Why Men Dominate Math and Science Fields

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Social scientists have studied it, lawyers have tried to fix it and post-feminist society is over it. But women are still outnumbered by men in math, science and engineering fields.

Most overt discrimination against women in the sciences has been reduced or eliminated in recent decades through legal, academic, corporate and government measures. But a climate that is less than fully friendly to women remains, and its texture is often still so taken for granted that it tends to be invisible.

The proportion of women receiving doctorate degrees in science and engineering has increased slightly in recent years, and in 2003, women accounted for 30 percent of the doctorate degrees in science and nearly 9 percent of those awarded in engineering, according to a National Science Foundation report.

However, relatively few women continue on to high-level faculty positions. In 1972, women made up just 3 percent of full professors in science and engineering fields, a figure that inched up to 10 percent by 1998, according to the NSF.

A recent study, detailed in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, claims to bring a new feature of gender bias to light. Women are less likely to participate in science and engineering settings in which they are outnumbered by men, found Stanford University psychologist Mary Murphy.

[Cool Math Games]

"A lot of the situational cues that might seem innocuous to some have real important meaning and effect for others," she said.

Science barriers

The finding adds to a slew of reasons that have been put forth to explain why male-dominated fields are, well, dominated by males. These have included socialization in which girls are taught, directly and indirectly, to steer clear of studies and jobs typically pursued by boys and men. In addition, past research has revealed an unconscious bias at universities where evaluators rate resumes and journal articles lower on average for women than men.

The responsibilities of family caretaking still fall disproportionately on women's laps. And so women often choose the stay-at-home-mom position or their household responsibilities make it nearly impossible for them to meet the long hours required for a high-level faculty position.

Stephanie Pincus, founder of the RAISE project, a campaign to increase the number of women receiving science-related awards, agrees with the findings. She notes that in order to bring gender equity to science fields, the social and cultural aspects of the fields must be revamped.

"We have to start looking at the cultural factors, the social factors, that discourage women from math, science and engineering," said Pincus, a graduate of Harvard Medical School who did not work with Murphy on her latest research.   Boys club?

Murphy and her colleagues recruited and paid 47 Stanford undergraduate juniors and seniors (25 males and 22 females) to participate in their study. All of the participants had majors in math, science or engineering. Individually, the participants watched two videos disguised as advertisements for a Math/Science/Engineering summer leadership conference.

While identical in content, the seven-minute videos showed around 150 people in either an unbalanced gender ratio (3 men to 1 woman) or a balanced ratio of 1 to 1. 

While watching the videos, students were equipped with body sensors that measured their physiological responses, including heart rate, skin temperature and level of sweating.

Female students showed faster heart rates and more sweating while watching the gender-unbalanced video compared with the gender-balanced video. They also reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference when gender was skewed toward men.

Women were able to recall significantly more details about the video and the test room when they watched the male-skewed video. For instance, they could remember science-related objects placed throughout the room, such as academic journals and a portrait of Einstein. 

"What I think is going on is that women are really vigilant to the 'who, what, when, where and why' aspects of the situation," Murphy told LiveScience. "They're trying to figure out whether they belong as a group here."

These identity-related cues, the scientists say, could interfere with their mental abilities and could explain why women show lower performance in fields of math, science and engineering.

Women welcome

Men responded in the same way to both videos in terms of their physiological responses, attention to settings and their sense of belonging.

However, like women, the men were more interested in attending the conference when the ratio was gender balanced. Murphy and her colleagues suggest men and women may have different reasons for their draw toward a male-female balanced setting.

“Women probably feel more identity-safe in the environment where there are more women. They feel that they really could belong there," Murphy explained, "while men might simply be attracted by the unusual number of women in these settings. Men just aren’t used to seeing that many women in these settings.”

While Murphy didn't study how this phenomenon could affect men, she noted that men might stay away from female-dominated fields, such as nursing, because of a sense of not belonging.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.