Monday, 27 February 2017
May / June 2010
The Gender Equation
Bookmark and Share
Print E-mail
Monday, 26 April 2010

Zeroing in on why women avoid math-intensive fields

When Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard, made the provocative suggestion in 2005 that the innate aptitude of women might explain their under-representation in the sciences and engineering, Cornell human development professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams were far removed from the controversy. Neither of them had ever studied the emerging field of sex differences, nor did they have strong opinions on the issue.

At the time, the longtime partners and collaborators were both serving on the editorial board of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal Ceci founded to help scholars forge consensus on contentious topics. After Summers's words sparked an outcry across the country, Ceci commissioned six prominent gender researchers representing the opposing sides in the debate—nature versus nurture—and asked them to collaborate on an article reconciling their differences. Three years later, when it became clear the group could find little common ground, Ceci and Williams decided to tackle the issue themselves.

The result was The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls, a book that some say has fundamentally altered the debate on the dearth of women in math-intensive fields. Published last September by Oxford University Press, it reaches a surprising conclusion: the reason why so few women hold tenure-track positions in engineering, physics, and mathematics departments is simply because they choose not to enter those fields—and if they do, they tend to leave them in large numbers. "The biological and cognitive differences are small," says Ceci, the Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology. "They're there; they're real. But they have shrunk over time, and they may continue to shrink to the point where they won't exist. Far more important are women's preferences—what they like to do—and women's lifestyle and caretaking choices."


Despite the lack of women in math-based academic departments—ranging from 8.8 percent of mechanical engineering professors to 16.3 percent of economics faculty—they are not in the minority in other professional fields. Women now constitute 50 percent of graduates from medical schools, nearly 75 percent of graduates from veterinary schools, and 68 percent of psychology PhDs. This inconsistency stems from a tendency some researchers believe is manifested in the behavior of infants, when girls show more interest in people and boys are more focused on objects. Over time, these tendencies translate into the different careers boys and girls choose, beginning in middle school. "Very few junior high girls say they want to be an engineer," Ceci says. "Lots of boys do. And this is true even when they have similar math aptitude."

Though girls earn better grades in math classes in middle school, high school, and college, boys excel on math aptitude tests by the end of high school. Among the top 1 percent of scorers on the SAT-Mathematics, given to college-bound seniors, males outnumber females by two to one, a ratio that has remained steady for decades. Yet Ceci and Williams note that among students with extremely high math scores, females are more likely than males to also have extremely high verbal scores, affording women more career options.

Another reason for the prevalence of men in math-intensive fields is the child penalty that women pay: it is nearly impossible for a woman to leave academia for several years after giving birth and then return to a tenure-track position. "In a high-powered career, even if you took one year off, that would be a kiss of death," says Williams, an educational psychologist whose research focuses on intelligence.

Based on a review of 420 articles and book chapters, The Mathematics of Sex has drawn praise from both liberal and conservative scholars, who say that the authors' thorough research makes it difficult to challenge their conclusions. "This book is a game-changer in my view," says Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association and an educational psychology professor at Temple University. "It's a watershed work, given the furor over Lawrence Summers's comments." Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., says what makes the book unique is that the authors approached the issue without any preconceived bias. "This book is revolutionary," she says, "because it's honest and rigorous on a topic where there's a lot of sloppy research, specious findings, and missing data."

Since the book's publication, Williams and Ceci have moved on to the next stage of their research: identifying strategies to increase the number of women entering and remaining in math-intensive fields. In October, Williams received a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, which will study various aspects of female experiences in scientific careers. Over the next four years, the institute will canvass higher education policymakers and administrators to determine whether it would be feasible to create, among other options, part-time tenure-track positions that would allow more time to prepare for tenure while raising children. "There are a lot of women in academics who are bitter because they were not able to have a family," says Williams, noting that she gave birth to her two daughters after she had already received tenure. "And women who did have a family ought to be able to contribute in some way."

At a time when the United States needs more engineers and scientists, Ceci argues that universities should consider changing the time-clock of the tenure process, especially since they often pay $50,000 a year in stipends and tuition for students in doctoral programs. "We spend a tremendous amount of money training these women, and then they work part-time or not at all," he says. "After training for five or six years, if someone doesn't take up that career, it's a loss to that woman—and to society."

— Sherrie Negrea

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by kizito, September 08, 2011
Excellent article. My wife is a living example after graduating with a Msc in Applied mathematics the only job that came her way was an on call part time teaching position! What is in store for her with a phd only God knows
written by CK, November 10, 2011
The article compares the percentage of women FACULTY in “math-based departments” in the top universities to the percentage of GRADUATES from medical and veterinary schools, and in psychology. The “inconsistency” starts to look a little different if one looks at faculty only or graduates only. Yes, women get about 68% of PhDs in psychology. But, in 2007 they were only 37% of faculty at the top 100 psychology departments. See

Write comment

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 April 2010 )