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Women In Science: I Am Doing My Part, Apparently…

May 18th, 2009 · 10 Comments

A new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper:

Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap

“Why aren’t there more women in science? Female college students are currently 37 percent less likely than males to obtain a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and comprise only 25 percent of the STEM workforce. This paper begins to shed light on this issue by exploiting a unique dataset of college students who have been randomly assigned to professors over a wide variety of mandatory standardized courses. We focus on the role of professor gender. Our results suggest that while professor gender has little impact on male students, it has a powerful effect on female students’ performance in math and science classes, their likelihood of taking future math and science courses, and their likelihood of graduating with a STEM degree. The estimates are largest for female students with very strong math skills, who are arguably the students who are most suited to careers in science. Indeed, the gender gap in course grades and STEM majors is eradicated when high performing female students’ introductory math and science classes are taught by female professors. In contrast, the gender of humanities professors has only minimal impact on student outcomes. We believe that these results are indicative of important environmental influences at work.”

(sidenote: How often do you see the words sex and science together?)

I’ve written before about gender differences in math, and I was willing to accept the finding that, while men and women were observed to have the same math ability on average, there were more men on the extreme ends of the spectrum. Now I am curious as to how much of that observation can be attributed to high-performing females not having female professors/teachers around as positive role models. (Note that the abstract above says that the presence of female professors had an effect on not only field of study but also performance, and that there was no negative impact on men from having a female professor.)

I have two bachelor’s degrees in the above fields, and I used to be a math TA, so clearly I am doing my part. 🙂 I must say that I really was shocked at the gender imbalance that I encountered when I got to grad school, even for economics. Also, I definitely notice the whole being female thing much more in grad school than I ever did as an undergrad, even though my computer science department was only 10-15% female. If one believes that there is a social benefit to having both genders adequately represented in the sciences, there is clearly a positive externality to having female faculty members (or a negative externality on male faculty members, depending on your perspective). The efficient thing to do when positive externalities are present is to encourage production…so who wants to give me a full-time teaching job? Don’t all jump at once, please…

I used to teach a few sections of a very large (800-900 students) introductory economics class at Harvard, and I am now curious as to whether the above results hold for students in that course. (No jokes about economics being a social science rather than a real science please, or I may have to hunt you down and send a person larger than myself over to kick your ass. I’m all about the division of labor, clearly.) On that note, if you need me in the next few days, I will be in front of the computer playing with various statisical software packages. kthx.

P.S. I think attitudes like this may be part of the problem, no? (I think I have posted this before, courtesy of xkcd)

Tags: Gender

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul R. Dorasil // May 19, 2009 at 4:35 am

    That’s fascinating. I downloaded the paper and will read it soon. I wonder if the same holds true at traditionally female universities where a male professor may be the only male in the classroom. It would be great if there was enough data to control for sexual preference. I also wonder if the national origin of the professor might make a difference. Recently, there has been an influx of professors who were born in highly patriarchal cultures. Perhaps these male professors have a different effect than professors born in places like the US and Europe where gender-equality is more valued. I once had a professor from India who had a clear bias against the females in my class. That sort of experience would surely be discouraging.

    I don’t think that intentional discrimination on the basis of gender is ethically defensible but certainly there are other things we can do. Maybe we should focus on helping males and females communicate more effectively with each other in order to close the gap. It’s interesting that male students don’t seem to be handicapped by a female professor. Perhaps female students feel intimidated approaching a male professor. If so, we may be able to close the gap by encouraging male professors to be more approachable and teaching female students that it is good to form relationships with professors of both genders.

  • 2 Eric // May 19, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    The only woman in my first graduate econometrics course was the professor, and my international trade course only has two female students. I’m sure women were in the minority in my undergraduate economics courses, too, but I never really noticed it until the percentage went to (or near) zero.

    It is probably also the case that department specific disparities are not as apparent to undergrads since they have a more diverse class schedule and interact more with students from throughout the university. Grad students tend to be much more siloed.

  • 3 econgirl // May 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    From my mother:

    Okay—-so a comment re: Women in Science. I can remember a male calculus professor (as if there were any other kind at that time) telling me, “You’re really good in math—–for a girl.” Hmmmm…the only girl in class……the only A on that test…..and I’m only good enough for a GIRL!!!! Damn straight gender makes a difference! (My apologies for ignoring glass house rules.)

