The Big Idea: Women, Sex and Science

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The glass ceiling isn't just a social problem.

Turns out it's a math problem, too.

It's not unusual to see women in powerful jobs: Three of the last four secretaries of state have been women, and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is getting more media attention for her ethnicity than for her gender. Yet in the science, technology, engineering and math labor force, XX still trails XY. Why?

Women are 37 percent less likely than men to earn science-related bachelor's degrees, and they hold only a quarter of the jobs in the field. In a new paper titled "Sex and Science," economists Scott Carrell, Marianne Page and James West offer one non-Larry Summersesque explanation: Some women lag in science not because they're women -- but because their professors aren't.

In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors examine the performance of nearly 9,500 Air Force Academy students who were randomly assigned to their professors between 2000 and 2008. They found that women tend to receive lower grades than similarly skilled men in their introductory math and science classes, but that this gap diminishes by two-thirds when female students are taught by female professors. The change is more dramatic for women who arrived at the Air Force Academy with high aptitude in math; when their professors are women, the gap in their performance disappears altogether. Such women are also 26 percent more likely to go on to major in science-related fields if all their initial math and science professors, as opposed to none, are women.

This is not a case of female professors with a soft spot for female students. Science and math grades are determined by standardized tests, and the impact of the teacher's gender disappears in English and history courses. Also, many female students excel with male science teachers. But overall, there is something special about women and teaching in science -- something the researchers can't fully explain.

"Do female professors serve as role models?" they ask. "Do they teach in ways that female students find more accessible?" Carrell, Page and West say they need more data to find answers. Let's get a female number-cruncher -- with a female instructor in her past -- on the case.

-- Carlos Lozada

© 2009 The Washington Post Company