Barbara Kay: Flattening feminism’s campus myths


National Post - Wednesday March 9th, 2016

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On the occasion of a prestigious award in her field last month, associate professor Elena Bennett in McGill University’s Natural Resources Sciences and School of Environment was interviewed by the Montreal Gazette on the subject of women and science.

Bennett focused on the well-documented post-undergrad career stall for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She attributes the gender disproportion at the high end — U.S. women comprise about 20 per cent of tenure track positions in math, 12 per cent in physics and 10 per cent in electrical engineering — to systemic misogyny, high-intensity work environments and a lack of support for mothers. Her solution: more research grants for women, no late-afternoon meetings and fewer committee obligations.

Bennett’s perspective is standard in doctrinaire feminist circles. Ideologues believe the obstacles to numerical parity for women in STEM fields are external, and can be overcome with affirmative action. Progressive politicians support them. In 2008 Hillary Clinton deplored the fact that “women comprise 43 per cent of the workforce but only 23 per cent of scientists and engineers,” insisting that the government take “diversity into account when awarding education and research grants.” To suggest that women self-select out of STEM careers for the same reason men self-select out of early childhood education — because it is less appealing to them than other careers — has become politically incorrect.

Yet feminist theory does not explain how veterinary science, once a male bastion, and as demanding as regular medical schools (with fewer schools, therefore harder to get into), had only 8 per cent women students in the 1960s but about 80 per cent women today, the remarkable transformation having come about completely organically, and with no affirmative action whatsoever. The obvious explanation is that when women attracted to science are free to choose, they tend toward science-based careers that involve connection with living beings, which require high empathic and nurturing skills, while men are more attuned to “systematizing” vocations.

As it happens, STEM subjects are the exception to the general gender-proportion rule in academia. Across the board in the humanities, as well as in the soft sciences like psychology and biology, women rule numerically by far in masters’ and PhD degrees. Yet feminists aren’t anguishing about the paucity of men in social work and art history. 

Feminists tend to see sexism where none or very little exists, and some “studies” (discredited for bias and poor methodology) have attempted to show that women scientists receive fewer grants than men. But the National Science Foundation reviewed its grant process in the late 1990s and found it approved approximately 30 per cent of female applicants and 29 per cent of male. A 2005 external review by the RAND Corporation reached the same conclusion.

In 2008, Christina Hoff Summers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a gently ruthless debunker of feminist myths, exposed the shaky foundation of the sexism interpretation of the STEM phenomenon in an in-depth essay, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” (aei.org/publication). In it, she takes on the leading promoters of the doctrines McGill’s Elena Bennett has modelled her opinions on, and flattens them with facts, figures, reliable studies and plain old empirical evidence. As Hof Summers puts it, “A world where women (and resocialized men) earn Nobel Prizes on flextime has no relation to reality.”

After five decades of feminism, it is safe to assume that women are studying what they want to study. At Boston University, for example, the class of 2018 is 65 per cent female (1,160 women) and 35 per cent male (635 men), which would be considered a shatteringly serious problem if the figures were reversed, but never mind. Of the entire cohort (not broken down by gender), 76 chose computer programming as a major, 69 chose Math and 51 chose neuroscience. I would guess that the gender ratio for the cohort is reversed in those particular classes.

For those who protest that women feel intimidated by disproportionately male classrooms, well, let’s look at some figures from all-female campuses. At Bryn Mawr, 4 per cent of the 2010 graduating class majored in chemistry, 2 per cent in computer science, 2 per cent in physics. At Smith, 0.5 per cent chose physics, and 1.4 per cent computer science. At Barnard (2009), 0.33 per cent chose physics and astronomy, 2 per cent chemistry. These dismal numbers cannot be explained by low self-esteem, intimidation, or sexism.  The numbers reflect women’s true preferences and priorities.

Is it so terrible that women privilege work-family balance over science elitism? In a study of both male and female scientists, reported in americanscientist.org, 38 per cent of childless women scientists said they “regret not having children” against 18 per cent of male scientists. 

Social engineering has its limits. If feminists are complacent, and men do not complain, when women reign over multiple career realms, they have no right to complain about fields in which women have not yet demonstrated any collective wish to shine. If and when they wish to, they will, without affirmative action.