Are Professors Undercutting Women in STEM?

…and, if so, which professors?

It has often been asserted that (male) professors in engineering, math, computer science, etc are causing a shortage of women in STEM by projecting the attitude that women are unwelcome in their fields.  I’ve always thought this seemed rather unlikely as a common thing–though no doubt it happens in some  cases–if the assertion is meant to apply to the events of the last 20 years or so.

Comes now Barbara Oakley, herself a professor of engineering:

Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.

My colleagues in the humanities unthinkingly malign STEM in front of me. Their bias has become so deeply ingrained that they don’t think twice. My students tell me it’s worse when I’m not around.

She also argues that the differing patterns of math vs verbal skills in men and women tends to make women more susceptible to the anti-STEM shots taken by the professors of which she is speaking:

Many studies, including a critical review by Elizabeth Spelke in American Psychologist, have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in math and science. But as Mr. Reges notes, women tend to do better than men verbally—a consequence of early developmental advantages…Consider a student who gets an A in every subject. Let’s call her Nadine. She’s the type of student who could excel in whatever she chooses. Her engineering professors might be telling her that an electrical engineering degree is a great career choice that will open doors and pay well. But her non-STEM professors may be telling her something completely different: “You won’t use your fantastic writing skills. And besides, you’ll just sit in a cubicle crunching numbers.” Nadine can begin to feel she’s untrue to her full set of talents if she picks engineering. So Nadine jumps the STEM ship.

Only anecdotal evidence is presented; still, given the level of bitterness that seems to pervade today’s academia, the STEM-slamming behavior that Oakley describes doesn’t seem all that unlikely.


10 thoughts on “Are Professors Undercutting Women in STEM?”

  1. I would not be surprised if it were true. It’s a long time since I was in college.

    None of my kids were interested in STEM fields, some of which I blame my first wife who told our kids that they should never be a doctor because doctors were never home. That was untrue but my oldest son told my second wife that he was told that by his mother.

    My high school girl friend graduated in Chemical Engineering in 1960 from Purdue. We went to different colleges and she married a fellow I knew from high school. Then they moved to California and we used to socialize a bit.

    Almost two thirds of medical students are now female so they seem not to be inhibited but Engineering is not as warm and fuzzy as Medicine is, especially now that it is being feminized.

  2. I have discussed this with bethany king from who is a female in STEM and has thought about this quite a bit. I will pass this along to see if she’s is interested in commenting. I only have sons myself, so I’m not that knowledgeable about the topic.

    I didn’t see anything like this at William and Mary, but that was in the 1970’s and the college has a science requirement for everyone. My wife was in Biology and Anthropology, and I dated girls who went on to get advanced degrees in physics, cartography, and information systems. None ever mentioned anything like this.

    Not that I doubt the story in the least. College was still an expanding concern at that point and the pinch had not come. There is more competition between departments now, as the jobs are less secure.

  3. In his famous and controversial 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”, C P Snow implied that the science tribe was generally more respectful of the humanities than the other way around…and also had absorbed a lot more of the other tribe’s knowledge.

  4. Thanks AVI. I got two STEM degrees (engineering and stats) and the public perception that these programs are cesspits of misogyny has never matched my experience. Maybe I’m just lucky, but it always struck me that the fixation on complaining about those fields seemed at little odd.

    I generally like Oakley, and I think she’s probably relaying this accurately. I did get comments from professors and students outside the engineering school about studying something “more interesting” or “wanting to work more with people”. I don’t think this was always just about engineering, but it seemed to be routed in an entirely different approach to college. I wanted to do something where I could use my aptitudes to pay my bills, and those with critical comments seemed to think I should be “expanding my mind”. The one women’s studies class I took to fulfill a social science requirement involved reading books, watching movies, and talking about our feelings about them. I remember telling someone “it’s what I think of as a lazy Saturday, but I’m getting a grade for it!”. Fun, but I was pretty sure no one would pay me to do it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the “you should be thinking great thoughts” ethos was behind a lot of this.

