The paper "Gender Deficits in Science Education" is a delightful example of an assignment on gender and sexual studies. The dearth of women in scientific careers continues despite attempts by educators and legislators alike to equalize this prevailing gender gap. Research still attempts to find a definitive empirical explanation for women’s absence from the sciences. A recent column in the New York Times highlighted the findings of a Duke University study wherein the researchers reported that “our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females...Thus, sex differences in abilities in the extreme right tail should not be dismissed as no longer part of the explanation for the dearth of women in math-intensive fields of science” (Tierney D1). However, as Jacob Blickenstaff explains, there is a “danger in continuing to emphasize biological differences between men and women, because the tendency is to then argue that if unalterable biological differences exist, then no action need be taken to improve the situation for women” (Blickenstaff 383).
Women’s health issues include the psychological effects of discrimination. Gender bias in the sciences begins early, according to Blickenstaff, and involves a plethora of factors, including sex bias in textbooks, lack of attention paid to contributions by female scientists, gender bias in science teachers, the overt favoring of boys’ answers to questions in science classrooms and the “unapproachable and distant” demeanor of male science teachers (Blickenstaff 379). Blickenstaff also points to the possibility that “positivist objective rationality” itself is a masculine construct, and that in order for women to progress in the sciences, the scientific paradigm itself must be re-engineered (Blickenstaff 382).
…political and social power affect the kind of questions that scientists ask and how scientists interpret the answers they obtain. If only one kind of person asks the questions and interprets the results, then the field of scientific inquiry will be narrow and inbred. Science can be improved by broadening the diversity of its practitioners across gender, ethnic and racial lines and science education can be improved by acknowledging the political nature of scientific inquiry (Blickenstaff 15).
Erwin and Maurutto surveyed female university students pursuing a degree in the sciences and found that gender bias in science affected women’s health in numerous ways. The researchers found “substantial evidence that social-psychological and chilly climate factors play a role” in the explanation for women’s attrition from the sciences (Erwin and Maurutto 65) The issue of balancing family with work occupied a large part of this research; Erwin and Maurutto found that “while most wanted their future partners to share equally in childcare responsibilities, they generally regarded this as unrealistic. Likewise, while they typically regarded daycare as something that was bad for children, most felt they would have to use daycare if they were going to pursue careers” (Erwin and Maurutto 56).
Other findings that point to the psychological effect of gender bias on women’s health include the understanding that women are “not encouraged as much as guys, even here at this level [and] things that make you feel inferior because of you're a woman. If I ask a lot of questions, then I'm regarded as stupid” (Erwin and Maurutto 59). Innate individual confidence aside, many women in Erwin and Maurutto’s study worried about appearing less intelligent in science classes. Over time, the lack of female role models, lack of female science teachers and the continued absence of women from the upper strata of science education exacerbate these feelings of low self-worth, and women switch to careers where their contribution and presence feels more welcome.
The important findings in Erwin and Maurutto’s research point to the fact that the “experiences and understandings of marginalization and inequitable treatment are complex and contradictory. Even when sexism is described and identified, for example, there is a tendency to discount its impact on experience or performance. Such disavowals need to be considered within the broad context of these women's experiences as female science students. They enter undergraduate education both as gendered subjects and with understandings that are gendered. These are not misunderstandings…they reflect the social realities of their experience” (Erwin and Maurutto 60). Whether science student, homemaker, librarian or astronaut, women are first and foremost women; they wear gender as the mantle of their role and their identity. Gender is how they perceive the world, and how the world perceives them, and often gender conflicts sharply with goals, particularly the goal to have a successful career and family at the same time. Women expect to carry the brunt of childcare duties, even in this day and age, and many expect that their career aspirations will be tempered by the needs of motherhood. The psychological effect of gender bias on women’s health demonstrates that women slowly lose faith in their own abilities, especially in the sciences, and resign themselves to tried and true gender roles, simply because it’s easier.
Research also continues to miss a large and rather obvious point: the fact that women pursue science careers at all still draws attention. The mere presence of women in science still translates as unnatural, somehow, as opposed to women’s presence in other industries such as business or education, where they are expected to exist. Science still greets women with surprise and suspicion, and the implicit message that they do not belong. Until the science industry accepts women as a natural element rather than an anomaly – until women are “scientists” and not “female scientists” – the gender gap will likely persist.