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Working women favor families over math

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“A major reason explaining why women are underrepresented not only in math-intensive fields but also in senior leadership positions in most fields is that many women choose to have children, and the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted,” says lead author Stephen J. Ceci

CORNELL (US)—A new analysis of gender differences in math reveals that women tend to choose less math-intensive careers—not because they lack the brainpower, but because they want the flexibility to raise a family.

Women also tend to drop out of scientific fields—especially math and physical sciences—at higher rates than men, particularly as they advance, because of the demands of parenting, says coauthor Wendy M. Williams, Cornell professor of human development. “These are choices that all women, but almost no men, are forced to make,” she adds.

“A major reason explaining why women are underrepresented not only in math-intensive fields but also in senior leadership positions in most fields is that many women choose to have children, and the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted,” says lead author Stephen J. Ceci, professor of human development at Cornell University.

The study is an integrative analysis of 35 years of research on sex differences in math. Ceci and his Cornell coauthors reviewed more than 400 articles and book chapters to better understand why women are underrepresented in such math-intensive science careers as computer science, physics, technology, engineering, chemistry, and higher mathematics.

Women today comprise about 50 percent of medical school classes; yet women who enter academic medicine are less likely than men to be promoted or serve in leadership posts, the authors report. As of 2005, only 15 percent of full professors and 11 percent of department chairs were women. Non-math fields are also affected: For example, only 19 percent of the tenure-track faculty members in the top 20 philosophy departments are women.

Hormonal, brain, and other biological sex differences were not primary factors in explaining why women were underrepresented in science careers, according to the analysis. Studies on social and cultural effects were inconsistent and inconclusive. The researchers also report that although “institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers,” says Ceci.

“The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women’s career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them toward other careers such as medicine and biology over mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering,” adds Ceci. “Women would comprise 33 percent of the professorships in math-intensive fields if it was based solely on being in the top 1 percent of math ability, but they currently comprise less than 10 percent.”

Science, technology, engineering, and math are not the only professions affected by women’s career choices, according to the analysis. Women are still underrepresented in the top positions of such fields as medicine, law, biology, psychology, dentistry and veterinary science.

There may be ways to reverse the trend, say the researchers, who recommend that universities and companies create options for talented women who want to pursue math-intensive careers. These could include deferred start-up of tenure-track positions and part-time work that segues to full-time tenure-track work for women who are raising children, and courtesy appointments for women unable to work full time but who would benefit from use of university resources, such as access to library materials and grant services, to continue their research from home.

For the latest Cornell University news, visit www.news.cornell.edu.

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