One more thing on John Tierney…

As a follow-up to his column last week, Tierney published a follow-up on how women aren’t being discriminated against, they’re just not as good at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields as men. I am going to try to be short in my response, because I have two very interesting projects in arithmetic geometry to get back to working on (something I would much rather be doing than getting riled up about John Tierney).

Before I go back to talking about the actual issue, I’d like to point out the language in the following paragraph near the end:

Aided by the continuing federal grants, researchers and advocates have developed theories that women are being held back from pursuing careers in engineering and physics by “stereotype threat,” by “implicit bias” and by a shortage of female role models and mentors. Yet none of these theorized barriers prevented girls and women from dominating the fields that most interested them.

Now, through out the rest of his column, when Tierney finds data he likes, he uses language such as “Researchers found that ____ was true.” Note that when he is referring to ideas he doesn’t believe, researchers are suddenly joined by advocates, and now they develop theories and theorize barriers, rather than study data. And I don’t think I even need to mention the scare quotes. My point being (okay, I may have stolen it from Ellenberg’s blog) that it is ridiculous how biased the language in Tierney’s column is. See below for some examples on how to do it in the opposite direction.

Here are what I read to be his main points:


  1. Women are not/no longer being discriminated against in applying for grants and in getting hired. In fact, they may be at an advantage.
  2. There are less women in math because they simply choose to focus on family rather than careers.
  3. Women like people! And everyone knows that scientists are loners who spend all their time in a basement lab.
  4. The government is wasting my tax dollars by spending it on researching a gender bias which doesn’t exist.
  5. “I can’t see how we’re helping [girls] with scare stories about the awful discrimination they’ll face. ”

Here are my responses:


  1. Even if all his studies show the complete picture when it comes to grants/hiring and are accurate (which I don’t believe they are), they can hardly be proof that women are not being discriminated against/being disproportionately in the million other things that affect life in academia.
  2. This doesn’t exactly explain why women are more likely than men to give up their careers for family (which may not be an issue of discrimination but is an issue of living in a gendered world in which the expectations placed on women and men are extremely different). It is also important to note that the entire employment system we have was built . None of this (his argument or my counter-argument), of course, is specific to STEM fields, nor does it explain why women are disproportional in math and computer science, but not in biology. In arguing that it will not help for universities to become more flexible, Tierney “academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries with smaller gender gaps” – perhaps this is a reason to consider other factors?
  3. Bullshit. Liking to work with people is not mutually exclusive with being a mathematician or scientist. Some of the best work in science, especially in fields such as physics or astronomy, is done when large groups of people work together and collaborate on projects. Even leaving that issue aside, why is it unlikely or ridiculous that what we like might, maybe be influenced by social factors (including columns in the New York Times) which tell women that they are just not cut out for the hard world of science?
  4. I should be very careful. There are lot of gendered factors which play a huge role in influencing the gender gap, and would probably not be called discrimination or bias. It’s all in the little things, and those little things add up. An encouraging or discouraging teacher is enough to make someone love a subject or give up for the rest of their life. If teachers are just a little tiny bit more inclined to encourage men, that can make a HUGE difference on who wants to study science. If girls never see female role models in the form of mathematicians, we can’t say this is gender bias directly, but it certainly plays a role. And these details are certainly worth studying and paying attention to. (As for the complaint about the misappropriation of funds, since when is it news that people burn money on stupid shit?)
  5. I can’t see how we’re helping them with scare stories about how they just aren’t as good as boys.

Here is the bottom line when it comes to these things: The US has a huge problem recruiting scientists from its own population. We have some of the best universities in the world, with many of the very best (foreign and domestically raised) researchers in the world. These universities nurture students, these researchers have children who inherit their abilities and strengths. We should be able to build off of this. Instead, we got beat by North Korea in last year’s IMO, and since 1990, only two U.S. citizens have been awarded the Fields Medal (compared with 6 Russians, 4 Frenchmen, 2 Brits and 1 each from New Zealand, Belgium, Japan, and Australia). This problem with teaching and raising is true about BOTH genders, but it is more so about women. And this isn’t true about other countries: at the International Mathematics Competition (a college-level mostly-European competition which sorts teams by university not country) these last two years, the U.S. teams (from Michigan and Princeton) were about 1/5 female. To be fair, most of the teams were completely composed of boys (men? It’s hard to consider 20-year-olds adults). Would you like to know which country sent both the most number of participants and the highest number of girls? Iran. In fact, when talking to some of the girls one of the Iranian teams, they were completely shocked that I was the only girl on my team.

There are a lot of reasons for this and some of these are so subtly entrenched in our society that changing them seems impossible. For example, a 1999 study by researchers at UW-Madison found that both male and female academics (in this case, psychologists), were more likely to hire a candidate who was male, and more likely to give them a higher starting salary. And the million and one things which effect children as they are growing up. Because many of the influential factors are subconscious, and not easily changed, all the more reason that we should be extra careful with the things we do have control over, and open up discussion to work on those things we seem not to. This is exactly what the bill in Congress that Tierney is so upset over is meant to do. Bring people in STEM fields together to discuss the various ways that men and women are influenced differently, and what things we can do about them. That Tierney is upset about this makes me both sick at the fact that he does not find this to be an important enough issues, and a little confused as to what he has against discussion.

P.S. In my classes, I have never had a university-level math or physics instructor who was female. What do you think this does?

(Disclaimer: Yes, it’s all biased towards math. Can you blame me?)

Edit: Here’s another excellent link discussing how academia may rely on “boy’s clubs” for important awards and decisions.

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