying glass on the small differences of taste between boys and girls, which nevertheless do exist. Also, the girls tend to underestimate their talents.