The Morella Bill, My Daughter Rachel, and the Advancement of Women in Science

Judith Kleinfeld

 

Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the winner of the Emil Usibelli Award for Distinguished Research. This article is partly based on The Myth that Schools Shortchange Girls: Social Science in the Service of Deception. The full report with detailed statistical information is available for a $5 charge from the Women's Freedom Network, 4410 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Suite 179, Washington, D.C. 20016. The report is also available at this web site: http:www.uaf.edu/northern/schools/myth.html.

The advancement of women in science and mathematics has become something of a cottage industry fueled by federal dollars. The Morella Bill, passed in the fall of 1998 by the 105th Congress, is the latest effort. This bill established yet another commission to figure out why women are underrepresented in scientific and technical fields. The commission, in turn, is apt to recommend more of the same science programs for young women that we already have. Many of these special programs, as a practical matter, are closed to boys. Leaving aside the questions of the ethics and the legality of such sex-segregated federal programs, let us ask if these kinds of programs are even in the interests of women themselves? My own experience in trying to get my daughter Rachel interested in mathematics and science suggests the risks of such social engineering.

The Program for Women and Girls in the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Human Resources and Education is a good example of what is likely to emerge from the Morella Bill. The NSF Program for Women and Girls spends close to $ 10 million a year on a potpourri of educational initiatives. Many are designed to get young girls, especially those from low-income families, interested in science, mathematics, and technology. The program "Creating After School Science" is a typical example:

Creating After School Science Opportunities for Girls in NYC Settlement Houses: A Model Project. Supports the piloting of a hands-on science/gender equity model for girls 6 to 11 in after school programs at four New York City settlement houses. Builds on the Educational Equity Concept's "Playtime is Science" program. Start date August 1, 1996, NSF Award #9633332241, $119,053 (Estimated)."

The NSF Program for Women and Girls also funds a multitude of programs designed to make sure that teachers are up to date on the cooperative, rather than competitive, methods of teaching that are supposedly more congruent with the fragile female psyche. While most of these programs are funded in the $100,000 range, Arizona State University managed to pick up this plum:

Guiding Math/Science Talented Girls and Women. Supports one-week summer and winter seminars where counselors, administrators, and science educators will be taught the knowledge and skills for guiding career development of math/science talented girls and especially at-risk girls. Start Date May 1, 1997, NSF Award #9619121, $730,382 (Estimated).

Such summer camps and after-school programs should be interesting and enjoyable, with their emphasis on field trips, cooperative projects, and hands-on science activities. But boys do not get to participate in these stimulating activities. The "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers" page of the NSF Program for Women and Girls website indeed gives potential grantees this counsel:

Question #2. Do you have any information about Title IX? Can a federally funded education program exclude boys?

NSF programs for girls may not exclude boys. However, projects can be proposed and conducted by organizations which serve girls primarily, can actively

recruit girls, and can study girls as their focus. They do not have to make an

effort to include boys; they just can't categorically keep them out.

After clarifying the law, the potential grantee is shown, as a practical matter, how to flout it:

It is rare that, for example, boys want to come to an after-school Girls Club event, or "Girls in Science Day" or such. (There is a natural disinterest, for example‹ boys wanting to be Girl Scouts.)

The author of these questions and answers evidently believes there can be a "natural disinterest" on the part of boys, although suggesting any natural disinterest on the part of girls would not be acceptable.

Do such programs succeed in increasing the number of women in mathematics, the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science? When I posed this question to an NSF administrator, she responded with admirable candor.2 These programs provide interesting activities for girls, especially low-income girls, who might otherwise not have another way to go to summer camp, she told me. But she doubted they did much to advance women in science.

The Morella Bill‹The Wisdom of WISETECH

Effective or not, more such programs are on their way. On 9 November 1997, Representative Connie Morella (A-Maryland) with sixteen cosponsors introduced H.R. 3007, "a bill to establish the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development" (dubbed WISETECH). The commission is charged with such tasks as reviewing the research on the number of women in science, engineering, and technology and identifying barriers to their advancement. It is required to report its findings and recommendations in one year.

