Chicks in science

July 19, 2006

Ben Barres, a transgendered (female->male) scientist at Stanford, wrote an article arguing that discrimination against women reduces their numbers in science. I haven’t read the article in Nature, but I’ve read many articles about the article and interviews with Barres. His main point is that women are socially conditioned to not go into mathematical fields. I don’t find this explanation very convincing. We are all socially conditioned to behave in prescribed roles. That’s the conservative nature of culture at work. However, women have defied these scripts over the last 30 years and excelled in most academic fields. Ironically, the papers are reporting that women now outnumber men in college. So if social conditioning is the culprit, why are women doing so well?

Maybe there’s something about science? Women are doing well in the biological sciences, including medical school. At my undergrad school, there were plenty of women in chemical engineering for some reason. Asian women do fine in the sciences. Schools and employers are desperate to admit/hire women. Are the men in those departments unusually hostile? The women I know in CS and EE said the men were nice. All the men I know would love to have more women in science. So I’m not sure there are any significant barriers preventing women from entering scientific fields.

In my opinion, most women find science geeks so repulsive that they don’t want to be confined in the same room with them. More broadly, our culture believes that science is interesting, but scientists are socially-inept dweebs. It’s not just women who avoid science; most men avoid science, too. That’s why American grad schools couldn’t function without foreign students. It’s a larger problem than merely “get more chicks in science”. The real issue is how to get more Americans, boys & girls, interested in science.

[For the record, I don’t believe there is any significant innate difference between men and women. Women are equally capable of excelling in all fields.]


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