Monday, July 04, 2011

Maria Charles: What Gender is Science?

Two telling excerpts from her article in Contexts, the magazine of the American Sociological Association. The first is about an international comparison of women's participation in engineering:

Engineering is the most strongly and consistently male-typed field of study worldwide, but its gender composition still varies widely across countries. Female representation is generally weaker in advanced industrial societies than in developing ones. In our 2009 article in the American Journal of Sociology, Karen Bradley and I found this pattern using international data from the mid-1990s; it was confirmed by more recent statistics assembled by UNESCO. Between 2005 and 2008, countries with the most male-dominated engineering programs include the world’s leading industrial democracies (Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S.) along with some of the same oil-rich Middle Eastern countries in which women are so well-represented among science graduates (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates). Although women do not reach the fifty-percent mark in any country, they come very close in Indonesia, where 48 percent of engineering graduates are female (compared to a 49 percent share of all Indonesian college and university graduates). Women comprise about a third of recent engineering graduates in a diverse group of countries including Mongolia, Greece, Serbia, Panama, Denmark, Bulgaria, and Malaysia.

The second one is about how women's participation in science has changed in the US over the decades since late 19th century:

... representations of scientific and technical fields as by nature masculine aren’t well-supported by international data. They’re also difficult to reconcile with historical evidence pointing to long-term historical shifts in the gender-labeling of some STEM fields. In The Science Education of American Girls, Kim Tolley reports that it was girls who were overrepresented among students of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural science in 19th century American schools. Middle-class boys dominated the higher-status classical humanities programs thought to require top rational powers and required for university admission. Science education was regarded as excellent preparation for motherhood, social work, and teaching. Sociologist Katharine Donato tells a similar story about the dawn of American computer programming. Considered functionally analogous to clerical work, it was performed mostly by college-educated women with science or math backgrounds. This changed starting in the 1950s, when the occupation became attractive to men as a growing, intellectually demanding, and potentially lucrative field. The sex segregation of American STEM fields—especially engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences—has shown remarkable stability since about 1980.


  1. Unknown said...

    Ignoring environment and other factors for a moment, has anyone framed the broader issue as a left-brain vs. right-brain predominance issue, instead of as a gender issue? By corollary, have there been studies looking for correlation or lack thereof between gender and left-brain/right-brain predominance?