Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why aren't there more women in STEM professor positions?

Why aren't there more women in STEM professor positions?

As a female undergraduate math major interested in pursuing a career in higher education, this question consistently comes up in discussion. But rarely is this issue given explanations besides "men are naturally better at mathematics" or "women like subjective topics, not objective ones."

Firstly, many people have tried to explain the lack of women in STEM fields as a biological issue. Essentially, claiming that having XY chromosomes makes you unquestionably better at analytical reasoning. This claim would certainly give a definitive explanation of the issue at hand, however, it doesn't seem to be the case. 

As a student who attended a public institution in elementary and high school, a gender gap in mathematical performance has always been discussed. This disparity seems to rear its ugly head in every standardized testing situation: many claim that SAT and GRE scores indicate that male students consistently outperform female students on the quantitative portion of each exam.  For example, the following is a graphic of the trending test results of the math portion of the SAT from 1972-2012:

The true magnitude of SAT math sex differences

Many observers would claim that this 32-point difference in exam performance significantly and undeniably illustrates that the mathematical skills of male students is higher than those of female students. However, tests of significance can often be misleading. A statistical evaluation of the SAT data tells a different tale:

"Because significance tests can sometimes be misleading, scientific journals typically require other statistics to assess the importance of a result. The most common are assessments of effect size-tests that tell you how large the effect is.  Using the data released from the SAT board (Mean male = 521, sd = 121; mean female = 499, sd = 114), it turns out that about 3% of the variability in SAT math scores can be attributed to the sex of the test-taker; 97% is due to other factors—presumably differences in training and natural aptitude in math." (Cummins, 2014)

So,  there is no evident difference in the mathematical aptitude of male and female students. Men having a natural ability for mathematics over women has essentially been denounced by most educational and cognitive psychologists. Then why do women make up less than 25% of the STEM workforce? If biological sex does not seem to be a factor, gender disparities may be at play here.

Women receive approximately half of the STEM doctorates awarded in the United States, in fact, a study of top STEM graduate programs revealed that most have a nearly 1:1 ratio of male to female students participating in their programs.( Then, approximately 45% of entry-level STEM professor positions are held by women. All of these steps to obtaining a teaching position in a STEM field seem to be somewhat evenly dispersed between men and women. Yet women only make up only 21% of science and engineering full-time professors. What happens to the gender disparity on the tenure track? The tenure track to become a full-time professor has no pit-stops, once you get off track, you cannot reenter. The pressure (internal or external) for women to start families occurs at approximately the same age as the start of a tenure track. Many professional women are encouraged to forego their careers in exchange for being the primary caregiver of their families (a gender issue that affects all fields of study, not just STEM). Many women who plan to start families abandon the pursuit of a full time position and opt for adjunct, annually renewed positions. So, the pressure of starting a family occurring simultaneously with the tenure track process explains the extreme drop in full-time, female, STEM professors. 

Something else to think about:

Are women actually underrepresented in STEM fields? This graphic implies that this is not the case, but that women tend towards the biological and social sciences. What could be causing this?