As the Congressional Budget Office points out, in estimating the cost of WISETECH at $1 million, such a short time span means that the commission would have to "rely heavily on available information."3 A great deal of information indeed is available. To take just one example, the National Research Council established in 1991 a Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, which compiled a list of organizations working to increase the participation of women in science and engineering. They located 290 organizations.

The White House indeed opposed the Morella Bill on the grounds of expensive duplication.4 The actual basis for White House opposition was probably political‹Congresswoman Morella is a Republican who stood for reelection in 1998.5 Needed or not, WISETECH made it through the legislative process. The bill sailed through committee hearings with barely an objection.

Women and the Physical Sciences‹The Puzzle

Since the 1960s, women have vastly increased their numbers in the professions and the biological sciences.6 In 1994, women attained more than 40 percent of all professional degrees, up from less than 3 percent in 1961. In such professional fields as veterinary medicine, women now receive the majority of professional degrees (65 percent). The gender gap in the biological sciences is also closing. Indeed, American women in 1994 received 43 percent of the doctorates in biology and 63 percent of the doctorates in health.7 Still, only 24 percent of the doctorates in mathematics, 22 percent of the doctorates in the physical sciences, 18 percent of the doctorates in computer sciences, and 15 percent of the doctorates in engineering went to American women.

In noting this gender gap, it is also important to note that the careers and prospects of very few women are affected. An important point, constantly forgotten, is how few people, men or women, choose scientific and technical careers. The number of doctorates awarded to American men in the physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the computer sciences in 1994 totaled only 5,532; the number awarded to American women totaled 1,291. But almost 17,000 women got law degrees that year.

Still, success in science is an important cultural symbol. Men like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking create our popular images of spectacular intellectual achievement. Most undergraduates, in my experience, can name no famous female scientist other than Marie Curie.

Cultural and Biological Explanations for the Gender Gap

So what is a program to do? Can the Morella Bill, the Program for Women and Girls at the National Science Foundation, the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering of the National Research Council, or any of the other 290 organizations fighting on the ramparts make a difference?

Attempts to explain the gender gap in science and mathematics are not wanting. In a paper reviewing the literature on what causes gender differences, for example, Gita Wilder cites so many studies that her references take up eighteen pages.8 Virtually every serious effort to understand the gender gap, as Wilder points out, acknowledges the importance of both biological and cultural influences.

Cultural Influences-The Negative Stereotype Effect

Cultural stereotypes are one prominent explanation for the gender gap in science and mathematics. Some of the most convincing research on the effect of negative cultural stereotypes has been done by Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University.9 Steele and his colleagues recruited male and female college students with talent in mathematics, who saw themselves as strong math students. He gave them a difficult mathematics test taken from the Graduate Record Examinations. In one condition, the students were told that the test typically showed gender differences in favor of males. In the other condition, students were told this test showed no gender differences.

When threatened with the negative stereotype about female abilities in mathematics, women indeed performed significantly worse than men. When told that the test showed no gender differences, men and women got approximately equal scores. Steele sees this result as evidence of the negative influence of female stereotypes, and he is right. What he does not point out is that the scores became equal not only because women's mathematics scores went up but also because men's scores went down. Steele also neglects to point out that the women in this study never achieved mathematics scores as high as men reached, even when the threat of cultural stereotypes was removed.

Biological Explanations-The Testosterone Effect

While Steele's studies and similar research do demonstrate the negative effects of cultural stereotypes on women, this research does not succeed in dismissing biological explanations. Strong spatial-rotational abilities, for example, are important to advanced mathematical reasoning and to scientific achievement in physics. Reviewing the research literature, psychologist Diane Halpern emphasizes that testosterone is clearly linked to such skills:

The spatial-skills performance of normal males fluctuates in concert with daily variations in testosterone and seasonal variations.... When normal, aging men were given testosterone to enhance sexual functioning, they also showed improved performance on visual-spatial tests.

