Tag Archives: higher education

The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

The other day I explained why, despite her mocking tone,  the “Factual Feminist” (Christina Sommers) doesn’t have the factual basis to undermine commonly-used statistics on rape. Now she has a video out on “feminist science.” No, it’s not a joke from The Simpsons, she says:

A new feminist biology program at the University of Wisconsin is all too real… Is feminist biology likely to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world? The Factual Feminist is skeptical.

The program in question is really just a post-doctoral fellowship. It looks like a privately-endowed fund to hire one postdoc. This is not a major curriculum intervention. The first postdoc in the program is Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who does work on ancient female pelvic bones and their implications for birth stuff. She was quoted by the right-wing Campus Reform (a project of the Leadership Institute) this way:

“We aren’t doing science well if we ignore the ideas and research of people who aren’t male, white, straight, or rich,” VanSickle said in an email to Campus Reform. “Feminist science seeks to improve our understanding of the world by including people with different viewpoints. A more inclusive science means an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

I don’t know the evidence on whether the ideas of biologists who aren’t male, White straight, or rich are ignored in science today, but this sentiment seems unobjectionable to me – we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? But Sommers, for some reason misquoting her only source for the story, says,

She explained to Campus Reform that, quote, in order to do science well, she said, we can’t ignore the ideas and research of people who just don’t happen to be male. But wait a minute. Women are hardly ignored in biology. In fact, they have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees. What is more, women are flourishing, and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.

On the screen flashes a table showing women getting 61% of BA degrees in biology, 59% of MAs, and 54% of PhDs. If we’re talking about whether women are ignored in biology, I think it’s the PhDs that matter, so 54% is not quite “far surpassed.” More to the point, although women first surpassed men in receiving biology BA degrees in 1988 — a quarter of a century ago — they are currently only 23% of full professors in biology. I’m not arguing about whether this reflects job discrimination against female biologists. The point is that if only a small minority of the most influential biologists are women, and if there are common differences in how men and women do biology, then the views of the latter are going to be less well represented.

To show overblown this worry is, Sommers then flashes this image of all those women winning Nobel Prizes in “that field” (actually the prizes are for “Physiology and Medicine,” since there is no Nobel for biology):

womennobels

Those women sure seem to be flourishing. And that’s every woman who ever won a Nobel in Physiology and Medicine — all 10 of them. Since the 1940s, when the first of these women flourished, men have been awarded 162 Nobels in that field — the other 94% of the prizes. The peak decade was in the 2000s, when women won 15% of the prizes (the most recent in 2009).

At Wisconsin, the single “feminist biology” postdoc will also develop an undergraduate course in gender and biology. This seems like a fine idea. Maybe it will encourage even more women to overrun the biological sciences. Call me naive, but we’re still not exactly drowning in female biologists.

After going on to pick on a few individual feminists, Sommers concludes that:

…feminist theory [has] been built on a foundation of paranoia about the patriarchy, half-truths, untruths, oversimplifications, and it’s immune to correction.

Raising the question: If feminism is rubber, and the Factual Feminist is glue, does what she say bounce of feminism and stick to her?

Full disclosure: My mother is a biologist. And a feminist. So you know I’m right. And objective.

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Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

banner_pcohen rise of women AP.jpg

(Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools is both ambitious and modest in its goals: Sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann provide an ambitious analysis of why and how girls are outperforming boys in high school and going on to get a disproportionate share of college degrees. However, the authors modestly remain within their subject matter and avoid the unsupported claims about women’s looming social dominance that have inflated much of the conversation about gender dynamics today.

This allows us to have a reasonable, valuable conversation about an important problem: the failure of the education system to help a majority of students to reach their academic potential. We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women. Even among Whites alone, women as well as men are graduating college at rates lower than those in the most educationally advanced societies (which used to include the United States). Rather, we have a dysfunctional system that underperforms for men more than for women.

Rather than focusing on the full range of educational failures, DiPrete and Buchmann focus on a low-hanging fruit policy question: How can we improve college degree attainment for the approximately one-third of students who are ready to graduate college but do not, because they do not have the resources, they change their minds for some reason, or they are not adequately supported in the endeavor?

