Reporter Examines Gender Gap in Math and Science

Scott Simon talks with writer Elaine McArdle about her recent Boston Globe piece, "The Freedom to Say No." The article examines how when given the choice, women who excel in science and engineering often choose to go into other fields.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ever since experts became aware of a gender gap in science and technology, they've been trying to figure out who's to blame. Often the blame has been placed on old fashioned sexism. What amounts to a boys club in many sciences and technologies that excludes women. But a recent article in the Boston Globe suggests that the answer may be women in western societies have so many opportunities, they freely choose another field.

The writer of that article called "The Freedom to Say No" is Elaine McArdle. She joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Ms. McArdle, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ELAINE MCARDLE (Writer): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You described two separate research projects that seemed to come out at the same conclusion that men and women make different choices. Let's talk about the Vanderbilt project first where scientists, I gather, took a look at what happened to 5,000 mathematically gifted boys and girls over 30 years.

Ms. MCARDLE: That's right. The two researchers there started more than 30 years ago looking at students were very gifted in math and had scored very high on the math SAT and then followed them over the next decade to see the career choices and educational choices that they made.

SIMON: And?

Ms. MCARDLE: Well what they found was that the men tended to go into engineering, math, and computer science and then women tended to go into medicine and biological sciences or not to be in science at all.

SIMON: And what were some of the motivating factors?

Ms. MCARDLE: One of the interesting findings was that women who are very, very good at math also tend to be very good verbally so that their career options are broader than men. Men who are very good at math tend to not be as good as women in verbal skills. So that a woman who's tremendous at math could be a doctor, could be an engineer but she could also be a lawyer or she could do something entirely different altogether.

SIMON: You also site the research of someone named Joshua Rosenbloom who's an economist at the University of Kansas. What was his project?

Ms. MCARDLE: Joshua Rosenbloom developed a study that looked at computer careers, IT careers to look at why there were fewer women in that field than men. And what he found, what he and his colleagues found was that the single biggest factor was preference, what women prefer to do at work.

SIMON: Now would it be fair to say that women just enjoy working with people in greater percentage.

Ms. MCARDLE: That is what both of these studies found. The IT study, for example, found that most of the time women prefer to work with other people or other kinds of organic situations where men most of the time prefer to work in inorganic situations, manipulating tools and that kind of thing.

SIMON: You described another study by the Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker that compares countries with more or less freedom of choice for women and what they wind up doing in their careers. What did she find?

Ms. MCARDLE: That was particularly interesting in that you might assume that in a country where women were given complete freedom of choice or near to it in careers that they would end up making the same decisions that men did in their careers. What she found was that it was actually not that at all. That in countries where women had a lot of educational opportunity and a lot of freedom of choice, there was a bigger gender gap and the careers that they went into.

SIMON: Now there are some people who look at the same numbers and draw different conclusions. Why don't you bring us their arguments too?

Ms. MCARDLE: Naturally anyone who looks at this kind of study and these kind of results gets concerned because you worry that it will be used or leaned upon to allow sexism to continue in various fields. What these researchers as I talked with them emphasize - they are not saying that sexism does not exist, they're saying however, that in the rich stew of someone's career choice, preference is something that should be paid attention to that has not really been considered at all.

SIMON: Ms. McArdle, thanks so much.

Ms. MCARDLE: Thank you very much. It was really enjoyable.

SIMON: Elaine McArdle is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her article "The Freedom to Say No" was published in the May 18 edition of the Boston Globe magazine and she is co-author of a forth coming book in September, "The Migraine Brain."

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