John Tierney has a column in the NYTimes today trashing a new National Academy of Science report on gender discrimination in the sciences and engineering. I haven’t read anything about the report, so I dunno…I do find it hard to be worried about the number of women in the sciences and engineering because whenever I speak to a young woman in my field (engineering) and ask her about the gender ratio in her class, the answer is usually that it’s between 30/70 and 50/50 for females to males. In other words, much changed from a generation or so ago. Why aren’t there more tenured professors in the fields? Well, there’s the entrenched male-dominated ethos of the academic departments, including discrimination, no doubt. There’s the time factor, i.e., with some more years, the women will begin to overwhelm the remaining prejudices of the men and so make headway. And there’s the social inequity in support of rearing families, with the burden falling disporportionately on women, making it harder for them to advance, if they want to, in any career. Same old story, so I’m not sure there is any particular discrimination in this field.
What really irks me about the argument in the column isn’t even the proposition that women and men have sex-based differences in their intellectual proclivities. (I don’t know if this is so – it could be – but I don’t even find it interesting.) No, what bugs me is the unspoken bias that physics and engineering are the “hard” sciences, while medicine and biology are the “soft” sciences. Note that macho, unspoken assumption that elevates the hard above the soft, and by association the male above the female, so that, of course, women, when they do go technical, can’t quite hack it, statistically speaking that is. They all become medical researchers and biologists. (Of course, some of my best friends are lady physicists.)
Who says that physics is “hard” while biology is “soft?” I just don’t get it. Just because you open a textbook on quantum mechanics and see a flood of Greek symbols and in a biology text you might see some diagrams and lots of text doesn’t make one more rich in knowledge than the other. In fact, some might reverse the hierarchy. Let’s just remember that Charles Darwin’s ideas have done more to change the intellectual outlook of humanity than just about any other scientist, including the great Newton and Einstein.