Additionally, when female-to-male transsexuals were given high doses of testosterone in preparation for sex change therapy, their visual spatial skills improved dramatically and their verbal fluency skills declined dramatically within three months. The results of these studies and others provide a strong causal link between levels of adult hormones and sex-typical patterns of performance.10

Cultural influences reinforce and amplify these biological patterns. Women tend to excel in verbal skills while men tend to excel in spatial reasoning."11 This is the distribution of abilities that such policy initiatives as the Morella Bill are fighting.

What My Daughter Rachel and (Many) Women Want

Still, some women have strong spatial abilities and talent in mathematics and science. Would these women be helped by the kinds of programs apt to come out of the Morella Bill?

The voluminous research literature on gender offers surprisingly few case studies that would give us some insight into why women with talent in science and mathematics do not choose these fields. For this reason, I offer here, in the spirit of a case study, my experience with my own daughter, Rachel. She is just the kind of young woman who would be the target of the program efforts likely to emerge from the Morella Bill. Indeed, she was the target of my own extensive efforts to interest her in science and mathematics, efforts far more determined than any likely to come from a federal program. But Rachel, like so many other young women, insisted that she was "not interested" in science and wanted "to work with people." Why?

I first realized Rachel was gifted in mathematics when she entered junior high school. She had scored high on a mathematics test that her school gave to choose students for "MathCounts," a national mathematics competition. MathCounts winners are overwhelmingly male.'2 Rachel was hardly a victim of cultural stereotypes about women. She was the only one of our three children (the other two are boys) who learned to use tools. For her birthdays, she asked for building sets. On her sixth birthday, I found her packing up the new Barbie doll her grandmother had sent her. "If grandma likes dolls so much," she said with disgust, "she can have all of mine."

The more I thought about Rachel's interests and skills, the more it all fell into place. I had a mathematically and technically inclined daughter whose talents I should develop. Rachel was already getting tutored in advanced mathematics twice a week to prepare her for the statewide MathCounts meet. Her school had arranged private tutoring for her and another high-scoring student, a boy. But there was more I could do! I got her to enroll in a science course sponsored by the Center for Talented Youth. She had qualified for both the writing and science courses but had always chosen the writing courses.

To give her practical experience in a scientific career and let her meet female role models, I arranged for her to work after school with a doctoral student (female, of course) at the University of Alaska's Institute for Arctic Biology. Rachel got to look at samples of Bering Sea water using an electron microscope. I was thrilled. Rachel was not. She told me to lay off.

"I am not part of your agenda for the advancement of women in science," she informed me in a tone that left no room for further discussion. "I want to work with people. I want to help people."

These are the standard reasons women give when they explain why they are not interested in scientific careers. As I thought more about Rachel's experience, I realized that there was a lot more to her decision than her preference for working with people. This reason masked other reasons, good reasons, for not choosing science as a career.

Let us take a closer look at Rachel's actual skills from the viewpoint of where she has the greatest "comparative advantage." Yes, Rachel did score about as high as the male student in the local MathCounts competition. But the tutoring sessions revealed great differences in their mathematical gifts. The young boy could solve problems in a flash while she had to struggle. I asked him how he did it, but he wasn't very verbal. "I don't know," he said. "The solutions just come to me." The solutions did not "just come" to Rachel. In the pressure of the statewide MathCounts competition, the boy did much better. Rachel's reaction was again typical of what girls say‹she did not like the "competitiveness" of the math contest. But the issue was not male versus female competitiveness. Rachel was an avid competitor when her chances of winning were high.

The science course also gave Rachel valuable information about her areas of comparative advantage. In her writing courses with the Center for Talented Youth, she had always been at the top. In the CTY science course, she found herself stuck in the middle. Her reaction‹she was "not interested" in science.

Like most of us, Rachel finds most interesting the areas she is best at. But Rachel was able to discover her relative strengths and weaknesses only because she was in mathematics and science settings where both males and females were present. Had she been in sex-segregated programs, like the ones likely to come out of the Morella Bill, she would have been deprived of valuable information about her abilities. In an all-girls program, she would most likely have been a star.

