I ran into the chair of the Sociology department the other day as I came out of my Calculus class. He stopped me to ask me about a question that had come up in discussion in his class. He wanted to know why it seemed that women were still avoiding majors that were focused on math and the sciences, since he and his students, like one of the responders to my column a few weeks ago, realized that high pay is strongly correlated with the amount of math and science education one acquires in their educational journey. He asked me if I thought that professors were still discouraging young women from majoring in subjects requiring a lot of math and science education.
I gave him the answer I am trained to give; I told him about how wage differentials are calculated, and what they control for. However, I don’t think that was what he wanted to hear. I suspect that, instead, he wanted stories of how women are sometimes encouraged to enter jobs that may not require as much math and science, and that may not pay as well. Or are they?
Once I realized that he was looking for stories and not statistics, I e-mailed him a few thoughts on my own experiences. I told him of the case when a referee from a journal that was blindly reviewed kept referring to me, the author, as “she.” When I mentioned this to a senior faculty member in my field, he told me that the use of the feminine pronoun was the referee’s way of trying to insult me. I can’t help but wonder what I would have made of that explanation if that faculty member had been someone who was voting on my own tenure decision. I also remember that I was one of only a few women in my major when I (briefly) majored (and eventually just minored) in Physics as an undergraduate. I am sure that the demographics are more equal today, but I do remember feeling like quite the minority. I realize now that this was actually a good experience, as I have, without realizing it, benefited my whole life from “white privilege.” It is good to have some memories of what it is to be in the minority.
I laugh because my daughter already claims that math is her favorite subject. I actually think that she is better at several other subjects, but apparently she enjoys math the most. I hope that there is no one in her future who directs her away from it just because she is a girl.
I like to approach empirical questions by using statistics, but today I am asking for something different. I am asking for anecdotal evidence. Would you be willing to share your stories of how you were directed to or from majors that require a heavy concentration of math? I will forward this link to the Sociology professor and to his class. I am sure they will be interested in hearing what you have to say.