Gender Bias

, Nirmala Punnusami, Leave a comment

Long after former Harvard University president Larry Summers tracked the subject, a debate continues in academia over whether women avoid the sciences out of choice or necessity.

According to the authors of the 2006 report of the National Academy of Sciences, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” there is an exclusion of many talented women from the scientific fields of physics, engineering, computer and mathematics. It also states that this is a direct “threat to our nation’s competitiveness.” This report concludes that women are victims of “a widespread bias in Science and Engineering” and the authors urge universities and policymakers to “tackle the science and mathematics gap” as soon as possible. The authors suggest that “only sweeping changes in the culture and structure of academic science could lead to a larger representation of women in the scientific fields, and to do this there should be workshops to educate federal and academic personnel about unconscious bias and how to combat it.”

There are others, however, who do not agree with the findings of the 2006 report of the National Academy of Sciences. Critics of this report argue that “it endorses gender bias as the primary reason for the scarcity of women in the hard sciences without adequately considering alternative explanations.”

At a seminar on the topic at the American Enterprise Institute, university academic Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University and one of the panelists at this conference, explained that there is “a large and growing body of research which suggests that men and women on average have different aptitudes and interests” and he does not believe “that women are victims of unconscious bias and held back by psychological effects of stereotype threat.”

According to the senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, Dr. Rosalind Chait Barnett, women’s bias is an age-old problem. In her short speech, she traced the historical bias against women from the period of the Renaissance to the present day, and she stressed that there have been strong limitations to the education of women throughout history. Ms. Barnett, who is also executive director of the community, families, and work program at the university, gave several reasons for this bias. Women have always been encouraged to stay in the household. It was argued that in doing so, they would be better mothers and they would be better able to preserve the values of the family. By being in the home, too, they would be more obedient to their husbands. Unfortunately, today, in some parts of the globe, some of these same arguments are still being used to limit the education of women.

Nirmala Punnusami is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.