The XX Factor

Sexism in Academia

What looks like a serious and important study on women in science was just released (as opposed to all the bogus studies on the degree of sexiness of ovulating women) and it found a whole lot of good news. In the past 40 years women have dramatically increased their representation in the sciences. Half of all M.D. degrees are awarded to women (and an astounding 77 percent of veterinary medicine degrees); slightly more than half of the doctorates in the life sciences go to women today – that figure was 13 percent in 1970.  But still (pace Larry Summers ) women lag in the math-based sciences such as engineering.  But the authors of the study, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell, conclude that a lot of time and money is being wasted to banish mostly non-existent sexism in the math-based sciences. They say one thing that keeps women out of these fields is an intrinsic preference for working with people as opposed to things.  They say there should be more exposure for young women to mentors in these hard sciences, but if a choice is freely arrived at, it’s not a problem. Another major issue affecting all women pursuing research-based academic careers is what they see as a conflict between their ambition and their desire to have children.

The researchers say instead of searching for the last remnants of sexism, a new focus should be on reforming academia so that women still have the highest rungs open to them, while being able to take time off for child-bearing and child-rearing. I heard an interview not long ago with Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, Carol Greider , who said that as a young researcher she had complete confidence that she could do the science, she just didn’t know if she could also be a mother. She was lucky to have female mentors who convinced her she could do both.  I hope this study gets widely discussed in academia so that universities can start making achievement more compatible with motherhood.