    Additionally, I think that the idea that STEM topics can be fun or enjoyable is not widely accepted. The idea that I actually enjoy obsessively playing with numbers was not an enjoyment that most of them seemed to share, so I think part of it’s a true lack of perspective. Heck, I started my whole blog because I actually was struggling to find people who wanted to keep talking about where stats came from. It’s not for everyone. To your point about science absorbing more of other fields….well most STEM folks I know read books in their free time, but I know very few non-STEM folks who do science in theirs.

    There’s economic anxiety to contend with. I checked out this list from Chronicle, and engineering professors are the most highly paid profs outside of the law schools, earning an average of $30k more than the liberal arts professors. That’ll get some resentment going.

    Finally, her last assertion matches the research I’ve seen. People with high verbal skills tend to avoid science careers, and women are more likely to have high verbal skills. Anecdotally I would say that there were quite a few men in my degree program who clearly were great at math and bad at verbal skills, but I met very few women about who I’d say the same. Her idea that this means women end up more susceptible to the pressures of “don’t you want to do something more interesting” seems reasonable to me.

  5. Liberal Arts faculty snobbery toward both STEM and business was palpable even back in the late 60’s when I was in school.

  6. Comparative advantage suggests that a person who has *both* excellent math skills and excellent verbal skills will make different optimal career choice from a person who has excellent math skills but mediocre verbal skills.

    Also, women are on the average more extraverted than men…I don’t know to what degree extraversion correlates with verbal skill, but it’s certainly nowhere near 100%. And extraversion vs introversion certainly matters in career choice.

    Thinking of a woman I know as a salesman and sales manager, marketing technology-intensive products. She is hyper-extroverted, and I was surprised to learn that she began her career as a programmer. I have no way of knowing how good she was as a programmer, but would the world really be a better place if she had been heavily propagandized to remain in programming rather than switching to the selling game?

  7. Bs King

    Additionally, I think that the idea that STEM topics can be fun or enjoyable is not widely accepted. The idea that I actually enjoy obsessively playing with numbers was not an enjoyment that most of them seemed to share, so I think part of it’s a true lack of perspective.

    The ability to focus on one thing only and not get distracted- which some may call obsession- helps contribute to success in STEM. I also found that the only way I could succeed as an undergraduate in STEM was to cut out nearly all outside reading. Focus!

    My mother had a MS in Biology, so I never had the viewpoint that STEM wasn’t for females.

    My Chem Eng cohort in the ’70s was about 1/5 female. A female was the best student. Someone who take 15 minutes in class to do homework which takes others several hours even while working together- is obviously at the top. Male and female students worked together. At least one couple resulted. One female classmate is now an engineering prof.

    My sister, as a Chem Eng student, didn’t have any male/female problems as a student or as a practicing engineer.

    I know a Biology prof, who as a paper/pulp engineering freshman at a Big Ten school in the late 1960s,had problems. She told us that other engineering students shunned her, and profs suggested that she take up something else. I would contend that getting a doctorate in Biology would indicate that lack of capability wasn’t why her engineering profs made that suggestion.

  8. My college/graduate school experience was a long time ago, so I suspect my perspective is somewhat dated.

    I also did my undergraduate work at Georgia Tech so at the 24-1 men-to-women (boys-to-girls) when I started, it’s probably also skewed.

    At Tech, it was quite typical that people started in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Physics and very quickly started making the transition to Civil Engineering, then Industrial Engineering and finally, Industrial Management. The not-very-funny joke was that the IM folks were the ones that would be your boss when you graduated. I don’t recall any special pressures, but being male, I can probably safely claim innocence.

    Also, when I was there, or maybe it was just me, the humanities courses were just requirements to be fulfilled, not really subjects w/anything important to learn from. That part I do regret. I do remember some snarky t-shirts about the “North Avenue Trade School”, but that was in 1972.

    The comments about the disdain the humanities professors voice over STEM reminds me of what at Rice we noticed as the “SE vs Academ” dichotomy. My recollection is that then it was fairly good-natured.

    As another thought, I came to understand Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as Pirsig’s attempt to reconcile that split.

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