To say that I disagree with this line of reasoning would be putting it mildly. I personally feel that women in the sciences still experience a tremendous amount of discrimination. I graduated high school – despite good grades and a supportive father who always told me I could do it – with the belief that I just wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist. I can remember going on job sites as a young environmental inspector and purposely not wearing make-up and pulling my hair into a ponytail so that I wouldn’t be treated as date material. I know what it’s like to enter an office where every other scientist is a good old boy and the only other women on staff are in the clerical department. (Which brings up another point: Just having similar numbers of men and women in a given field does not equal parity.)
Are women less suited to engineering than men? Elizabeth S. Spelke, of Harvard University, tackles this question in “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review” in the December 2005 issue of American Psychologist (download the .pdf file here). She notes that previous research has indicated that women are less likely to major in mathematical disciplines, and that mathematically gifted women tend to choose different careers than men. Is there a genetic difference between the cognitive abilities of the sexes to account for this? Possibly, she concedes. However, she writes:
“Nevertheless, the wealth of research on cognition and cognitive development, conducted over 40 years, provides no reason to believe that the gender imbalances on science faculties, or among physics majors, stem from sex differences in intrinsic aptitude.”
So, if women aren’t less suited to engineering than men, are they discouraged from entering or staying in the field? Have things changed at all since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s? I’ll explore this topic again soon in Women and Engineering: The Great Debate (Part 2).