Friday, March 03, 2006

Women in Science

Philip Greenspun argues that there are few women in science because women are smart, and science is a bad career choice compared to business, law, or medicine.

I think that a career choice of scientist should be classed with career choices like musician, actor, author, athlete, or aviator.
  1. These careers are professionalized versions of hobbies. There are significant numbers of amateurs willing to pursue these activities in their spare time, for free. In contrast, there are few if any hobbyist accountants. There may be amateur lawyers who like to make impassioned arguments, but probably not many who like to draft wills and contracts for fun.
  2. The average pay in the hobby-jobs is not great. This is no doubt closely related to the first point.
  3. Young entrants may or may not fully appreciate that the average pay is not great. Even if they do appreciate it, they don't care, because they don't expect to be average; they expect to attain the top of the profession. Superstars in these jobs are well-paid, even spectacularly well-paid.
With these parallels, it may be interesting to consider the male-female balance in other hobby-jobs apart from science.

30.1% of natural scientists are women.
35.6% of musicians and composers are women.
38.8% of actors and directors are women.
55.2% of authors are women.
28.0% of professional athletes are women. (I was surprised this percentage is so high.)
3.1% of airplane pilots and navigators are women.
In comparison, 28.8% of lawyers, 24.5% of physicians, and 26.3% of computer programmers are women.
(All 1999 data from the U.S. Statistical Abstract.)

These numbers do not suggest to me that women are fleeing science for law or medicine at all. Nor does it seem that women are necessarily averse to high-competition, can-you-win-the-lottery career choices, since there are so many women authors. I guess in acting and sports, men and women tend to be segregated by sex rather than competing head-to-head for exactly the same jobs.


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