The photography of a black hole recently sparked controversy when one of the women on the large international team behind the photo was promoted as the sole creator of the image. After some pushback, the gender focus was attenuated, and the whole team was given proper credit.
However, the well-intended uplifting of women to inspire more females to enter astrophysics was ultimately misplaced: Contrary to popular belief, women are not in any way held back in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, or any other parts of academia.
In fact, the majority (53% last year) of Ph.D.s in America are awarded to women, and that has been true for the previous nine years. The ignored truth is that girls have been outpacing boys in school for a long time, and that is now manifesting itself as dominance in academia.
Although there is roughly an overall parity between the genders, there is variation in the specializations. Out of the 11 broad fields, males dominate in three areas, while women dominate in four. There exists a word for that: diversity. In a world where people are different and make different choices due to different interests, exact equity in all fields is not to be expected.
Men are indeed overrepresented in the STEM fields, but as Quillette points out, the definitions of science and technology are so narrow that they exclude areas where women dominate, such as psychology, neuroscience, biology, and health science. If these fields are included, the male dominance evaporates.
There is a people/thing dichotomy in academia, which closely tracks gender differences. Even young babies only a few months old show differences in preferences. Girls look more at faces, while boys tend to prefer to look at objects. Nine-month-old infants show distinct gender differences in toy preference. Again, the differences are stereotypical: While there are exceptions to the rule, boys tend to prefer objects like cars while girls prefer dolls.
Such an early preference formation is strong evidence of innate psychological differences between men and women, which also can be entirely explained in terms of different evolutionary histories. It is not surprising that this exact bias even shows up in academic choices. Women prefer to work with people or animals and therefore are overrepresented in “soft” sciences. Men like objects and are thus similarly overrepresented in “hard” sciences such as mathematics, computer science, and astrophysics.
A study designed to reveal hiring gender discrimination in Silicon Valley showed that there indeed was a bias but in the opposite direction of what people expected. In telephone interviews, the voice was manipulated to make female candidates sound like men and vice versa. Women with a male voice did worse in the job interviews, while men with a female voice did better.
Despite this mountain of evidence that women are not held back in academia, the myth persists that the patriarchy favors men. One of the primary reasons for this may be that STEM fields are highlighted as “problematic” due to male dominance, while health science, education, and public administration that are equally dominated by women are not highlighted with the same concern.
Perhaps it is time to finally lay to rest the myth that women are disadvantaged in academia?
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