American women are few and far between at the upper levels in the "hard" sciences, otherwise known as physics and chemistry as opposed to biology and medicine. A new group of studies suggest that women — who, according to the Boston Globe constitute "20 percent of the nation's engineers, fewer than one-third of chemists, and only about a quarter of computer and math professionals" - are rarities in these fields because they are opting out of them, not because of the paucity of opportunities available. "Substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else," the Globe's Elaine McArdle writes. In countries where women have fewer economic choices, like the Philippines, Thailand and Russia, the disparity between men and women in the hard sciences is far less substantial.
Of course, these studies also mention the culturally ingrained messages we receive from the cradle. Even if female PhD students are encouraged in the same way as male students, it's entirely possible that the way they've been socialized affects the "choices" they're making when opting out of soaring science career paths. The effect of socialization shows up in studies like one mentioned on Salon, which shows that "In Sweden, about the closest thing we've got to a 'gender-equal society,' the difference between boys' and girls' [math] scores is negligible."
Writing in Wired, Anna Kushnir, PhD, doesn't suggest a complete societal overhaul, but she does put forth some very reasonable measures that might help keep women in the hard sciences. "Institute reasonable day care at universities. Allow for extended maternity leave and the option of paternity leave. Don't cut women any breaks," she reasons. "They are no less inherently able to achieve than men, regardless of what certain Nobel Prize winners and heads of major Universities may say. They don't need pity or hand me downs. They just need the freedom to choose."
The Freedom To Say 'No' [Boston Globe]
The Education Gender Gap [Salon]
Why Are Senior Female Scientists So Heavily Outnumbered by Men? [Wired]