Women up

Since the 1980s, women have gotten the majority of bachelor’s degrees. That’s mostly because they also perform better in high school, getting better grades and taking more advanced courses. DiPrete and Buchmann set aside the issue of the potential cognitive advantages of girls, which may or may not be “innate.” Such differences are too small and stable to account for the rapid change and large advantage in educational attainment women now hold. The reasons we do not have more people completing college—and gaining more skills and knowledge to enrich their lives—are not genetic or biological, but rather social and economic. We can do better, for both men and women.

While women have continued their upward historical educational trajectory since World War II, men’s achievement of college degrees stagnated—coinciding historically with the growing necessity of having higher education for economic security. If you ever needed proof that majorities of people do not respond in predictably self-interested ways to economic incentives, it is the stagnation of male college graduation rates even as the returns to a college degree spiked upward.

DiPrete and Buchmann’s sensible policy suggestions draw from this key insight: The difference between men and women, and how it has changed, can best be understood by studying differencesamong men and women—within genders. That means we don’t just study what family, school, and environmental effects matter, but who is most strongly affected by such differences in the social context.

One important lesson: Schools with high overall performance have a smaller female advantage. That leads to the straightforward conclusion that we can address the gender gap partly by increasing the quality of schools across the board. Easier said than done, but no less important—or less true—for it.

Men up

It is important to connect women’s educational rise with the other trends that have upended gender relations in the U.S., and the authors do an admirable job of tying these in. In particular, the rise in women’s employment opportunities, the decline or delay in marriage, and falling fertility rates have all increased the incentives for (and ability of) women to complete college. And, of course, the rise in education has in turn fueled these other developments as well. For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

While the title of DiPrete and Buchmann’s book is overly dramatic, the subtitle is appropriately limited: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. Because although women are more likely to graduate college and get some advanced degrees than men are today, there is nothing in this trend that implies women will surpass men in overall earnings or economic (much less political) power in the foreseeable future.

Education, especially measured at the bachelor’s degree level, is merely one indicator in a whole suite of gender dynamics in which men overwhelmingly dominate. Further, women’s educational advantage is not so great that they will overcome the labor-market advantages that men have at all educational levels, the imbalances within families that persist today, or the tendency of women to end up in less lucrative fields of study and thus occupations.

The biggest problem for gender inequality among the college-educated remains the lack of gender integration across fields of study, which stalled in the 1980s. Men and women still largely educate themselves in different fields, with dramatic implications for their career trajectories and earnings throughout their lives. Segregation in fields of study is closely related to the issue of occupational segregation in the labor market. Both reflect a complex combination of choices and constraints made in varying social contexts—with decisions made early in life producing irreversible effects. In the latest reports, women are just 26 percent of workers in computer and math-related professional occupations and 14 percent of those in architectural and engineering professions.

And DiPrete and Buchmann’s analysis helps understand this stubborn problem. They report that high school is the key location to understand major-field segregation. Among high school boys and girls with strong interest in science and technology fields, there is no gender gap in the likelihood of completing such a major. The difference is in the rates of intention to major in those areas. Between 8th and 12th grade, girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields, for short) much more than boys do.

Women’s desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting, and for occupations that permit work-family balance cannot fully explain their lower rates of majoring in STEM-related fields. Rather, the major source of the difference is that women do not express interest in STEM-related careers while in high school—and that is not because high school girls are not as good at math and science. Instead, the difference may be that boys believe they are better at math and science, especially math. The key policy insight in this area is that science-intensive high school environments greatly increase girls’ interests in physical science and engineering-related careers.

This is an important book, and although somewhat technical in its analysis sections it deserves a wide readership.

I have two minor complaints about The Rise of Women. The first is over its insistent focus on the four-year college degree and the economic benefits it brings. The fact that women receive more bachelor’s degrees than men but continue to earn less money confirms that a bachelor’s degree is not a first-class ticket to labor-market success. Although this helps to focus the book, it also distracts from the more universal problems we have, including an obsession with the material benefits of education.

