Women in Math, Science, and Engineering

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[ 2005-January-18 20:20 ]

I have always been fascinated by the fact that there are so few women in math, science and engineering, while women are succeeding very well in other fields that were once dominated by men, such as law and medicine. I do not pretend to understand the reasons, but I wish I did. I also believe that it is a problem that should be solved, if possible. So, I found it very interesting that the president of Harvard made some discriminatory comments yesterday:

CAMBRIDGE -- The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

The comments themselves aren't very interesting. They are the standard sort of thing that people have been saying for a long time. The interesting part is the discussion it provoked in the online world that I pay attention to. A lot of people commented on it, and it led me to this very articulate discussion about women in math, written by a female mathematician in academia months before. The entire article is well worth reading. Basically, she says that the policy of institutions to attempt to encourage more women faculty and students are wrong:

Yet, "we must increase the numbers of women in math!" has become the dominant battle cry of mathematicians and feminists alike - the former of whom (mostly men, mostly older) typically have limited understanding of the life experiences of girls, and the latter of whom typically know next to nothing about math. [...] Bottom line - I'm unmoved by the bean-counting approach to measuring and dealing with discrimination in math and other male-dominated fields. It's a policy that requires next to zero effort on the parts of the people who support it, and that achieves next to nothing in terms of dealing with any sexism that does exist - either the sexism that results in girls (high school and younger) losing interest in math and hence not pursuing it, or the sexism that sees male university students and professors generally being assholes and hence driving away their female colleagues.

This makes me realize that maybe the University of Waterloo is on the right track. They have a program to bring junior high school girls (grades 7-9) to the university, where they participate in computer science seminars aided by female faculty and students. I've seen groups of them twice, and once they were assembling their own PCs from the bare parts, and another time they were creating basic 3D animations on computers. I would have loved to do stuff like that while I was in school, and hopefully it makes some of these kids think about the computer science/computer engineering fields a little more seriously.

An interesting side note: The article describes asking male faculty why they should hire more females, and one of the common reasons she receives is "diversity." She asks them why exactly they should want diversity, and they frequently say something along the lines of "women are more sensitive." A male mathematician explains the real reason why we need more women in science, engineering and math:

It's not so much that math and science need more women, but that by discouraging women, either by overt sexism or by a simple lack of role models, we are throwing away a source of [...] talent.

I could not have said it any better.