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Is it the Money? September 11, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in life, science, university.
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Chad, over on Uncertain Principles brought up the old ‘Pipeline Problem.’ — why is it there are so few women in the field. He notes that by the a university students declare physics as a major the imbalance is already large and perhaps we should be concentrating on high school and even earlier, on grade school.

What I found interesting, however, was some of the comments seemed to be similar to the one from MaryKay (long comment, worth a read):

The first professional choices (MD, JD, DVM, etc) of women over the PhD-academic choice is fairly easily explained with an appeal to financial incentives, or financial return. Mostly, a PhD ‘doesn’t pay’ when compared to the level of academic investment required by a first professional degree.

I’ve heard this argument before. But I don’t get it. If we were to do things by strictly economic incentives then there is no way that I’d be doing what I’m doing. I don’t believe for a second that all women make a decision based solely on finances — any more than men do.

Comments»

1. Mike Procario - September 11, 2006

I discussed this topic awhile ago, when I read Phillip Greenspun’s essay on it. Here is what I quoted.

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

2. Dave Bacon - September 11, 2006

Certainly if you look at sciences versus doctor/lawyer paths through the lens of money, then there is an economic incentive to take the later. But for this choice it would seem that the incentive is nearly the same for men and women. That “nearly” is because there are also salary disparities between men and women in both carreer paths (I know this is true for lawyers, especially at the higher ranks of corporate firms, and seem to recall it also being true for doctors.) So if I wanted to make this argument work I would want to show that women are less compensated than men by a larger proportion in science than in the doctor/lawyer arena. (And even here the argument has some interesting points because a smaller disparity at a lower salary may lead to more disincentive than a mere calculation of percentages would show.)

Of course I’m pretty dense so I could be missing the point of the argument alltogether!

3. Krista - September 11, 2006

I think you’re absolutely correct; it’s certainly not the money – at least, not in any case I know about personally. It certainly wasn’t for me. Pardon me if this is a little disjointed, but I can at least give you one point of view that may be a little different.

I came from Computer Science – a heavily male-dominated field. As an undergraduate, I was really excited about CS, and upon finishing my degree (and the recommendations of a number of professors), I made up my mind to go to grad school. As an undergrad, like many who decide to go on to graduate school, I outperformed most of my classmates and was interested in something far beyond the grades. This was my passion. That I was female was completely and utterly immaterial. Sure, there were more guys in my classes, but institutionally, I think my undergraduate institution was good about creating an environment where that was really a non-issue both in and out of the classroom.

Not so at my graduate institution. I was heavily recruited by a couple of schools, and offered a fellowship at a big-name Big 10 school, which, under a lot of pressure, I accepted. I went in with every intention of doing my PhD and going into academia; my father’s a professor, so I had some idea of what I’d be getting myself into and what it really meant. I did not have many grand illusions. However, I really could not have anticipated what actually happened. I eventually left frustrated, with a masters’, and changed fields entirely (I’m now a linguist). Though many incoming grad students end up suffering from little-fish-in-the-big-pond syndrome in their first semesters, and I certainly did suffer from that, for me, there was something more to the experience that caused me to give up on it.

I left CS for a number of reasons – personal issues, extreme frustration with the department I was in, and the fact that pursuing CS elsewhere would have meant leaving an important relationship. What was, however, actually hardest for me was dealing with the constant intense grandstanding (and snide undercutting) of my male colleagues. I won’t say this happens in every scientific field – in fact, some of my female friends in physics were really shocked by the experiences I related in my own department and field – but I think it’s certainly an issue in engineering-related disciplines. I’m sure some of this relates to what Mike mentions – young men trying to impress their peers. The way men interact with each other when they are alone is very different from the way they interact with each other in fairly mixed groups; when you are a woman alone with a huge group of men, the interactions tend to be of the former type, and I think it’s very hard to find a way to insert yourself into the kind of aggressive debates that tend to take place as a result if you’re not really “part of the peer group”. This is especially true in a group of guys who are all busy trying to show each other who is the bigger technogeek, for some reason.

In my department, there was the additional issue that there always the implicit assumption that any American female in the program must have gotten there by nefarious means (institutionally sanctioned or otherwise). For the latter, I don’t entirely blame them – I saw many undergraduate women in CS engaged in flirt-for-help (or flirt-for-cheat) schemes, and these were often the women most visible in the “women in science” support groups. But as someone who didn’t get there that way, it eventually wore me down. One can only try to prove oneself amongst people who’ve made up their minds about you for so long. There was always the feeling – and this didn’t originate from me – that the women in the program were simply less capable. When you’re vastly outnumbered, it eventually gets to you.

Out of a graduate program of 150 students, by my second semester, I was the only American female (the other one dropped out, severely depressed). There were probably 10 females total. To the best of my knowledge, most were admitted as doctoral students, many left with masters’ degrees, and the majority left very unhappy.

Add to the problem of other students’ attitudes the attitudes some of the women who’ve made it in the system during less female-friendly periods; one would think they’d be at the very least sympathetic, and some truly are. But some made it because they were hard-as-nails – a man in a man’s world – and their response to the difficulties women often encounter is simply to say “deal with it”. Once, extremely frustrated, I went in to talk to my (female) fellowship advisor to discuss the hostile environment (which was also famously actively participated in by at least one of the more senior professors in the department). I was told that the only thing that would fix it would be to get more women into the program. Since they couldn’t keep the ones they had, I really wondered how they were going to manage that, and apparently their current solution involves a marketing director. I wish them luck. The answer is not to “get more women in” if the only way to do that is to lower admission standards or do anything else that compromises the value of the students you admit. You hurt the women you admit that way just as badly as you hurt the men. I think part of the answer – if this is an answer at all – is to look at the environment amongst the students. If it’s implicitly hostile to anyone, maybe departments need to find a way to make it less so; how they do that I can’t tell you, but I think more faculty involvement with the graduate students in general could have set better examples.

I will say that if I could turn back the clock, select a different CS graduate program, and try again someplace else with a less aggressive environment, I’d probably do it in a minute. I never wanted to be a coddled female, and I was – and am – interested in it the right reasons. And I should say this – I never thought of myself as a “woman in science”. I was doing science, and hey, what do you know, I happen to have two X-chromosomes! That others couldn’t see me that way is what really bothered me most.

(In the end, the funny thing is this – I’ve published more in CS since I moved to Linguistics than I did before I left. The environment is just much less evil where I am now. It makes a huge difference.)

4. anon - September 13, 2006

I’m also skeptical of the money argument. Women are well-represented in psychology and at least some areas of social sciences:

http://www.stanford.edu/group/gender/ResearchPrograms/GenderInScienceAndEngineering/Statistics.html

I can’t find any quick statistics to back it up, but also suspect that a significant percentage of people getting PhDs in the humanities and MFA degrees in the fine and performing arts are women. It seems a little doubtful that women would be avoiding doctoral programs in science as a practical matter while simultaneously flocking to such high-paying and glamorous fields as psychology and area/ethnic studies.


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