Wow. If you squint a little, this looks pretty damaging to the argument that innate sexual difference are a factor in the career choices men and women make:
What this purports to show: in the 1960s, a small percentage of women pursued majors in Medical School, Law School, Physical Sciences and Computer Science. Starting around 1970, the percentage of women majoring in these 4 fields started to increase, and, with the exception of computer science, leveled off around 2000. The percentage of women majoring in computer science peaked around 1985 and began to fall, then it leveled out around 2007.
Proposed conclusion: difference in career choices can’t be based on sex, because the sexes were as different in 1970 as they remain in 2000, yet the percentage of college women studying computer science fell even as the percentages in the other listed majors continued to increase or at least held steady. Or, a Twitterer put it:
Here’s a problem for those who say “biological differences” or “innate interest” explain why women hold fewer coding jobs than men.
Well, that’s a big ‘maybe’. What’s wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways:
First, why those 4 fields and no others? As shown here, it’s not too hard to cherry-pick examples to show whatever you want to show. Also, aren’t we talking about very broad fields? Nobody majors in ‘Physical Science’ – they major in geology or chemistry or physics or some such. A better, if harder to read chart or charts would show the male/female differences across many majors at a level of granularity that means something. Does it make a difference to lump them all together? We don’t know, but it is something we would want to know.
Next, and this is the kind of reality check anybody paying attention needs to do: What kind of source data have we here? What do we mean by college students and majors? Med schools and Law schools are dedicated graduate schools attended by students who have presumably prepared and competed to get into them in their undergrad years, while the physical sciences and computer science are studied both in undergrad and grad environments.
Are we talking about majors these students were awarded their degrees in? Or just the ones they declared as pimply 18 years olds? Or something else? STEM fields, for example, have infamously high dropout rates: those 18 year olds, who have been assured for the previous decade and a half that they are the best educated people ever and often have all those Advanced Placement credits from high school to prove it, discover to their chagrin (with possible collateral damage to their self-esteem!) that they cannot in fact hack the math an electrical engineering degree requires – and that it’s a lot of work to catch up to the level of the typical college-bound high school graduate from 75 years ago. It seems the professors in these fields didn’t get the memo:
“A substantial grading differential exists between science and nonscience courses,” said presenter Ben Ost, a third-year Cornell economics Ph.D. student. “Even students who eventually become science majors receive much higher grades in their nonscience courses than their major field courses. This gap in grading standards discourages students from pursuing and completing a science degree.”
(The linked article also mentions that white males stick to it a lot better than women and ‘people of color’ – except for those pesky Asian people of color, both male and female, who do even better than white men but are not mentioned because mumble mumble…)
What difference does this make? As is so often the case, the correct answer is: we don’t know. Such information would be required before we could make much of anything out of this graph; it’s also possible that, given the required information, the point that the graph was concocted to make might become obscured or vanish entirely. Again, we don’t know.
What we do know is that plenty of students do not take ‘pre-law’ (if such a major even exists – didn’t in my day) as undergrads except informally – people with undergrad degrees in English, history, philosophy and maybe even computer science get into law schools all the time. Med schools tend to be more demanding, expecting a solid undergrad degree in some related major such as biology, with chemistry, biochemistry and the like, but still – there’s Group A – graduate students with some undefined undergraduate degrees, and Group B – undergrads and maybe grads in computer sciences and the physical sciences.
Double counting? We don’t know! Seems inevitable, since there’s no way of knowing what the statistics do with a Women Studies/Lawyer or Physics/Doctor or any of the other possible undergrad/grad combos. This would be good information to know.
It’s possible it makes no difference – the graph’s author could have developed a sophisticated and well-defined method that cleared this up and showed the graph to be a perfectly reasonable piece of information. But they didn’t show that information – or, at best, they did and the people pushing this on the web decided to leave it off.
What this does say: the presenter of the graph is much more interested in the particular message he wants to convey than in clear, well understood information.
Next, did anything else interesting happen to the college student population around the 1980s? Why yes, yes it did:
From the Boston Globe[/caption]
First: more and more people went to college. Second, a disproportionate number of those people were women (or are projected to be women – graph commits the sin of not distinguishing projections from statistics – the far right goes to 2023, which hasn’t happened yet.)
So, at least, we’ve spotted one big issue: the graph at the top shows percentages; those percentages are of ever-increasing numbers of women. Thus, for example, the raw number of women in these field could very well be increasing, just not as fast as the total number of women college students – looking at total numbers instead of statistics might flatten out the apocalyptic-looking post 1985 drop-off.
