The Gender Gap in Science and Engineering

During my first run at graduate school, nearly half the students in my engineering research lab were women. My newly appointed and tenured adviser, a decorated researcher from Bell Labs who was eventually awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, was a woman. And looking back at my time there, most of the friends I made were women and the same was true of my undergraduate experience studying electrical engineering. As a result, I feel that even as stereotypical (Asian) male engineer, I well understand the problems that women in science and engineering experience.

This is in spite of the fact that while electrical engineering is not the ‘testosterone ghetto’ that a modern physics or math department is, most EE classes aren’t exactly brimming with today’s female youth either. As a guy among guys, we had always wanted women in our classrooms — if only to bring variety to the fraternity atmosphere. At the same, we self-consciously tried not to frighten away the fairer sex toward the liberal arts.

I’m not going to lie — there absolutely is a dose of sexism and discrimination regarding women and their ability in science. The important question is why this continues to exist in spite of the efforts of women’s groups and the recent spotlight shone on academic hiring practices. The Lawrence Summers ‘brouhaha’ at Harvard has led to a reexamination of why math, science, and engineering research appears to be one of the last bastions of sexism, an overwhelmingly male-dominated field when undergraduate colleges overall are now enrolling and graduating more women than men.

As a result, some politicians and women’s groups are calling anew for a “Title Nining” of federal science funding — in which research money is guaranteed to be free from sex discrimination. In some scientific fields, sex discrimination can still run deep, where the department institutions remain a fossilized artifact from the last century and women are clearly and plainly discouraged from participating. There is no question such transgressions should be punished and these are cases where the loss of grant money is a just penalty.

However, using the power of the purse to enforce gender equality is a heavy-handed tactic that could lead to awkward and undesirable quota systems. In departments where the culture and influence of a handful of professors is the problem, withdrawing research funds and the use of quotas would be clumsy tools disproportionate to the transgression. This would lead to the further marginalization of women in science departments and an aggravation of the “imposter syndrome” that women in science and engineering already experience too well.

Worse, the “Title Nining” of science research loses sight of the real problem weighing on women today — the scientific research profession itself. The path to achieving research stardom is fraught with uncertainties about location, pay, and success. Academic research, more than many professions, is intensely personal, relying on the tutelage and guidance of a handful of advisers for a better part of a decade. Horror stories abound of how easily a budding research career can be sunk due to the irrationality and whimsy of a respected professor, whose word would always hold sway in front of an academic committee.

New research shows that there are multiple factors that combine to dissuade women from the sciences and research, none of which have to do with discrimination. A recent study from Berkeley lends credibility to the assertion that got then-President Summers in trouble — that there is a greater variation in the math abilities of boys than girls. While the overall ability of boys is, on average, indistinguishable from girls, there are more boys on the high ability end of the scale as well as the low end. When one starts looking at the top tail of that distribution curve (say, the MITs and Harvards of the world), the gender gap could be explained by the difference in the spread of abilities.

To compound this problem, another study finds that women who are technically proficient are also more likely than their male counterparts to be good at other skills, like writing and communications. This opens up the doors to other careers, providing more options for women to find a fulfilling and happy livelihood. Their male classmates, on the other hand, are limited to the occupations that their narrow skill set provides — including scientific research.

Topping it off is the old problem of raising a family. For female researchers, there has always been the clash of timelines between the tenure track calendar and the child-raising deadline. Maternity leaves and benefits for graduate students and faculty alike have become more generous over the years. But as more women graduate from the sciences and peer into their future research career, they are noticing that the band-aids for helping women down the tenure track are insufficient. Women are thus choosing more flexible and fulfilling jobs so that down the road they won’t have to sacrifice education and career for family. Lacking an overhaul of the academic system, women are continuing to opt out of science.

Discrimination has been and will continue to be a problem for women in the sciences but ultimately, science research as it is practiced today is a demanding occupation. Given their abilities, women are freely and intelligently choosing careers that are more satisfying than scientific research.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division.