STEM and Western Civilization

William H. Young

“Our science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce is crucial to America’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness. Yet women are vastly underrepresented…among STEM degree holders despite making up…half of the college-educated work force.” Thus begins a report, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation (August 2011), from the U. S. Department of Commerce. The report goes on to note that women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs and a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.

The factors the report cites as contributing to the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs are a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields. The report’s conclusion has an ultimate long-term goal: perfect gender parity in STEM.

None of that is particularly new news. The real news is that while college attendance has increased by about 50 percent (largely women) over the past 25 years, the overall number of STEM degrees has been flat. The STEM situation continues to worsen rather than improve. And the academy and government continue to pursue the wrong approach—gender parity—to solving our women-in-STEM and overall STEM problem. In a larger context, that misguided approach is influenced by the attitude towards science within the postmodern academy that is at once arrogant and ignorant. More on that next week.

In 2009, the highest proportion of STEM degrees awarded to women was in the physical sciences, at 42 percent. Among the ten most popular majors, only computers and information science made the grade at tenth, according to Forbes. Commerce reports that “women comprised 27 percent of the computer and math workforce (the largest of the four STEM components), a drop of 3 percentage points since 2000….Engineers are the second largest STEM occupation, but only about one out of every seven engineers is female.”

The number of female engineers increased by 12,000 between 2000 and 2009; their share rose from 13 to 14 percent. But the share increase was largely because the number of male engineers declined by 106,000 over the same period. In 2004, only 6 percent of U. S. degrees (many to foreigners) were awarded in engineering, half the average for rich countries. In Japan it was 20 percent, and in Germany, 16 percent. Should we be surprised by the deterioration of American technological innovation?

STEM degrees require competency in science and math. But in the America tutored by our present educational institutions, the hard work of learning, particularly math, continues to take a back seat to lightweight subjects such as popular culture and multiculturalism. The Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012 of the World Economic Forum ranks the U. S. a stunning 51st in science and math education—down from 48th in the 2010-2011 report. We urgently need to improve student preparation in science and math if we are to increase the number of STEM graduates—both men and women.

In a blog at American.com,Perfect Gender Parity in STEM is an Unrealistic and Unreachable Goal, Mark J. Perry identifies what might actually be the most important reason that females remain persistently underrepresented in STEM majors, even after decades of concerted effort and federal funding targeted to change that outcome: the continuing and statistically significant gender disparity in mathematical aptitude favoring males.

That is demonstrated, Perry argues, by the average test scores by gender on the College Board’s SAT math test. “High school boys have scored higher on average than their female counterparts on the SAT math test in every year from 1972 to 2010, and the differences are statistically significant and large, averaging 38 points higher for boys over the past four decades.” Perry concludes that “as long as there are such consistently large gender differences in mathematical ability based on the SAT math test, the goal of gender parity in the STEM field is unrealistic, unwarranted, and unreachable.”

But what is the solution of the National Research Council (NRC) in its new 280-page Framework for K-12 Science Education, released on July 19, 2011?  Peter Wood examines that question in Unnumbered, quoting Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto software engineer: “Wurman observed that the Framework for K-12 Science Education is thick with rhetoric praising the importance of mathematics but when it comes to expectations of students achieving some measure of actual competence, the drafters of the document turn tender”:

…it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in “recognizing,” “expressing,” and “using simple…mathematical expressions…to see if they make sense,” but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics. Its other suggestions include the use of computer programs and simulations, ability to analyze data using computer tools and spreadsheets, modeling, and describing systems using charts and graphs. But there is nothing about actually being able to model a system by its equations, or solve it using mathematical techniques.

Ever since Isaac Newton and the Principia (1687), higher mathematics has been indispensable for most scientific inquiry. Could the NRC, ironically, be seeking to adapt science to girls rather than girls to science? Whatever the reason, the change would further emasculate science and take one more step down the road to complete failure of our schools to properly teach math and science, the core competencies that are so essential to our national future.

An academic paper about gender bias in the sciences, Understanding Current Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science, by Cornell professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (February 2011), establishes that women do not suffer discrimination or gender-bias. Rather, the real problem most women scientists confront is the challenge of combining motherhood with a high-powered science career. This issue, they conclude, will never be solved by the “misplaced focus on discrimination.”

Gender feminist and diversity ideology have now combined to “socially reconstruct” the technical education of natural (especially physical) scientists and engineers themselves, until now one of the last college bastions against corruption by postmodern multiculturalism. Christina Hoff Sommers reported in Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? in The American (March/April 2008), that the STEM gender-equity movement, working through the National Science Foundation, is on a path to transform the “entire culture” of such education, to make it more cooperative and democratic and less obsessive and stressful—more gender fair. The gender-equity movement considers that the obsessive work habits, single-minded dedication, and intense desire for achievement of male physical scientists and engineers marginalize women. It seeks an academic physical science that is “quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming.”

Our postmodern multiculturalists continue to hold that “there are no innate differences between males and females in interests or cognitive capabilities.” Only pervasive sexism can explain gender disparities in academic fields, requiring affirmative action to achieve proportional representation. Social constructionism will prevail over human nature. And Stuart Taylor has observed in Selective Concern on Sex Imbalances, National Journal (October 24, 2009), that “the Obama administration and academic educationists have promised to litigate, regulate, and legislate the nation’s universities until women obtain half of all academic degrees in science and technology and hold half of the faculty positions in those areas.”

Ashley Thorne properly concludes in Bias, Barriers, or Biology? that the evidence for gender bias is weak and that “what matters is that our nation honors ability rather than identity.” The NAS struggle against the gender-parity movement for science is essential. America’s science education, the needed increase in STEM degrees—for both men and women—and our nation’s technological innovation and prowess depend on preserving the scientific standards of Western civilization.

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This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

 

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