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Science Careers Blog

February 9, 2011

The Real Causes of Women's Underrepresentation in Science

What accounts for women's intensively studied "underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science"?  Not "sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing and hiring," write Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Claims about such practices, though once spot-on, are "no longer valid," they state. Women, in fact, now fare slightly better than men in the competition for tenure-track positions. Efforts to root out a problem that no longer exists therefore waste resources that could far more profitably be focused on the real sources of underrepresentation, the authors argue.

Strategies based on "current, as opposed to historical findings" about causes need to focus not on ending overt discrimination but on making institutions "responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes," especially those related to childbearing and family life, Ceci and Williams believe.

They also note scientifically talented women's tendency to prefer careers that emphasize "people as opposed to things" and therefore to enter such fields as medicine and biology rather than computer science or physics. "To the extent that women's choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem," they write. "However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women's talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem." If it exists, they say, solving it will require directing resources toward the real causes in effect today, not toward those that existed in the past.

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