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Skill Knows No Gender

"Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half." (Plato; Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world; 428/427 BC–348/347 BC.)

In the United States, March is women’s History Month (U.S. Library of Congress, 2016). This IAE Blog entry is a contribution to the celebration of women.

I got my doctorate in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Today I received the Spring, 2016 issue of On Wisconsin, the university’s alumni magazine. Here is a quote from the first of the letters to the editor:

Thank you for your article on the recently discovered remains of Homo naledi. I want to particularly applaud the author and editors for not emphasizing (nor even mentioning) the gender of the scientific recovery team that crawled into the cave.

I’ve longed for the day when I could just read about someone’s work without it being implied that, “Wow, she can even do this in spite of being female.” I’m happy to see On Wisconsin reporting on the quality of the work and skill of the workers; the gender is irreverent, as it should be. (Todd Strother, PhD, ’O1.)

Next, the first sentence on the editor’s page caught my attention.

Theories abound about how to find a profession that brings you joy, but my favorite asks us to draw inspiration from a simple question: what did you love to do when you were ten years old? (Jill Price, ’96.)

Bias against women taking an interest in certain professions that are more typically pursued by men (and against men taking an interest in some other professions normally pursued by women) is rooted even in the early childhood of children. This type of bias is very slow to change.

During my lifetime, I have seen significant progress in decreasing the level of bias against women. However, it is obvious that we have a long way to go. Quoting President Obama (2015):

Equal pay is a family issue. Women make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force and are a growing number of breadwinners in their families. More women are also working in positions and fields that have been traditionally occupied by men. When women are not paid fairly, not only do they suffer, but so do their families.

Despite passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires that men and women in the same work place be given equal pay for equal work, the "gender gap" in pay persists. Full-time women workers’ earnings are only about 78 percent of their male counterparts’ earnings. The pay gap is even greater for African-American and Latina women, with African-American women earning 64 cents and Latina women earning 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white non-Hispanic man. Decades of research shows that no matter how you evaluate the data, there remains a pay gap — even after factoring in the kind of work people do, or qualifications such as education and experience — and there is good evidence that discrimination contributes to the persistent pay disparity between men and women. In other words, pay discrimination is a real and persistent problem that continues to shortchange American women and their families.

Women in Science

Late last year I completed an update and expansion of my IAE-pedia entry, Women and ICT (Information and Communication Technology). The article discusses the general issue of the underrepresentation of women in the sciences, and it includes a long list of organizations working to help support the aspirations and careers of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) areas. In terms of number of hits, this IAE-pedia entry is currently #11 out of 303 content documents in the IAE-pedia. I am pleased that it has proven to be so popular.

For additional information on this topic I recommend the three articles: Women in Science parts 1, 2, and 3 (Burroughs Wellcome Fund, 2015). Each of the sections given below contains a short quote from the article.

Part 1

Clearly, women have come a long way from the days when they were not considered fit to do science or were discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees in the discipline. While they may have earned their place at the laboratory bench, female scientists remain greatly underrepresented in the highest ranks of academia. For instance, a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) survey found that only a little more than a fourth of the deans in colleges and universities are women. Some researchers – men and women alike – believe that equality is simply a matter of time, arguing that the increasing numbers of females going into the pipeline will push more and more of them down the line. But thus far, that theory has not held true, says Diane Halpern, a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and chair of a Department of Education taskforce on encouraging more women to go into science and mathematics.

Dr. Halpern says plenty of women and girls are stepping onto the ladder leading to an academic career in science. Females have made up the majority of students enrolled in college for the last 25 years. But obstacles – such as family obligations and subtle yet damaging gender biases – do remain to their ascent to higher positions in academia, causing many women to stumble along the way. In the biological sciences, the NSF shows that women are earning 56 percent of the Ph.D.'s, and a slightly smaller percentage of postdoctoral fellowships. But then the numbers drop off further, as females hold just 19 percent of tenured full professorships in science, engineering, and technology.

Part 2

It can be difficult for women, even those who have spent their whole lives gunning for a spot at the bench, to stay on the career path when they have so few female mentors to light the way. And while many scientific disciplines are enjoying equal numbers of women and men in their training programs, when it gets to the faculty level women are still in the minority. Part of the problem stems from societal influences that may cause women – and men, for that matter– to view their abilities, responsibilities and career options through a rather narrow lens.

“If all you know about scientists, if the vision of a scientist is a brilliant white man with glasses and funny hair and a lab coat, then none of us are going to feel like we match that model,” said Mary Wyer, who has championed the advancement of women in science and engineering through the integration of women's studies into the undergraduate and graduate curriculum at NC State University. “The truth of the matter is that women and people of color have made substantive contributions to science and that these are forgotten, they are lost history.”

Part 3

A study released last November by Berkeley researcher Mary Ann Mason and investigators at the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that marriage and childbirth accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline between Ph.D. receipt and the acquisition of tenure for women in science. The paper reported that single women without children are just as likely as married men with children to enter and take on the first academic research job. Compare that with married women with children, who are 37 percent less likely to enter academia. The women who did have babies, either as graduate students or postdocs, were very unlikely to continue.

“We have to reconsider the rhetoric of choice,” said Diane Halpern, past president of the American Psychological Association. “When you have women who are graduating with science doctorates and then opting not to go into academia, you have to wonder whether it is because of personal choice or because they did not see a choice that realistically accommodates the intensive demands of academia and the desire to have a family.”

Dr. Halpern says the problem is that tenure clocks and biological clocks run on the same time zone. The average age for receiving tenure in the sciences (according to Mason’s report) is around age 39, well past the peak child-bearing years. Having a child before tenure has been secured means adding on responsibilities to an already intense make-or-break period in one’s career. Waiting until tenure has been achieved means facing the challenges of decreased fertility and high-risk pregnancies, as all pregnancies over age 35 are currently designated.

Final Remarks

Reread the quote from Plato given at the beginning of this article. Equal educational opportunities are very important, and in the United States we have done very well in the female versus male education issue. However, the problem is more complex than this. If equal educational opportunities were the answer to the fact that far more men than women are “making it” in the STEM disciplines, then the problem would have been solved.

What You Can Do

Train your mind to recognize bias against women. When you see it happening, be active rather than passive about the situation. You have undoubtedly heard the expression, “step up to the plate.” We can greatly reduce bias against women by recognizing and confronting it when we see it.

References and Resources

Boaler, J. (4/28/2014). Changing the conversation about girls and STEM. Presentation to a meeting in the White House. Retrieved 3/9/2016 from

Burroughs Wellcome Fund (2015). Women in science. Part one: Part two: Part 3:

Intel (2013). Intel® She will connect. (Video: 3.23.) Retrieved 3/9/2016 from, .\

Moursund, D. (2015). Women and ICT. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 3/9/2016 from

Obama, B. (2015). Your right to equal pay. The White House. Retrieved 3/9/2016 from

U.S. Library of Congress (2016). Women’s history month. Retrieved 3/9/2016 from

Math Word Problems
Aging Brains


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Friday, 18 June 2021

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