As the sides line up on the Larry Summers debate/debacle, more data is coming in. One of Summers suggestions was that women were less likely to want to make the sacrifice required for an intense academic job. An indication would be that the attrition rate for women would be higher throughout the training process. However, as reported in the New York Times today, after earning a bachelor’s degree in physics, American women are just as adept as men in climbing the academic ladder. A full report can be obtained from the AIP website. Currently women make up 22% of bachelor’s degrees and 18% of PhD degrees awarded in physics . In astronomy the numbers are much higher – in 2003, women earned 43% of bachelor’s degrees and 26% of PhDs. There also seems to be a huge surge in women in the last five years into both fields. Women comprise of 10% of physics faculty now and their numbers have been slowly increasing over the past few years.
The data shows that the main source of attrition of women from physics is between high school and college where half of the students in high school physics are females but fewer than a quarter of the degrees go to women. This supports Summers assertion that the problem may arise early. However, Summers then contended that this early gender disparity may be biological although he conceded that there is no evidence and challenged the audience to do the studies to test the hypothesis. As pointed out in the comments section of my previous post, Brad De Long shows data indicating that social factors may swamp out any biological effects.
My stance, which I’ve argued in Steve Hsu’s blog, is that even if there are biological differences, they are small and this knowledge is not useful and is potentially damaging. The data clearly shows that policies enacted over the past several years are having some effect. The percentage of women in science and engineering is increasing. We should continue to eliminate social barriers and wait another generation or two. If disparities still exist then perhaps we can start looking for other reasons.