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Persuasive Arguments for Why Gender Parity Matters

Today's guest post is by Anne Madoff, a junior at Harvard University concentrating (majoring) in Computer Science. Anne is the founder of the Harvard Women in Computer Science, and she is currently learning about astronomy in my Astro 16: Introduction to Astronomy course. You can follow her class blog here

“On your class blogs you’ll publish posts five times a week, and at least one of those posts will be a free form post,” Professor Johnson explained. “Write about whatever interests you in astronomy, whatever you think is important.” After class, I was talking to another student—let’s call him Todd— about our assignment. I told Todd that I wanted to write at least a few posts showcasing work done by female astronomers. He seemed underwhelmed, so I reminded him that women are underrepresented in astronomy. “Sure…I guess I’ve just never really understood what the big deal about this is anyway,” Todd admitted.

In my experience, Todd’s attitude is an incredibly common one. My major at Harvard is Computer Science, one of the many STEM fields in which we’re far from achieving gender parity. In my freshman year I founded Harvard Women in Computer Science, a group that is dedicated to building a network of women in computing across schools and industries, creating awareness of and building opportunities for women in technical fields, and promoting the importance of a technical education for girls. Other students frequently ask me questions like Todd’s (what’s the big deal about the lack of women in STEM?) since they know that I do think gender parity in STEM is a big deal. I don’t think that any of these students – a few of them women – are necessarily opposed to having more women in STEM; they simply don’t understand why getting more women into STEM is something they should care about.
Image from astro.berkeley.edu
I thought that this might be a good opportunity to put down on paper (or rather the screen) some of the questions I commonly hear and some ideas about how to respond to them.

Why does having more female astronomers benefit the field?
More diverse teams do better. It’s that simple. An Ernst and Young report cites research that concludes: “Diverse groups of people tend to outperform homogeneous groups if both groups’ members have equal abilities. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is now research showing that under the right conditions, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen completely at random will likely outperform a homogeneous group of even the best problem solvers.” Consider an example from the corporate world: A 2007 Catalyst study found that companies with the highest representation of female board directors outperformed those with the least by 53% on measures of return on equity, 42% on measures of return on sales and 66% on measures of return on invested capital. This held up across industries from industrials to healthcare to information technology.

AAS Committee on the Status of Women - Image from aas.org
What if there are just fewer women who want to be astronomers?
It’s impossible to argue with 100% certainty that there isn’t a gap in interest between women and men, but there’s persuasive evidence to suggest that an interest gap isn’t the reason we have too few women in astronomy. Consider these figures: approximately 25% of astronomy PhDs are women, and about 25% of assistant and associate professors are women, but only 15% of tenured faculty are women (figures from the AAS Committee on the Status of Women). It seems unlikely that women who are associate or assistant professors simply “lose interest” before they have the chance to obtain tenure. In a 2000 New York Times article, Dr. C. Megan Urry from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore argued, “Getting a Ph.D. in a science like astronomy is very, very difficult. You have to be in love with it, and be really interested in it and dedicated to finish. The notion that after spending five, six, seven grinding years working like dog, and then saying, 'oh, that was fun, now I choose to do something else' -- well, I don't believe it.”

So you claim this isn’t an issue of interest, but doesn’t this problem being particular to STEM convince you it might be?
Nope! Some fields that now have gender parity (or close to it) were once in very similar situations. Consider the Catalyst graph below about women as a percentage of JD enrollment. The lack of female lawyers in 1972 was not a reflection on females’ biologically destined lack of interest; it was a reflection of a whole different slew of issues. I would argue the same is true of STEM fields, like astronomy, today.

Graph from catalyst.org - Link in text above
These are just a few examples of the many questions like this I’ve been asked, and I’m always thinking about ways to improve my replies and further educate myself on these issues. Know of a really persuasive stat I left out? I’d love to hear your suggestions about how best to respond to questions about women in STEM in the comments.

Comments

Marion Dierickx said…
Very interesting! Regarding the 'losing interest' point, one possible reason why a disproportionately large number of women are leaving the field after their PhD, or even as young professors, could be related to family reasons. Women's careers tend to be affected more than their male partners' by childcare and other family duties. This might be an important factor in this disconnect observed in the percentage of women at different stages of the academic trajectory.

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