DiPrete and Buchman conclude that we need to find ways to motivate students in middle and high school to devote more energy to their studies, by improving the quality of education as well as the quality of information students have to make the connection between what they learn in school and their future career ambitions. Too many boys don’t cognitively grasp that the difference between merely making it versus excelling through high school is measured in higher education success and potential career satisfaction. Finding ways to get this across might really help their motivation to work harder, the authors argue. But truly high-quality education takes students beyond such material calculations into the realm of the intrinsic beauty of discovery, the power of wonder, and the search for knowledge as a key to life, the universe and everything.

My second knock is that the authors seem not to notice the broad trend of slowing advances for women. For example, even though their charts show it, they don’t mention that the share of law and medical degrees earned by women slowed and then peaked in the early 2000s—and has declined since. Naturally, that is not the central concern of a study devoted to understanding women’s advantages. But in the context of the general gender stall, it’s important to realize that women’s progress across many areas is highly interrelated.

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More Women Are Doctors and Lawyers Than Ever—but Progress Is Stalling

Originally posted on The Atlantic.

In the Wall Street Journal last week, Josh Mitchell reported that “Women account for a third of the nation’s lawyers and doctors, a major shift from a generation ago.” The report was triggered by anew analysis of occupations from the Census Bureau, which showed women increased their share of doctor and lawyer by four percent and six percent, respectively, from a decade earlier.

These professional advances mark “very significant progress,” according to feminist economist Heidi Hartmann, and I don’t disagree. Still, when I spoke to Mitchell I suggested he consider a glass-half-empty perspective, which somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor.

My question is, will progress continue? It doesn’t look good. I happen to be a demographer, but you don’t need to be one to see that progress for women in these fields is stalling.

First, look at the degrees earned. This figure uses statistics from the Department of Education and breaks the gender trend in law and medical degrees up by decades. Both trends show slowing progress—a smaller increase in women’s representation each decade—and both peaked (for now) at just under 50 percent female.

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If half of new doctors and lawyers are women, eventually it should be possible to have professions that are gender-balanced. But don’t hold your breath.

I looked at today’s doctors and lawyers using the 2008-2010 American Community Survey (you can get the data here). Here is the representation of women among full-time and year-round working doctors and lawyers by age. Half of the youngest doctors and lawyers are women, while only one in eight of the oldest are. So as they all age, equal representation should be on the way.

cohen_doctorlawyer2.png

But women are much more likely to drop out of these professions (and others). Among early-career professionals—people ages 25 to 44—who list their most recent jobs as doctor or lawyer, you can see that women are much more likely to be out of the labor force:

cohen_doctorlawyer3.png

With the kind of dropout rates that produce these disparities, we would need much more than 50 percent female in the graduating classes to reach equal representation in these professions.

In Mitchell’s report, the economist Claudia Goldin, who has recently investigated women’s success as pharmacists, argues that the corporatization of medicine has helped women by introducing the concept of work-family balance, and reducing the gender earnings gap—all changes that helped women in pharmacies as well. But I don’t see the evidence that such practices have yet changed the medical industry enough to reduce the gender differences in drop-out rates. And the research evidence shows that explicit diversity policies—with teeth—often are necessary to break the logjam.

And Mitchell’s story did not mention any efforts to reduce the segregation of men and women—especially in medicine—into different specialties. That segregation is a big part of what drives the earnings gap among doctors and lawyers. Here are the median earnings by age for doctors and lawyers, from the same source:

cohen_doctorlawyer4.png

At the peak of that curve—ages 45 to 50—female doctors are earning just 62 percent of men’s median earnings. As they make their decisions about whether to enter the field, and how to specialize, and how to handle their family demands and opportunities, these disparities in representation and rewards come into play. The decisions men and women in these professions make should never be seen as free choices unconstrained or unaffected by the institutional environment.

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Gender integration’s lost decade

The 2000s were the worst decade for gender integration since the 1950s.

It’s not easy to track long-term trends in segregation, because our measurements are affected by the level of detail used to record occupation titles, by changes in the composition of the labor force, and by the type of measurement used. However, comparing one time point to another using the same data source and measurements is the safest bet. That’s what I have done for 2000 and 2010 (using Census data from 2000 and 2010).