  • 4 VD // May 19, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Why does no one ever get mad that males are similarly underrepresented in fields like education, psychology, and nursing? Is someone looking into this obvious gender inequity?

  • 5 econgirl // May 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    @ VD: I pointed this out in the earlier post, which can be found at:

    I think I used the example of librarians- it’s not like people are clamoring to understand why most people that gravitate to this field are mostly women, though my guess is that (at least where “library science” and such is concerned) the work requires a pretty high level of organization, attention to detail, writing, etc., which women are typically good at, or at least have a desire to be good at. It’s also not like we are pushing for men to be more nurturing so that they can and will want to be nurses and social workers. I argue that this inequity *should* be looked into, since it is inefficient for cultural/societal biases to push people away from fields that they are best suited for. I think the unfortunate reality is that people don’t care because these types of professions are not vewed as being particularly high on the socioeconomic totem pole.

    From what I’ve read, women are starting to outnumber men in a number of medicine and law programs, so I am curious as to whether we will see movements to address inequity in those fields at some point, since they “matter” (I use that word as sarcastically as possible) more.

  • 6 Economist in Training // May 20, 2009 at 12:16 am

    As a female economics students, I hope I can strive to be more than this statistic. It apparently will be a shock to leave my women’s college and go to grad school in a co-ed environment, where I apparently will be in the minority gender-wise.

    In response to Paul, I don’t notice a difference when the professor is male or female at a women’s college, new male professors though are noticeably nervous though.

  • 7 Dan L // May 21, 2009 at 11:40 am

    econgirl gives VD’s question way too much credit. The question is stupid, for obvious reasons. VD wants to cry reverse sexism, but the fact is that there IS significant attention given to the so-called “boys crisis” (which may or may not exist).

    Btw, a classic xkcd comic! It pretty much sums up everything about the issue.

  • 8 Jessica H // May 21, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Love this post, I can definitely relate. I’m in my last year of an economics degree at an all womens college. Even though it’s all womens and the strive is to explore what you want, the majority of students are there for nursing. Theres maybe 10 of us graduating each year with an econ degree. We have more female professors than male, but I personally like both. I think the molding begins in grade school and carries on to high school. That’s where students determine what they like to study. One bad math class.. and you’ll never like math again. One mistake that you get made fun of (like in the comic) that’s the end for you. At least that was my experience with female friends.

  • 9 D // May 25, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Should we be worrying about the % males in Nursing? Why not allow women to choose the fields they want to go into and not make them feel like Nursing is shit compared to Econ, Engineering, or Physics.

  • 10 Lisa // May 27, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    My daughter is currently working on her Masters in ACC. Since she intends to go on eventually for her PHD in said Accounting, she is watching first hand the gender disparity. First of all, very few people graduate yearly with a PHD in ACC. One of her professors is 68 years old and was the first female to obtain this degree in the country. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. While there isn’t much use for this degree, theoretically, unless you intend to teach, it is still mind boggling. She currently attends the University of Kentucky. She had recieved a full scholarship to UF for the PHD program, but due to living and traveling expenses decided to stay close and save. She had the advantage of attending a prestigious all girls private HS where encouragement was the given and no “Girl” jokes were allowed. 🙂 Yes she was on the Math team and their 6 females consisted of triple the entire female representation at the State Competition. They won.

    I know this is too long, but I have repeatedly seen this first hand, so my ire is up. Your posts are wonderful. Your credentials are amazing and I pale in your shadow. However, it is worth noting that in my life the following has been said to me at 6 inch range. After graduating with an exceptional GPA as a NMF,( I had a perfect score in science and Math.) I entered a Calculus class at UK. I was told, after finding out that I was the only girl in said class, “This class is for engineers and therefore well above your probable aptitude.” I was 17 and intimidated. I have remembered that one for the last 29 years. Second. The head of the ECO department at NKU after being asked to sign my change of major form to ECO mentioned, “That I might be underestimating the complexity of Economics as a Major.” Then he read my transcripts and recomendations. I was one of only 2 females who graduated. This is not a major college by any stretch and I am working hard to help change this attitude from within, but it shows that these attitudes have not changed and are acceptable in most venues. It took me a long time to recognize my own potential. I didn’t actually graduate until I was 46, this last Dec. My daughter convinced me to “grow some balls.” For years I certainly didn’t want to rock any boats; I am done with that. Thank you for writing and living in a way that will show everyone that potential is not gender specific. I have another daughter for God’s sake.

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