Lack of Women in Physical Sciences- It Is Not a Choice If They Don’t See The Options

6 Dec

Two weekends ago I read an editorial by Margaret Wente published in the Globe and Mail. The article titled “Gender parity trumps excellence in science?” was a response to a recent report “Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension.” The report by the Council of Canadian Academies was commissioned due to the lack of female researchers in the 2008 Canada Excellence Research Chair program.

I appreciate many points raised by Margaret. I agree that government policies are often very short-sighted and include not much else other than “handouts” that actually could contribute to prejudice against female students or scientists (handouts are ridiculous – I would like to think that I received my scholarships and grants because I was capable of producing high quality research, not because as a data point I made the government look better). Often times discussions regarding gender issues within physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics (PCEM) involve only women, although this is slowly changing. On a less but somewhat relevant note, I have also seen female business executives making sexist jokes against their male counterparts – exactly the kind of behaviours that we women condemn when they are done by men.

But to say that there is no problem with the lack of women in PCEM is rather ignorant. In her article, Margaret says that

Nowhere is there a hint that one reason more women aren’t entering these fields is that maybe they don’t want to.

Is that the explanation we are going to use to stay status quo? Do we truly think that we have done what we can, and this lack of females in physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics is not because young girls lack role models or mentors in these fields, not because they lack the confidence to head into them, not because they don’t see  them as options? Does it make any sense if we apply this same rationale to other issues in education, such as the relatively low participation rate in higher education for students from low income families? This reasoning does not work for me in any contexts.

Don’t get me wrong. I approve of doing more to recruit young women into science. I love it when girls take the prize at science fairs. Today, women get 24 per cent of all the PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, computers, engineering and math. Academically, they do just as well as men and often better. That’s great. Or is it? Should we aim for nothing less than 50-50? By the way, should we do the same for kindergarten teachers?

If 50-50 is not the magic number, then what makes 24% the one? And, why don’t we discuss the benefits of having males take up career paths traditionally considered by females – I have male friends who are nurses and daycare teachers and they enjoy their jobs. Or, is that also something that we should consider as “that’s just the way it is?”

Margaret’s article reminded me of the following video

Most of us, both males and females, are brought up a certain way and are expected to follow certain social norms. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a household where I was told that I could be who I wanted to become, and my toy bin was a clear demonstration of it: Lego bricks, Barbie dolls, Voltron robots, and a doctor’s kit (I admit that I was a tad spoiled :P). My upbringing in the end influenced the confidence I have in myself, my ability to hold my ground when I am challenged by someone (either male or female), and my eventual decision to go into science. But even with that I wish I had mentors in physical sciences or computer science – I likely would have gone into physics or computer science instead, if I had the chance to explore my options better.

My point is, it is not a choice if they don’t see the options.

There is an issue with the lack of females in physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. There is a desperate need for longitudinal data regarding female scientists in these fields so that we can assess the situation better (see postscript). At the same time, we should keep in mind that males are also subjected to gender pressures. Perhaps it is time that we involve everyone, male or female, in the discussion of gender roles and start looking at long term resolutions to make our society more competitive as a whole.

Postscript: This problem was pointed out by the committee in the report mentioned earlier in this post. I once worked on a grant proposal and had difficulty myself finding such data for Canada.


12 Responses to “Lack of Women in Physical Sciences- It Is Not a Choice If They Don’t See The Options”

  1. Computer-Information-Systems December 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Reblogged this on Information-Systems.

  2. Joyce W December 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    Did it ever occur to Wente that some of the women who don’t “want” to go into demanding careers don’t because of the lack of social infrastructure to deal with the increased burden put on women compared to men when it comes to parenting?

    • Terrific T December 6, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

      Indeed the lack of social infrastructure plays a part in this. That’s one of the reasons I think the discussion needs to involve both genders. Policy makers are not all women, plus policy changes affect both genders, so it will be difficult to promote changes if we only include women in the discussion.

      Thanks for the comment & the link to the Forbes article!

  3. lesleyevansogden December 7, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Seems pretty clear to me that she didn’t understand the data in the report very well. To say “Nowhere is there a hint that one reason more women aren’t entering these fields is that maybe they don’t want to,” clearly indicates that she doesn’t understand the fact that the problem is not women entering research careers — more than 50% of those in PhD programs in Canada are women. There are several graphs in the report that show the drastic attrition of women between grad school and the highest rungs of the academic ladder. During that time frame, women are leaving academia in droves. To infer, as she seems to in her statement above, that this is all because they never wanted to be there in the first place, seems highly improbable. This was my blog piece for Nature on the same report…

    • Terrific T December 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your blog post Lesley, If we look at PCEM fields specifically the number of PhD graduates is 24%; however, the same leaky pipeline issue you mentioned in your blog post applies. And since PCEM fields start out with a lower % (in comparison to >50% in other fields), the situation looks rather grim…

  4. Terrific T December 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    For those interested in this issue, here is a great post summarizing some research done regarding gender bias at a higher (university) level.

  5. Zakiya December 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    As a stake holder in youth development programs for girls this hits home. For too long society’s views on math and the science had infiltrated to chalk those fields up to boys things. By the time girls are in the 4th grade made and science is thought of as just too difficult and girls go on to other things. As adults we should aim to devleop well-rounded girls who are not afraid of challenges and difficulties when it comes to the maths and sciences.

  6. jason February 12, 2016 at 1:32 am #

    Hi! I’ve been following your site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Austin Tx!
    Just wanted to tell you keep up the good work!

    • Terrific T February 12, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

      Hey thanks Jason for the shout out! Slowly coming back to blogging…hopefully will have more to come.


  1. Lack of Women in Physical Sciences- It Is Not a Choice If They Don't See The Options | UC Davis iAMSTEM | - February 4, 2013

    […] Two weekends ago I read an editorial by Margaret Wente published in the Globe and Mail. The article titled "Gender parity trumps excellence in science?" was a response to a recent report "Strengthe…  […]

  2. How is gender bias in science studied? I. Surveys and interviews | Science, I Choose You! - July 9, 2013

    […] And I disagree with Margaret in my blog post: Lack of Women in Physical Sciences- It Is Not a Choice If They Don’t See The Options […]

  3. How is gender bias in science studied? IV. The future | Science, I Choose You! - December 10, 2013

    […] double-edge sword: If you are not aggressive and successful, people think that it is your fault and your decision to not stay in science. But if you are ambitious and aggressive, people think that you are not approachable and […]

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