Monday, May 03, 2010

Women in the Sciences: It's More Complicated than You Think

Originally posted to Feministing's Community section. I've modified the original text a bit because it had typos.




We have frequently discussed the reasons why so few women are in the sciences, rightly chalking up some of it to sexism. We have also recently talked about the particulars of women-only spaces as a respite from men who do not respect boundaries. I would like to speak to both of these ideas, if I may.

My anthropologist friend and I recently spoke again at some length. She talked about the time when she was the process of visiting colleges, mulling over where she would enroll in the fall to begin her Freshman year. She had scholarship offers from both co-ed and single-sex schools, and seriously considered enrolling at a woman's-only college. After visiting, however, she decided against it because while the humanities department the women's college was of excellent quality, the science and mathematics departments were appallingly bad. She found evidence of this same issue at every single-sex school she visited. At the time, my friend intended to major in engineering, a discipline that requires one to take a large number of high-level math and high-level science classes. She chose a co-ed school instead because it provided a much more well-rounded education both in the humanities and in the sciences.

As she talked about this, she proposed an interesting means of addressing this problem, suggesting that single-sex schools and colleges for both girls and women that primarily teach math and science should be established. I believe that this is a fascinating idea that should seriously be considered on a large scale. I bet there are already a few similar schools already in existence scattered around, but I think if our objective is to encourage female participation in fields long dominated by men, strategies like this would be worthwhile. Doing so would directly address the question of why it is that few women are in the sciences, negating the way things are now, which steer women into career paths where such subjects aren't highly emphasized.

It is unfortunate that this sexist discrepancy gets reinforced in the structure of women's colleges. Those who seek equal representation between men and women in every career field might contemplate reconciling the benefit of a single-sex school provides with its current academic limitations. At this juncture, the question I pose is whether men and women are genetically predisposed to gravitate to certain majors and areas of interest, or whether this is purely a result of societal conditioning. While I believe wholeheartedly in the the latter view, I wonder if biology factors in even a little to the process, and if so, how and to what degree. Notice I haven't said that I believe one gender is better than another at a particular subject, merely that I am wondering about academic leanings and areas of interest and how gender factors in to it. Men and women are similar, but they are also different, and I seek to discern the baseline biological differences, so that everything else can be easily called into question and after having done so, changed for the better.

No two people are the same. This includes both men and women. Though I am a man, I would have found a single-sex school intolerably stifling, but I know that some would have found it much to their liking. I personally am of the opinion that co-ed schools provide a sense of necessary gender balance, but I do also concede that some people thrive in a single-sex school. Temporary isolation in an educational setting would be very helpful for some, but living in a work world surrounded by men is a learned skill that only improves with time. I have always believed that single-sex arrangements for women for any reason might be seen to be temporary, since when Feminism's goals are attained, we might all work and live together side by side.


Liberality said...

It's not a black or white thing, it's a gray area, a little bit of both. I think social influences are the most causative, as the brain is very plastic as we are finding out from the research.

Comrade Kevin said...

A very good point. It at times is scary to me just how plastic our brains are.