Gender Grudge Match

Diversity has become an industry in academia over the last few decades. The concept is omnipresent, embedded in everything from the curriculum to residential life programs. There has been an explosion of university diversity officers, and many professors have staked their careers as researchers and teachers upon the existence of overt racial or sexual discrimination that limits opportunities. The American Association of University Professors even devotes an entire periodical to it, Diversity in Academe.

Yet, the type of discrimination all this focus is supposed to address has, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaurs. As a result, the industry must continually find ways to justify it existence, often by finding bogeyman issues under the university bed.

One such non-issue is the supposed lack of women in science and technical fields, to which Diversity in Academe devoted its November edition. But if the lack of women was once a problem, it no longer is: Sue Rosser, the provost at San Francisco State University, who is one of the prime drivers of the movement to get more women involved in science careers, fully acknowledges that “academe continues to improve for women” and that women are choosing “careers in the sciences” more than ever.

But that is not enough for her, and one wonders if anything will ever be enough. Despite the increase in women, she suggests that the “old issues [of bias] remain with new facets and faces.”

Writing one of the lead articles for Diversity in Academe, Rosser bemoaned the fact that “only” 41.9 percent of all doctorates in science and engineering in 2010 were granted to women.

But just because only 41.9 percent of Ph.D.s in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are awarded to women does not by itself signify that the deck is stacked against them. In fact, it may signify just the opposite, since 41.9 percent of all STEM doctoral degrees is a whole lot of degrees—over 100,000 annually. That the percentage does not equal or exceed the percentage of women in society cannot be said to signify bias; it is unlikely that women could earn so many terminal degrees if real serious discrimination—the type that prevents students from pursuing their dreams—were pervasive.

Another argument made by Rosser is that increasing the number of women in the STEM professions is good for society, that “more gender diversity will mean better science.” The main thrust of this argument is that women operate in different realms and ways than men do; their absence means that key knowledge is also missing. There is some truth in this, primarily in the medical fields concerning women’s health.

But she tries to back up the claim by pointing to inventions made by women: the folding crib, disposable diapers, and baby-changing stations. With the possible exception of disposable diapers, these innovations do not require extensive scientific knowledge. And any woman could have come up with the idea for disposable diapers, multiple degrees in science or not; and male scientists could just as easily tested different materials for the best absorption qualities.

And while female doctors and biological scientists are likely have greater insight into health problems specific to women, there is no reason to increase their numbers. They already earn a majority of the terminal degrees in biology and medicine—53 percent in 2010 to be precise. And 59 percent of the terminal degrees in allied health care subjects, such as nursing, as well. Women’s dominance is particularly marked in veterinary science, where they receive roughly three-quarters of all doctorates.

If current trends continue, there might be concern for the lack of male doctors. After all, if an imbalance one way is bad, shouldn’t an imbalance in the other direction be bad as well?

But it’s not medicine and biology that she is concerned with. Women only received 22 percent of the Ph.D.s in computer science and engineering in 2010—and that is unacceptable to Rosser and the other writers in Diversity in Academe.

Of course, the disparity in those fields is the result of choice: women are certainly free to enter those fields but choose not to.

It is hard to downplay the importance of intrinsic interest—the joy of doing or learning something for the act itself rather than for a reward—in people’s career choices. The writers in the Diversity in Academe seem to understand it. One, Robin Coger, the dean of the College of Engineering at North Carolina A&T, said the one of the two factors in the “decision to pursue a STEM major” depends on “desire to pursue that discipline” (a mix of “personal capabilities” and “the preparedness to succeed” is the other).

Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College wrote, “in America, we encourage our young people to follow their passions. If they perceive an academic discipline as uninteresting, they are unlikely to enroll in those courses in college.”

Unfortunately, instead of realizing the true significance of her observation, Klawe then made a case for finding more ways to get young women interested in computer science and engineering instead of respecting their decisions to pursue other careers.

Rosser and the other authors also claim the disparities are due to an environment that ranges from hostile to unwelcoming. They call for all sorts of ways to attract girls and women to the world of technology, primarily through greater exposure.

Yet a lack of exposure may not explain the disparities in interest in technology, for boys seem to gravitate towards it naturally. Ben Gose, a staff writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, inadvertently backed up the likelihood that girls who have been exposed to technology lose interest as they mature. He cited a professor at the University of Alabama who ran a summer computer camp for interested children. At the middle-school level, roughly half the participants were girls; by high school, girls were only 15-20 percent of participants.

It is very likely that our interests may be a lot more “hard-wired” than the Diversity in Academe writers would have you believe. Studies have long shown that small boys prefer playing with trucks to playing with dolls while girls prefer dolls—something that seems obvious to most of us. Some researchers have attempted to explain away these differences by claiming that society’s disapproval plays a role in their choices—that boys choose trucks and not dolls because it is more socially accepted. Yet other studies using non-human primates suggest that our choices are embedded deep in our DNA—male monkeys prefer masculine human toys and female monkeys prefer feminine toys just as human children do.  Society’s approval or disapproval obviously had nothing to do with it.

Such hard-wired tendencies would also explain women’s emerging dominance in the biological and health sciences.

Efforts to direct more girls and young women into technical fields that they currently avoid may backfire. Encouraging girls to enter STEM areas that would not be their natural choice, to compete against boys who are avidly interested, is hardly the best use of those girls’ talents—either for themselves or for society. An efficient society is one in which the “comparative advantage” of individuals is maximized—in other words, one in which we all use our natural talents that are most useful to the rest of society, relative to the talents of others.

In other words, if Person A is equally good at both biology and computer programming and better at both than person B, and Person B is better at biology than computer science, the most efficient use of their combined talents is for Person B to concentrate on biology and for Person A to concentrate on writing computer programs, rather than for Person B to concentrate on computer programming, a skill for which he or she is not suited.

Intrinsic interest plays an enormous part in comparative advantage—we develop talents in specific tasks and subjects because we are interested. When we have an interest in a subject, learning comes much easier.

But for some, the goal is not just to enable individuals to freely pursue their interests and achieve their maximum potential. Nor is the movement to increase women’s participation in the sciences still about addressing real grievances. Rosser’s increasing urgency in the face of so many actual advances in STEM participation by women—“the stakes are higher now than ever before,” she claims—is somewhat baffling. At least, until you realize that her real aims are political and personal.

One thing she really wants is “having women in key decision-making positions.” It also seems that she wishes to inculcate a sense of victimhood for political reasons. This sense of victimhood is necessary to support the Ivory Tower’s massive diversity infrastructure.  Hence the intense focus in Diversity in Academe on petty statistical disparities, such as the fact that women have received 45 percent of the recent STEM Ph.D.s granted but only 37 percent of the assistant professorships.

The movement to increase women in STEM careers, at heart, introduces an “us versus them” mentality and a bitter spirit of demographic scorekeeping into an area where objectivity and talent have always held sway. In the end, it will hurt women—and everybody else—more than it will help.