On Being a Woman

I’m a scientist who happens to be a woman. I have lots of thoughts about that guy at Google who penned a memo about how women are “biologically inferior” when it comes to being good at science and math.

Based on statistics compiled by the National Girls Collaborative Project, the rate of women going into science and math fields as undergraduates in college is pretty darn strong:

Women earned 57.3% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013 and 50.3% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. However, women’s participation in science and engineering at the undergraduate level significantly differs by specific field of study. While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43.1%).

Later, when women enter the workforce, the statistics change a bit:

Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.

Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (62%) and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences (48%) and relatively low shares in engineering (15%) and computer and mathematical sciences (25%).

  • 35.2% of chemists are women;
  • 11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women;
  • 33.8% of environmental engineers are women;
  • 22.7% of chemical engineers are women;
  • 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women;
  • 17.1% of industrial engineers are women;
  • 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women; and
  • 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women.

My background is geophysics (seismology). Based on my work in that field, I can tell you it’s mostly dudes. It’s not on that list but it probably hovers a little above “physicists and astronomers”. I currently work as a geologist, which has a lot more women, but in industry, is still not great (if I had to guess I’d say approximately 1 in 3 practicing geologists are women).

Women and men are both fully capable of doing math and science. That’s why you see close to 50% science undergrads on the whole, and close to 40% for physical sciences and math. What makes those numbers tank as you approach engineering and computer sciences? I have a theory, but first, an anecdote.

Looking at my personal background, I know that tasks that geophysicists do tend to be done in isolation, on a computer. You work with other humans when you need to collaborate, or when you need to go install equipment or gather data out in the field, but for the most part, you can do the bulk of your job by yourself, at a computer. Seismologists, especially the theoretical ones, stereotypically, have zero social skills. There are plenty of people on the autism spectrum in seismology, because working with computers and being sort of robotic helps a lot. (Related to this discussion, autism overwhelmingly affects males versus females, at a rate of roughly 4 to 1.)

I spent two months in Siberia gathering data. It was largely solitary work. I would gather old seismograms, look at squiggles on seismograms, note the times of the squiggles (basically, read a really squished, detailed graph), tabulate times of squiggles into large data files, take data files and run them through computer programs, edit computer programs to output useful data, take the outputted data and tabulate, graph said data, take data and plot on maps, then take plotted data on maps and compare to previously made maps, and try to conclude things about the geology. These were the skills I needed: Ability to sustain boring, detailed work in isolation; attention to detail; counting; basic math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division); more complex math and physics to be able to add to and debug the really complicated code I was using (partial differential equations and linear algebra); ability to read a map; physical strength to lift seismograms in big stacks and/or go hiking into remote areas to install equipment or gather data or samples.

When I have worked as a geologist, I would say that half of my job is solitary. I have spent a lot of time going to field sites collecting data and gathering soil and water samples. (I remember being in my 9th month of pregnancy while hiking on a many acre wooded, undeveloped site.) When I haven’t been doing field work, the bulk of my work does not involve collaboration with others. It involves reading and analyzing and tabulating data, and writing reports about conclusions from that data. The other half of my job would be talking to people on the phone, or dealing with dudes on construction sites (drillers, heavy equipment operators, laborers). I have been the only woman on a huge construction site (with over 100 men), getting really dirty, and having to lift heavy things. Those times on construction sites have been overwhelmingly positive, though I have had a few older men make my life hell for being a woman in a “man’s world”. Thankfully, the really awful guys are rare (and I was pleased to see the only one who outright told me I shouldn’t be on a job site because I was a woman get fired over his awful meanness). I would prefer to analyze data, but I do enjoy communicating with others.

My work as a geophysicist was much more isolating. As a geologist, I work with other humans a whole lot more. Both jobs involve lots of analysis, or looking at observed data and trying to draw conclusions. Just trying to understand the world from stuff we can measure. That’s the crux of science, any science.

Looking at my list of skills, I would note that most women could easily do this work. With the exception of lifting huge stacks of seismograms or having to lift heavy shit around a construction site by themselves (women are generally smaller than men and have smaller muscles in comparison) and dealing with the awful misogyny of some mean guys, I think most women could do this work.

There is a widely held belief in psychology that women, even introverted ones, value connection with other humans more than men do, and we tend to be less status-seeking. That would make sense because women have babies. Babies who don’t get attention as infants have profound developmental delays and abnormal social-emotional behavior. Connection is a very good thing there. Women also tend to be better at communicating, though that difference is slight and may be cultural more than a true aptitude difference. Whether this is true or not, working in STEM doesn’t give you as much ability to shine in those realms. From my background, I know most women don’t gravitate toward isolated, computer-based jobs (engineering and computer science and geophysics). They do gravitate towards science and math in equal numbers, though. And they both have the ability to do science and math. That much is clear.

So, the TL;DR of this? Women and men can both do science and math. Duh.

As for why women don’t thrive in STEM careers? Apparently, pushing a baby out of your vagina (or the possibility of it) tends to hurt your prospects in male-dominated fields.

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