A 2004 report by my old colleagues David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman last did that for 1950 to 2000, using a system of coding occupations according to the 1990 standard. I have graphed their results with my new calculations, which use the 2000 Census standards. Since these use new occupation definitions, and a greater number of occupations (more than 500), my segregation score is a little higher. But it’s the decade-to-decade changes I’m interested in.

This measure, called the index of dissimilarity, shows the percentage of men — or women — that would have to change occupations in order for every occupation to the have the same gender composition.

The graph clearly shows the declining pace of progress toward integration in the 1990s, compared with the 1970s and 1980s, and now we can see the 2000s showed slower progress still.  In the last decade, there just was a smidgen of change — just enough so that, if it continues at that pace, we will have complete gender integration… by the middle of the 26th century.

The picture in 2010

What does this level of segregation look like graphically? Here are two takes on that, using the 2010 Census data on about 500 occupations. First, I broke the workers up by gender and sorted them into occupations according to their percentage female (or 100-male). The histogram shows the distribution of men and women across 10 categories, and I labelled each category with the most numerous occupation it includes, such as truck drivers in the under-10% group, and secretaries in the 90+% group.

For another view, I lined up all the men and women by occupation from least-female to most-female, and traced their cumulative distributions. This shows the complete distribution for each group. I labeled some key points for comparison.

Why?

Why is there still so much segregation, and why has progress toward integration stalled? One thing to consider is education.

As I reported before, progress toward educational integration stalled in the 1990s. That is, even though women keep increasing their share of college degrees, progress toward integrating fields of study has completely stalled, and now even reversed. The segregation score between men and women, using the 35 fields of study reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, increased from 28 to 29 in the last decade.*

Here is the gender breakdown of the top 15 college majors in 1998-99 and 2008-09:

Notice how the most female-dominated majors — from English to the health professions — became even more female-dominated in the last decade. But overall it’s a picture of not much change in a decade. (For PhDs, see these charts.)

Much of the earlier progress toward integration has come because women increased their share of college graduates, for whom integration has been faster. But without more change in the distribution in majors, that source of progress may have run its course.

Another thing to consider is cultural attitudes.

In a new analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS), the Cotter et al. team turn their attention toward the trend in responses to questions about gender roles. They believe an antifeminist backlash has taken root, promoting motherhood under a pseudo-feminist rhetoric of “choice.”

The paper shows a clear pattern of stalled progress toward egalitarian attitudes on these four indicators of women’s role in politics, employment, household work, and caring for young children:

Trends in public attitudes are complicated. People are born and die, education levels rise, ethnic composition shifts, and so on. Unlike a simple poll like most in the news, the GSS includes lots of demographic and other information about its respondents, so analysts can try to sort it all out.

After testing for a variety of explanations for the trends, the authors conclude:

The lack of a ready structural or broadly ideological explanation of the mid-1990s shift strengthens the case for a specifically antifeminist backlash in the popular culture as the most likely explanation for the attitude shift…. We argue that the result has been not a reversion to the gender traditionalism of the 1950s but the rise of a third cultural frame of “egalitarian essentialism” combining support for stay-at-home mothering with a continued feminist rhetoric of choice and equality. We believe this cultural explanation is also consistent with the broader pattern of gender changes that also shifted in the mid-1990s.

Those changes include not only gender segregation, as we see more and more, but also employment levels, wages, political representation, and the division of housework.

It’s a compelling paper, essential reading for those with a research interest in gender inequality.

*Note: Those with advanced interests in gender segregation measures might like to know I also calculated the “size-standardized index” of dissimilarity for these education data, since some majors are much bigger than others. That measure looks worse, increasing from 35 to 38 over the decade.

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Read it and weep : Demography I syllabus

Never one to wait till the last minute, I completed the syllabus for my graduate seminar with more than 12 hours to spare.

At UNC the sociology department offers a two-seminar series for students starting out with a concentration in demography, which is also standard for predoctoral trainees at the Carolina Population Center. The course has passed around the department, offering the best of our different perspectives — as well as the risk of inertia. I overhauled it quite a bit, but it still owes lots to Lisa Pearce and Anthony Perez, who taught it most recently.

Took me a long time. But what a moment! Looking down the list of two books and 55 other required or optional readings over 13 weeks, I think: how much would you know if you really read all that? And also: there’s probably no one in the world (not even me) who’s read this combination of things before. Etc.