Another thing that happened in the 1980s, or at least fully blossomed: the idea of college as a Holy Grail/meal ticket for everyone, especially for women. Instead of a college education being something people with certain specialized career ambitions would pursue, or even – *gasp* – something one would do to prepare one’s self for the duty of understanding and protecting one’s culture and Western Civilization in general (colleges being a Western Civ thing, after all), college became more and more exclusively a stepping stone to financial success.A generation of women came of college age who had heard from every direction that to be financially dependent on a man – you know, by marrying him – was demeaning and made a woman less than fully human. Therefore, if a woman was foolish enough to marry, she at least should get a career going first, so that she could walk out on him and maybe the kids if for any reason that whole ‘marriage’ arrangement proved unsatisfactory.
I’m just old enough to remember jokes about women college students – co-eds, they used to call them – attending school to get their Mrs. degrees. That is not a joke one could assume one could safely make on campuses today, nor any that use ‘the ball and chain’ analogy for wives – because in all popular discussions of the evils of marriage, all husbands are assumed to be evil, and all wives innocent, at least, no husband is acknowledged to have taken on the burden of responsibility and no wife is acknowledged to receive any financial benefits from marriage. Because mumble mumble.
But I digress.
If you think you need to have a career to take care of yourself, might you not pick a field that is not too hard and yet promised good job prospects? In my experience, people who study computer science are, well, geeks and nerds. It’s a bit of an obsession, not something someone indifferent to the actual work would choose just because the job prospects are good. Why hang out with obsessives with whom do not share the interest? Why compete with people who are passionate about the work if you are not?
Next, look at this from the colleges point of view: the number of young people who want a STEM-like career and are willing to pay the academic price – actually studying hard, skipping a few parties, preparing themselves in high school – is never going to be too large. So, if all you offer are hard classes – see the quotation above – then you’re going to lose all those students who can’t or don’t want to hack it UNLESS you have easier classes they can take instead. If they leave school, you lose the money those kids bring in, while if they transfer to
an Applied Marxism(1) a studies major of some sort, or just to any other easier major, you keep them and the money they bring in.
Yes, yes, I know that the motives of college administrators are pure and high, and that it only appears that they are money-grubbing vermin indistinguishable in action from the snake oil salesmen they generally assume all business people to be. (Except you, donor with a building named after you! You are not like other men!) Whatever the motives, the effect can be observed: many majors have been dumbed down and a numbers of easy new majors have appeared over the last few decades – and women dominate those majors.
And why not? I myself got a graduate degree in business because A) I had a growing family to support and B) business is REALLY REALLY EASY, at least compared to ‘real’ majors. Once you decide you’re going to college to further your career, why not do it in as pain-free a manner as possible, and leave the specialties to the specialist? I also once signed up for some programming classes at UC Irvine (elite tech school I just happened to be living near) in the mid 80s – and promptly dropped out. I was merely curious – the younger whippersnappers were playing for keeps. No way was I keeping up on the amount of time I had to invest in it. These dudes (almost all dudes) lived in the computer labs. I imagine my experience isn’t all that unusual.
Oh, look! Top majors for women, circa 2010:
No. 1: Business
Degrees awarded to women in 2008: 164,276
Women in the major: 49% of total
Men in the major: 51% of total
Potential career paths: management, sales, consulting, finance
Here’s another. Wow, a lucrative growing field dominated by women!
No. 2: Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences
Degrees awarded to women in 2008: 94,192
Women in the major: 85.4% of total
Men in the major: 14.6% of total
Potential career paths: nursing, physical therapy
Here’s another, a really hard one for brainiacs:
No. 8: Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Degrees awarded to women in 2008: 46,217
Women in the major: 59.4% of total
Men in the major: 40.6% of total
Potential career paths: research, teaching, medical technology
One might imagine a sane person choosing a major based on both personal interest and career prospects; one also can imagine an 18 year old choosing a major because it’s cool (raises hand. Great Books, baby!). Would one have any reason to expect any other behavior from the women who have come to dominate the college student population? Apart from the religious dogmas of Critical Theory, that is?
Conclusion: If there are nefarious forces keeping women out of Computer Science majors, this chart isn’t showing it. Cherry-picked majors, poor or no definitions of key terms, murky data. In fact, it’s misleading to the point of propaganda.
Bonus: here is a fun chart from NPR, which is not an official tool of oppression yet as far as I know, that gives both percentages and raw numbers (if you hover correctly) and the relationships between majors. It could have been improved if the graph were of raw numbers so as to reveal the upward slope of total enrollment, and the percentages showed when you hover. Big caveat: as is almost always the case in these things, the chart assumes a set of categories that existed in 1970 map meaningfully with categories in use in 2011. That’s plausible enough for math or chemistry – but is what they meant by sociology or psychology or cultural studies (?) in 1970 the same as what they meant by it in 2011? Bears thinking about.
- Nothing is easier than Applied Marxism Studies, known as Critical Theory: pick somebody unhappy; ‘discover’ who is oppressing them, because all unhappiness results from oppression; let your imagination run wild as to how awful those mean oppressors are, and how we need to exclude them from even opening their mouths and probably need to kill them. Doesn’t have to make sense or even be internally consistent. Easy-peasy A+