Lop-sided Males and Balanced Females

Many females with talent in science and mathematics, in my experience, resemble my daughter Rachel. They are "balanced," apt to be bright in both verbal skills and mathematics skills. These young women have a wide range of choices‹to go into a scientific field or to go into another field where their verbal skills are valuable.

Many males with talent in science and mathematics, in my experience, resemble the young boy who was also competing in MathCounts. These males are "lop-sided," strong in mathematical skills but far weaker in verbal skills. These young men, playing to their strengths, are apt to choose scientific and technical fields. Of course, some young men will have strength in both the verbal and mathematical areas. But I suspect a larger number of young men, compared to young women, will have this "lop-sided" pattern. I am currently testing this theory through an analysis of SAT scores, in order to see what proportions of females and males who have high scores on the mathematics section of the SAT also have high scores on the verbal section of the test. My bet is that women who have high mathematical skills will also tend to have high verbal skills, while men who have high mathematical skills are more apt to be "lop-sided."

In a free society, where people can make their own career choices, it should not be surprising that males and females choose somewhat different careers. 13 A 1996 survey of college freshmen, for example, shows that 20 percent of females but less than 10 percent of males are choosing professional careers. Women are indeed seeking high-status and high-paying careers but they prefer the professions. This survey also showed that over 20 percent of male college freshmen compared to 6 percent of females are choosing careers in physical sciences, engineering, and the computer sciences. Despite all the efforts of federal agencies, females and males seek out work they enjoy and work at which they excel.

Is there anvthing really wrong with this picture? I think not. The danger of the Morella Bill and the sex-segregated programs this legislation is likely to spawn is that young women will be pressured, or seduced by scholarships, into scientific and technical careers which do not fit them well and which they will not find satisfying. Science may need women in order to meet current demands for political correctness, but women have many other satisfying career choices.

Notes

1.         These examples are drawn from the web page of the Program for Women and Girls at the National Science Foundation. On the web, go to http://www.nsEgov/verity/ srchawd.htm and type 1544 in the dialog window.

2.         I deliberately leave the identity of this NSF administrator vague because I do not wish to embarrass her. We were speaking on the record, but she may have been too open.

3.         This Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate was prepared on 21 May 1998 and can be found on this web site: http://www.thomas.loc.gov by following the queries.

4.         Letter from Kerri-Ann Jones, Acting Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy,

            Executive Office of the President, sent to The Honorable William F. Goodling, Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, 11 May 1998.

5.              These points come from a source in the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

6.         Precise documentation for these statistics and others in this essay may be found in The Myth that Schools Shortchange Girls (Washington, DC: Women's Freedom Network, 1998).

7.         These statistics track the proportion of American women who receive doctorates in the sciences, compared to American men. Reports on gender equity often underestimate the progress of American women, because they ignore the preponderance of foreign students who are receiving doctorates from American universities. These foreign students are overwhelmingly (in a ratio of 3 to 1) male.

8.         See Gita Wilder, "Antecedents of Gender Differences," in Supplement to Gender and Fair Assessment (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1997).

9.         See Claude M. Steele, "A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance," American Psychologist 52, 6 (1997): 613-629.

10.       See Diane Halpern, "Sex Differences in Intelligence: Implications for Education," American Psychologist 52, 20, 1091-1102.

11.       For a review of the specific evidence, using both grades and standardized test scores, see W.W. Willingham and N.S. Cole, Gender and Fair Assessment (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997).

12.       For a discussion of MathCounts, see C.A. Dwyer and L.M.Johnson, "Grades, Accomplishments, and Correlates," in Willingham and Cole, Gender and Fair Assessment, 127156.

13.       See the survey conducted by Alexander Austin, reported in Y. Bae and T.M. Smith, "Women in Mathematics and Science," in National Center for Educational Statistics, The Condition of education 1997 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1997), 13-21.