Here’s a teaser: one graph I made for illustrating population growth. It replicates one John Bongaarts made in 1975, showing where the countries of the world lie on the birth-rate / death-rate axis. Bottom line: when birth rates are higher, population grows. The other 54+ readings are details…

I was happy to add a new book this year: Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. I still plan to post a review here, but let me just say it’s a great example of accessible science writing about demography. It’s well-documented and thorough but also compelling to read and does a great job motivating the issue. (Sure, she overreaches, too. That’s OK.)

Here’s the syllabus; some of the links to the readings will run into pay walls if you’re off campus. I will be updating it with the assignments over the semester — fell free to play along at home…

I hope everyone who has one, has a good fall semester.

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In PhD hunt, men track men

While women integrate, men accumulate.

The National Science Foundation has published new numbers on the PhDs granted in 2009, with a nice interactive tool allowing users to track trends from 1979. The gender trends are striking.

This is a chance to elaborate on my post describing a recent article by Paula England, in which I drew attention to her provocative conclusion about gender integration across a variety of social domains:

Because the devaluation of activities done by women has changed little, women have had strong incentive to enter male jobs, but men have had little incentive to take on female activities or jobs.

This is clearly seen in the PhD data, which she described up to 2006. The 2009 update doesn’t change her conclusion, but I made a couple graphs highlighting this point.

Source: My chart from NSF data.

The general pattern is clear: All major areas showed increased representation of women. However, what’s striking is that the growth in women’s presence was nearly constant across major areas. Except for humanities, which showed the slowest growth for women, and life sciences, which showed the opposite, the gendered order was unchanged: Education at the top, engineering and physical sciences at the bottom — and the gaps are remarkably constant.

Now, to England’s point that women entered male fields more than reverse, look at which fields men entered most. This graph shows the increase in the number of male PhDs in each major area, arranged by the female representation in 1979.

Source: My chart from NSF data.

For example, engineering was 2% female in 1979, and there was a 147% increase in male engineering PhDs in the following 30 years. On the other extreme, education, which was already 42% female in 1979, saw a 49% drop in the number of male PhDs. In other words, rather than weakening, the glass floor underneath male fields remains nearly impenetrable.

Partly this does reflect more rapid growth in the male doctoral fields (e.g., overall, engineering tripled in size, while education shrank slightly). But that’s not the whole story. For example, social sciences grew 28%, but the growth was all all female — the number of male PhDs in social sciences actually fell.

It’s a strange pattern, in which women’s opportunities for mobility have improved, but female-dominated remains female-dominated. As a result, the devaluation of fields based on gender differentiation can remain intact, and women in male-dominated fields remain tainted by their association with the “occupational ghettos” they left behind.

One challenging implication of this pattern is that efforts to promote gender integration should also aim to entice men into female-dominated fields, rather just the reverse.

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Dr. Woman

PhD’s: Count ‘em.

In 2008-2009, U.S. women pulled even with men (+/- a few hundred) in the total number of doctoral degrees awarded, according to stats from the Council of Graduate Schools.

Amazingly, women only account for 22% of new engineering PhD’s, which is truly remarkable when you realize that, even at one day old, female infants are significantly quicker at determining that it’s useless to stare at a mobile.

Although women are gaining in engineering, math, and physical sciences, they headline is driven by the rapid growth of female PhD’s in health sciences, which now has the highest proportion of women. In that area, women’s average annual increase in PhD’s was 14% for the last 10 years, compared with 4% for men.

The breakdowns, by total number and gender representation, look like this:

So the increased access to doctoral-level education is not decreasing segregation between fields as much as it could. Overall, the segregation level between fields — very broadly defined into just 11 groups — is 28, which means 28% of men or women would have to change fields in order to even out the gender distributions. That number is comparable to the segregation score for U.S. occupations overall, measured at the broadest level (10 occupation groups).

The closer you look, of course, the more segregation you find. Among BA-level degrees, the segregation level is about 35, and apparently rising. In the detailed occupation breakdown, the segregation level is more than 50 (and it is notably lower among those with more education).

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