Social roles vs ability: women in maths and science professions

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The great gender gap in maths- and science-based professions poses one of the most important challenges to
Despite equal ability, there are less women entering and staying in math-intensive fields
policymakers, educationalists and feminists. Not only a challenge, it is also an enigma since there is no longer any gender differences in female performance in mathematical and science subjects, according to recent research. A study published in Psychological Bulletin (March 2009) suggests that other social reasons may lie behind the significantly fewer number of women choosing a profession in science or maths fields.

The Study

Researchers from Cornell University reviewed 35 years of studies on the sex differences in mathematics and science, reviewing over 400 articles and book chapters to find an answer to the question: why math-proficient women are underrepresented in math-intensive fields such as engineering, why they choose less math-intensive fields (such as biology, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine), and why when they do choose math-intensive careers, they are more likely to drop out as they advance.

As lead author Stephen J. Ceci states, women with equivalent proven mathematical ability are more likely to choose non-mathematics fields or drop out at higher rates than men as they advance in their careers. In medical school, women represent almost 50% of all students. Despite this, women who enter academic medicine are less likely than men to be promoted or serve in leadership posts, the authors said. In 2005, only 15 % of full professors and 11 percent of department chairs were women. Non-math fields are also affected: for example, only 19 % of the tenure track faculty in the top 20 philosophy departments are women.

The evidence from the study indicated that if based purely on mathematical ability was solely a function of sex, there would be roughly double the number of women in math-intensive careers, assuming a 2:1 male-female ratio at the top 1 percent in math ability: "Women would comprise 33 percent of the professorships in math-intensive fields if it was based solely on being in the top 1 percent of math ability, but they currently comprise less than 10 percent."

The Results: Lifestyle choices

One of the most important reasons for poor represenation of women in math-intensive fields and in senior leadership positions appears to be related to motherhood and child-rearing responsibilities which coincides with the most demanding times of their career, such as trying to get tenure or promoted. "These are choices that all women, but almost no men, are forced to make."

"Hormonal, brain and other biological sex differences did not emerge as primary factors explaining why women were underrepresented in science careers," said co-author Susan Barnet. 

Several studies showed that while women are well-represented in less math-intensive fields, such as medicine, law, biology, psychology, dentistry, and veterinary science, they are still underrepresented in the top positions of these fields. They are either not on tenure track, drop off tenure track or opt for part-time positions until their children get older, the researchers found.

This has important implications for attempts to increase the numbers of women in these fields since the authors contend that institutional barriers and discrimination are not the only reasons for the low numbers of women entering and staying in these type of professions: "The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them towards other careers such as medicine and biology over mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering."

These conclusions concur with those of other surveys. One survey by the National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients in scientific and engineering fields found that women with children under 18 worked and published less than the men.


The authors suggest that universities, other institutions and companies create options for women with mathematical talents who want to pursue math-intensive careers. These could include deferred start-up of tenure-track positions and part-time work that segues to full-time tenure-track work for women who are raising children, and courtesy appointments for women unable to work full-time but who would benefit from use of university resources (e-mail, library resources, grant support) to continue their research from home.

See Also


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