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Scientists and Motherhood

To the Editors:

As the husband of another professor and a parent of twins, I agree that the demands of parenthood are a compelling reason that more women than men leave high-demand career tracks. In our culture, women still do more parenting than men, so the burden falls asymmetrically on them. I would also argue that, compared to men, women define their self-worth less through their careers and more through their children and family life, leading to different priorities. But in the few fields that are highly math intensive (such as physics, mathematics or some areas of computer science) I doubt one can exclude the possibility that a gender asymmetry in ability plays a role. Given that ability is approximately normally distributed, a small asymmetry with no practical effect in the middle of the distribution can have significant effects on the gender ratio of the small number of outliers that are suited to research in quantitative subjects. Williams and Ceci should also consider mechanical engineering, which probably loads on spatial reasoning ability and which has one of the lowest female representations. Spatial reasoning ability is very gender asymmetric, according to the data I have seen.

Steve Hsu
University of Oregon

Drs. Williams and Ceci respond:

Steve Hsu raises several important points. Data support his assertions that women—including academics—do more of the housework and childcare, and are more likely than men to define their self-concept through the lens of motherhood. Dr. Hsu also correctly notes that spatial-rotational ability shows one of the most robust and well-documented sex differences of any ability. Thus, it makes sense that the academic fields most highly dependent on this ability may show gender asymmetries that are ability driven rather than simply preference driven. The degree to which this ability difference reflects biological inputs (such as prenatal hormone exposure) versus cultural ones awaits empirical investigation.

To the Editors:

Williams and Ceci’s review of the psychological literature is insightful, and I applaud their suggestions for new policies. However, I have two quibbles with their article.

First, the name of their single explanatory factor, “choice to become a mother,” is unfortunate. It should be “decision to give priority to family,” because nowadays, with longer human life expectancies, women in the 35–45 age range must consider the needs not only of children but also of aging parents. This combination of responsibilities for offspring and parents is most likely driving women out of the tenure track. We need a sound national strategy for dealing with growing numbers of elderly people who suffer from declining abilities to care for themselves.

Second, I am saddened that the authors ignore a considerable sociological literature on the gender gap in science. Social scientists have shown that women must also contend with a culture that tacitly supports male chauvinism in fields such as physics, engineering and other “hard” sciences. In 2009, I surveyed more than 1,000 graduate students in science and engineering disciplines for my monograph Crippled at the Starting Gate (2010). Among Asian male students, prominent in hard-science departments at many fine U.S. universities, up to 30 percent felt that men make better scientists or professors. The attitudes of these students, many of whom come from societies where women are expected to be deferential to men, create a “chilly climate”—one more obstacle women must overcome to achieve professional recognition.

Robert Leslie Fisher
Delmar, New York

To the Editors:

As a female scientist who laboriously climbed the ladder to full professor, I read with interest Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci’s article “When Scientists Choose Motherhood” (March–April). My career path started in the ‘40s when very few women majored in the sciences and mathematics, and almost none in engineering. In those days, women were inclined to feel very special if they were the only one in a classroom, laboratory or professional position (even if they were made to feel rejection on many levels by male colleagues). Institutional policies of that era also limited the number of female students admitted to science and engineering programs.

Things have changed. We women now know that we are capable of mastering any and all disciplines. I believe that the authors omitted what I consider to be an important factor in choosing a field of study. I call it the critical-mass factor: Many women simply do not want to find themselves in a situation where there are few or no other women. Thus, math-based fields still suffer from a shortage of women professionals, while women are well represented in biological sciences, psychology and medicine. I have no reason to believe that it is easier to obtain tenure in these latter fields than in mathematics, engineering and physical sciences. Members of certain ethnic identities are also underrepresented in some fields, and I submit that the critical-mass factor is at work here, too.

Angela C. Little
San Francisco, CA

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